Photo by Jared Wickerham/Golfers Journal

Day and Night

Everyone is welcome at Bob-O-Link, a Buffalo institution since the 1960s
Listen to a reading of this feature by the author.

“Tom, this is a new one to us. This guy was on the first tee, swung the club, it came out of his hand and he claims it stuck in the tree between the driving range and the first hole.”

Tom Sturm is used to strange things going down when the lights come on at Bob-O-Link Golf Club, but this note from the night shift surprised him. A former technology manager at HSBC, Sturm now manages Bob-O-Link, the par-3 course located in Orchard Park, New York, about 5 miles down the road from New Era Field, home of the Buffalo Bills. He works mornings and usually finishes around 11:30 a.m., leaving afternoons free for relaxation or a round of golf. Perfect job for a retiree. The night-shift notes are just added entertainment. This one in particular went on to explain that no one had seen the club since; the nearby willow—or, more likely, the pine tree—had seemingly devoured it. “That was different,” Sturm said with a laugh. 

He told the story as we sat at a table in the cozy clubhouse with Joe Ference, another retiree and the previous longtime manager, who still helps out, and Bob-O-Link’s club pro, Jimmy Dref.

A few minutes later, Dref left for a lesson, but returned with a breaking news bulletin: 

“Tom, that’s our pitching wedge that’s stuck in the trees. Ours.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. It’s one of our Clevelands.”

“Did somebody spot it?”

“No, still MIA.”

“The guy probably stole it.”

Everyone shook their head, but no one seemed overly concerned. If a rented club disappears in the middle of the night, life at Bob-O-Link goes on. Grab a burger and a beer at the food counter, hit a bucket at the range or tour the par-3 course with a wedge, a putter and a buddy, under either natural sunshine or the artificial lights. Just have a good time. A laid-back, friendly environment greets anyone who steps through the door.

“It’s the dive bar of golf,” says Kevin Prise, who grew up near Bob-O-Link and now works as a digital-content producer for the PGA Tour, covering the Korn Ferry Tour. “It’s that type of vibe. It’s so unassuming, but that’s what makes it great.”

In Prise’s case, his favorite golf course changed the course of his life: He fell in love with the game at Bob-O-Link—playing three rounds or more on many days—sparking an obsession that led to a career. “I live in Florida, have a cool job and I get to travel,” he says. “And it all goes back to that place.”

Parents love bringing their kids to learn the game, and senior citizens love Bob-O-Link’s walkable layout. Dref operates a popular junior program, and his lessons attract people from around the area. The driving range and practice green draw golfers who may not play the course, but relish the chance to work on their game.

And when the lights spark on, the younger people come out—sometimes in large, rowdy groups, sometimes just a couple on a date. The alcohol consumption no doubt increases, but that Bob-O-Link ambience stays the same. Everyone, of all ages and skill levels, is welcome, and that’s been the case since the first days—and nights—of its existence.

In the early 1960s, a handful of partners launched Bob-O-Link. The late Russell Baldwin acted as a driving force. A single-digit handicapper and revered member at East Aurora Country Club, Baldwin worked in the cross-country-pipeline business. He saw possibilities in some land that had been nothing but a big field. Baldwin’s son, Dan, remembers his dad plotting hole designs at the dining room table. At the outset, Russell and the others wanted everyone to enjoy the course—at all hours.

“There were a lot of steelworkers, and a lot of people working during the day,” says Baldwin’s daughter, Denise Holmes. “They would get off and have no recreation. He wanted to give people a chance to get out and golf and have a life after they got off work, when they worked these long shifts in the factories.” 

From the time Bob-O-Link opened, the lights always drew crowds and attention, and not just on the ground. Dan Baldwin remembers pilots playing the course and saying that when they flew over the area, Bob-O-Link acted as “kind of a guide they used so they knew they were on the right path to the airport in Buffalo.” Night golf also made the place a great option for those seeking something fresh for their social calendar. Holmes says that during her dating days, “some of the fellas thought that was the cat’s meow that I can take them out there and we can play some golf at night.”

Today the lights stay on at Bob-O-Link—the course is named after the low-flying bird—from the spring until about mid-October. Driving up at night on Transit Road, the original poles still illuminating the range and course call to mind a classic semi-rural high school football field lit up on a Friday evening.

Day or night, any level of golfer can appreciate Bob-O-Link’s 18 holes. The shortest measures 100 yards, the longest 160. Some steep undulations challenge players on various greens. The clubhouse sits near a large pond confronting golfers on Nos. 9 and 18, which only adds to the atmosphere for those enjoying a refreshment or two on the porch. 

On my trip to Bob-O-Link, I relaxed out there with three members of the Thursday Golden Girls league: Eileen Mahoney, Janet Bartnik and Valerie Powell, the best player in the trio by unanimous vote. All three have been retired for more than a decade, and the shorter course suits them. “You play this and you get down to a larger course and it seems even bigger,” starts Bartnik before Mahoney finishes her thought, saying, “You want to enjoy playing. And we do enjoy it here.”

