WATERTOWN — This year’s Watertown Men’s City Golf Championship is the largest since the late 1990s with 84 participants playing in Saturday’s qualifying round at the Watertown Golf Club.
For one of the participants, Bob Hughes, this year’s tournament marks the sixth decade in which he has participated.
Since he first played as a teenager in the late 1970s, Hughes has become the winningest player the 96-year-old Championship has ever known, capturing 14 titles, his most recent one coming in 2016.
In that span of 40-plus years Hughes has seen his opponents grow from kids to adults.
“Seeing guys who were this high,” Hughes said while gesturing the palm of his hand just a foot off the ground, “and now they’re out there playing. It’s part of the game. When I was playing as a young kid, there were older players that kind of showed you the way, or showed you how to act, that kind of thing.”
James Ambrose was one of the young guys who twice played against Hughes in the championship round. After losing his first bout in 2001, he came back and defeated Hughes in 2009 for his first City Golf Championship victory.
“I played Bob when I was 21 first and I’m 40 now, so it’s 19 years ago,” Ambrose said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have some success and make it back.”
The Championship is a balance of ages with a younger generation trying to unseat the older generation.
Lanie Gerken, the golf professional at the Watertown Golf Club, ran the qualifying round on Saturday and enjoys seeing the younger generation come in and begin to leave its mark on the tournament.
“It’s great to see the young kids come out, we don’t have enough young players,” Gerken said. “If you look at the names, there are names that have been playing for 15, 20, 30, 40 years. Bobby Hughes has been playing for 40-plus years, John Bufalini the same thing. So it’s nice to see some of the young kids and hopefully they can start taking the places of some of the older guys. Winning some matches and for them to start taking over. Have a new generation start dominating.”
Hughes was eliminated in the first round of last year’s tournament by George LaBarr, a young player who made it to the semifinal round.
The talent that some of the young players possess doesn’t surprise Hughes at all.
“I’ve been around long enough to see the whole spectrum of stuff,” Hughes said. “I’ve played all over, you see talent in all shapes, styles, forms and ages. If you take people for granted, that’s when you get beat.”
Following the 18th hole Saturday, Ambrose, playing in his 14th tournament, rode back to the clubhouse with Jake Hess, a soon-to-be college junior playing in his first tournament.
“We’ve been talking a little bit throughout the day, it’s about grinding it out and then getting to the second day and once you get to the second day, the match play is totally different,” Ambrose said. “Today is kind of the outlier with this tournament, today is just a matter of seeding yourself.”
Hughes’ advice to that younger generation? “Aim high.”
Hess, who finished the qualifying round with an 86, called his first City Golf Championship experience “humbling” and an opportunity to learn for the coming years. Having gone to South Jefferson high school and growing up in Jefferson County, the City Golf Championship was always a tournament he wanted to play.
“You got guys like (John) Bufalini and (Adam) Brown, you look up to those guys and one day you want to be there on top with them,” Hess said. “It’s a humbling experience to be playing with all of these great golfers today.”
John Bufalini won last year’s tournament, his seventh Watertown City Golf Championship, automatically earning him the no. 1 seed for the start of match play, which begins today.
The 36-hole Championship match is scheduled for Sunday, July 19.