The Delaware Park golf course, past and future
The 10th green at Delaware park, overlooking the 2nd hole and starter’s house
Photos by JP Thimot
When I feel like golfing, but don’t want to drive very far or spend a lot of money, I head over to Delaware Park for a quick round. I play alone or join up with others.
As a lifelong golfer, I viewed the Delaware Park Golf Course with mild disdain when I moved to Buffalo nearly thirty years ago. I assumed it was a nine-hole course, not believing that eighteen holes could fit in the seemingly small space. When I first played it—sometime in the nineties—it was in relatively poor condition. Mowing seemed haphazard; I often couldn’t distinguish the fairway from the rough. There was a little rickety shack for paying green fees, and most of the tees were bare dirt.
Nevertheless, it was fun to play, more difficult than anticipated, and offered unexpected distractions that I came to appreciate. I discovered that two short holes lie outside the ring road. Unforeseen challenges include several par-three holes: one too long to reach in one shot and two that require high trajectory shots over trees. A famous giant oak tree must be negotiated on a dogleg par-four. Although the course is not long, many greens are fairly small, thus more difficult to hit.
The course has a distinctive urban character; it’s surrounded by an agreeable flow of ring road joggers, inline skaters, bicyclists, music from car stereos, pick-up basketball games, and organized games of soccer, baseball, tennis, and rugby. Once I saw a couple of teenagers enthusiastically making out under a tree.
Another time, I joined up with a pleasant fellow who had a radio playing nonstop on his pull-cart (definitely unusual in a sport that expects quiet while anyone is making a stroke). I’ve joined players who relish competition and others who take a more laid-back approach, conversing with friends and eschewing the rigid protocols that typically define the game.
Recognizing that the park has many users, golfers need to be patient, understanding, and careful. Make sure the toddler attending her older brother’s middle school track meet doesn’t wander onto the teebox. Or, ask the fans watching a rugby match to move a bit so you can play the hole.
Although the park property is owned by the city of Buffalo, it was maintained by Erie County until 2004, when the Olmsted Parks Conservancy started maintenance through an agreement with the county. In 2010, the city took over this agreement with the Conservancy. Regarding the golf courses, the Conservancy has been focused on improving the conditions and level of play. Improvements have included a new “pro shop” at the venerable Parkside Lodge, new benches, ball washers, and replanted grass. A knowledgeable greens keeper was hired three years ago, and now the fairways and rough are mowed frequently, keeping the rough at two inches high. This fulfills the major objective of helping golfers maintain a reasonable pace of play; when the rough is too high, golfers have to spend too much time searching for balls. Motorized golf carts are now available, an amenity that for some players is a necessity. The bunkers (sand traps) still need more work. Nine holes of a new sport, foot golf (involving kicking a soccer ball), have been integrated into the course. Men’s and women’s leagues are active on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. That the course is well utilized can be demonstrated by the facts that, in 2016, 11,208 daily rounds were played and 236 golfers had season passes.
The conservancy promotes up-to-date ecological practices; therefore, the fairways are not irrigated and have some dandelions and burdock. The greens are irrigated, when necessary with fertilizer, and fungicides are sparingly applied (about once every two weeks). Creating faster greens (with shorter grass) would require more watering; using less water makes the grass on the greens less susceptible to disease. Weedkillers are not used at all, in part because of the proximity to the zoo; instead, improved turf grown from seed will eventually take over and squeeze out most of the weeds.
The 12th green and 13th tee close to a soccer field
Many people think the golf course should not be in Delaware Park at all. Olmsted’s original 1894 park did not have a golf course. But what anti-golfcourse people may not realize is that, while golf has the reputation of being a sport and social pastime for the wealthy, golf at Delaware Park serves a diverse clientele and, unlike most nearby courses, is affordable. Buffalo’s Common Council sets the fees and prioritizes keeping them low. It’s probably one of the most racially integrated courses in the country, which is something Buffalo should be proud of. The fear of injury from errant golf shots is largely unfounded (I uncovered no reports of anyone being injured). Course rangers routinely caution park users to avoid getting too close to golf holes.
The conservancy’s thorough and thoughtful Plan for the 21st Century (bfloparks.org) articulates the long-term goal of returning the parks to their original form. This includes a pragmatic caveat that subsequent park additions, such as ball fields, tennis courts, buildings, and other amenities, if removed, need to be replaced nearby or elsewhere so as not to eliminate access for these uses. The three options proposed for the Delaware Park golf course are: 1) maintain its current form, 2) re-design and reduce it to nine holes, or 3) remove it altogether. The conservancy has been considering Kevin Gaughan’s recent proposal to get Nicklaus Golf to assist in the redesign, or to add a golf facility in or near South Park, but recognizes that challenging funding and sustainability issues remain. Recreating the arboretum in South Park is a higher priority and reducing the Delaware course to nine holes is more likely than removing the course altogether.
Expect that golf in the city will continue—whether that’s charming or annoying depends on your point of view.
Mark Lavatelli is an artist, art professor, and avid golfer