Even on the smaller design, they fork over big bucks. “Her and I fight for last,” Mahoney says, motioning to Bartnik, then adding, “I owe you two bucks. Or was it $1.50?”

“Fifty cents a hole,” Powell explains.

“I’m going to throw in the extra 50 cents I don’t think I owe,” Mahoney says.

“You don’t have to do this just for the magazine!” Powell adds.

Bob-O-Link brightens up during those league outings, with dozens of Golden Girls in their yellow shirts strolling the grounds. On less-crowded days, a player can breeze through the tidy 18 holes; a determined one can easily fit in 36 or 54. Or, if you’re completely enthralled with the course, like Prise was as a kid, 72 or even 90 holes is possible. Former manager Ference says, “When I first started here, [Prise] was, I don’t know, 13, 14 years old. He had a season pass. He would spend all day here. For the whole summer. He must have the record for most rounds of golf ever played at Bob-O-Link.”

Prise doesn’t dispute his place in the Bob-O-Link history books, remembering how he would show up at 6 a.m. and play solo, go off with friends in the afternoon and return with a different group of buddies in the evening. “It was just a hobby, stress relief, a challenge trying to shoot under par, trying to get good, because I was terrible when I started,” he says. On his first trip to Bob-O-Link, Prise, 11 at the time, swung and missed 11 straight times on the opening tee. “It was 8 p.m. and there was a huge crowd there—like, 40 people, because it would be packed at night—and I just couldn’t hit the ball.”

He persisted, and admits that without Bob-O-Link’s shorter holes and atmosphere, “I would have thought golf was just too hard. I would have thought it was just this terrible, cruel game. Which it can be. But there are also places like that where you can go and just make it fun, and if it wasn’t for Bob-O-Link, I would’ve found a different hobby. It literally pushed me into my current life.”

He can still easily recount specific shots and rounds. May 29, 2007: He jarred a hole-in-one on the 135-yard seventh hole. Aug. 14, 2007, was even more memorable: He finally broke par at Bob-O-Link. “In terms of pure enjoyment, pure happiness, shooting 2 under at Bob-O-Link was my greatest moment in golf,” he says. The summer after his junior year of high school, long past those days when he fanned on 11 straight swings, but fully consumed by his Bob-O-Link addiction, Prise “just had this thing where I needed to shoot under par, and it was going to unlock my confidence with girls. It was weird.” Most days saw him shoot in the high 50s to low 60s on the par-54 course—until that warm August day, when Prise chipped in for birdie at 17 and got home in 52. “My friends were out watching, and it was great,” he says. “And I got to acknowledge the crowd.…I probably overblew how much that confidence helped me with girls, but it was still fun to do.” He travels across the country now, but on trips back to western New York, Prise makes sure to drop by Bob-O-Link. “My parents’ house, my high school and Bob-O-Link: Those are the three places when I’m home that I get to or drive by and I just feel my heart kind of smile.”

Prise isn’t the only area native who holds a special place for Bob-O-Link. On Facebook groups from nearby towns, people still post about night golf. Those returning to Orchard Park or East Aurora for reunions make pilgrimages, like Dan Baldwin did when he traveled from his Florida home, stopped into Bob-O-Link and picked out his father in an old black-and-white photograph. The magic that admirers remember and still exists usually isn’t about specific holes. In the same way a great dive bar has nothing to do with the drinks and everything to do with the atmosphere, patrons and employees, so it is with Bob-O-Link.

These days, no one sets the tone more than the husband and wife who went on dates at the course decades ago and now could be considered the first family of Bob-O-Link. 

Visit Bob-O-Link on a summer day and you’ll find Jimmy and Edie Dref in their element. There’s Jimmy on the range, working with a talented high school kid, an adult needing a tweak or those requiring a bit more. “You try to explain to them it’s not going to happen overnight,” he says. “You might have a swing that works, but you have four or five other swings that don’t work.…I’ll give the lessons, and if I don’t hear from somebody, it’s a good sign. Either they thought I was a terrible teacher or they improved and they’re happy with what they’ve got. But if the phone rings again, that means they’ve slipped back into old habits and need another tuneup. Other people you see year in and year out.”

There’s Edie running Bob-O-Link’s restaurant and food service. She uses only the best food from iconic Buffalo-area institutions: Mineo & Sapio patties, Sahlen’s hot dogs, Polish sausages from Wardynski’s, bread from Costanzo’s. The morning I chatted with her behind the counter, she had already made her various stops in town to pick up meats for the day. Edie also serves up Bob-O-Link’s milkshakes, voted “Best in Western New York” by KISS 98.5 listeners, a survey lacking perhaps in scientific rigor, but certainly not in accuracy, at least going by the one I knocked back. The friendly backyard-barbecue vibe curated by Edie brings home another comparison Prise made: “It’s just all so chill and run the right way,” he says. “It’s like a public park.” A few years back, Edie was at Bob-O-Link when an elderly couple sat down. The man told Edie, “I want you to know, on this day 50 years ago we had our first date,” then pulled out his original scorecard from the round at Bob-O-Link that led to a lifetime together. Edie also works at the historic downtown Buffalo Club and says, “I could work full-time at the club and make a hell of a lot more money in the summer, but this is a break and a breath of fresh air. I love the people; they’re all regulars. We take care of them all, hear their stories over their beer or coffee. It’s a really sweet job.”

Jimmy also has multiple gigs. Several mornings a week he works at a paper and janitorial-supplies company. “All you do is lift; you don’t have to think,” he says. “So I go in there and lift for three hours, fill orders or unload the trucks. Keeps me trim.” He also coaches a high school girls’ golf team with Edie. Jimmy does all this at age 70, though he looks 20 years younger and has the energy of a college kid, which is good because the Drefs still have a child going to school: their youngest of four, John, a golfer and baseball player at Buffalo’s Division III Medaille College. Growing up in Buffalo, Jimmy played a lot of golf in nearby Canada and practiced on a driving range located on the third floor of his stepfather’s cleaning plant on the west side of town. A standout teenage performer, Dref traveled to Florida to play for the University of Miami. “I go down there and it’s a new game,” he says. “I’m shooting 73, 74. Coach said, ‘Jimmy, we’ve got a problem. You can’t shoot 65.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’” That ended his days with the Hurricanes, but not with golf.

Fifty-plus years later, he still makes a living on the course. Some of his Bob-O-Link clients arrive from unexpected places. Edie mentions a ritzy local country club and how several women from there “sneak over here because of his personality. There’s a couple of women who say, ‘Don’t tell anyone I’m here.’ He’s the best-kept secret. He’s got quite a following.”

He’s also big with the younger, non-country-club set. His popular junior program includes a tournament every Wednesday in July and August.

“It’s critical that we find a way to get the kids in,” Jimmy says. “That’s especially important to Bob-O-Link because of our niche. The 18-hole, par-3 course is a perfect introduction to the youth.”

Bob-O-Link doesn’t get the numbers it once did, though 2019 proved a good year. Sturm says the driving-range numbers and rounds played were all up. A lot depends on the weather. But it’s a constant battle in part because night golf has more competition now. As Jimmy says, “There’s just so many other things to do that it can cut into that a bit. We almost have to group Bob-O-Link as amusement, and it’s not just about the golf.”

Ryan Donnelly is silhouetted against the sunset before teeing off for night golf at the Bob-O-Link golf course on Friday September 20, 2019 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Golfers Journal)

Buffalo attorney Ryan Johnsen also thinks about Bob-O-Link’s place in the world, as well as its future. Johnsen grew up about 10 minutes away and is now a shareholder and board member. He came to Bob-O-Link as a kid with his dad, started working there in 2009 after graduating from college and stayed on while in law school—and even after passing the bar and becoming a lawyer. He finally gave up his Bob-O-Link gig in 2018. Most likely, Johnsen’s the only practicing attorney in the country who maintained a Sunday-night golf-course gig that stretched past 12 a.m. and was back in the office Monday morning.

Johnsen notes how the clubhouse has remained the same for decades, as have the scorecards and even the items on the porch. “There’s that chalkboard that says name and number; it hasn’t been used in 10 years, but it’s still there. No one wants to take it down. It’s wild.…It stays the same, which is cathartic in a way.”

But Bob-O-Link can’t rely simply on nostalgia. Sturm mentions running more advertising on the website while adding an email distribution list and promotions like Groupon. Echoing Jimmy’s comments about Bob-O-Link finding a niche as another entertainment option, Johnsen says, “That’s the cool thing about it: You get people who will say, ‘I don’t golf, but I saw you had a buy-one-get-one in the entertainment book.’ You don’t have to be a golfer—you don’t have to come here in golf pants, spikes and a polo—and you can still have a good time.”

That certainly described my outings, when I played a daytime round and a nighttime one clad in shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt. On the evening I visited, the Bills played a preseason game, cutting into the numbers on the course. I didn’t witness any of the shenanigans that can make life tough for Bob-O-Link’s night shift. No one jumped into the pond. No balls were fired at the water tower. And I didn’t see anyone toss a club into a tree. Instead, with the insects chirping, the dew on the ground and the stars and moon in the sky, it was hard to imagine a more serene walk. An undeniable coolness exists in striking a tee shot, losing it temporarily in the dark and then seeing it land on the putting surface.

I arrived at the 18th at about 10:30 p.m. Where else would I rather be on a clear and comfortable 65-degree Friday night but on this course, pitching wedge in hand, facing a shot over the water on the 110-yard final hole? I felt some nerves. During my afternoon round on this hole, with my mind focused on the pond, I shanked a shot to the right. Since it wasn’t too busy and no one was behind me, I teed up another ball—and rinsed it in the water. With those memories fresh, but determined to end on a high note, I hit a shot that easily cleared the pond and landed softly. Up on the green, I spotted the ball near the cup. Call it 18 inches, the closest I’ve ever come to a hole-in-one.

Friends Connor Campese and Will Leuer putt on the 18th green during night golf at the Bob-O-Link golf course on Friday September 20, 2019 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Golfers Journal)