New York City Golfer Makes Good
POTOMAC, Md. (AP) _ The chip shot landed softly, scooted across the closely cropped grass, kissed the flag stick and dropped into the cup. That’s when Noah Zelnik, playing his first round ever on the PGA Tour, heard the cheers from his meager gallery.
``They were yelling, `Go New York’ and `Go Bronx,‴ Zelnik said about the birdie on No. 17 in Thursday’s first round. ``They took a liking to it, the kid from the city, the Bronx, New York. I didn’t want the round to end.″
After trying _ and failing _ in about 40 Monday qualifiers for PGA Tour or Nike Tour events, Zelnik finally made it this week at the Kemper Open, shooting a 69 to get one of the four spots sought by 110 golfers.
It made no difference that Zelnik shot a 74 and a 77 at the TPC at Avenel and missed the cut. He got to play with the big boys.
``It was the thrill of a lifetime for a kid from the Bronx,″ Zelnik, 25, said Friday night as his dinner in a hotel bar was interrupted several times by youngsters asking for autographs. ``It’s like hitting one out of Yankee Stadium.″
The Bronx _ the northernmost of the five boroughs that make up New York City _ is the home of Van Cortlandt Park, the oldest public golf course in the United States. But The Bronx is known more for being the home of the Yankees than for being a hotbed of golf.
And Zelnik got to the game in a very New York manner.
Growing up in the heavily Jewish Riverdale section of the Bronx, Zelnik, whose grandparents fled Nazi occupied-Poland, attended Public School 81 and Middle School 141 before going to the Dwight School, a private high school in Manhattan.
His father, Marty, is a professor at Fashion Institute of Technology and an architect who designs synagogues. His mother, Lassa, works in the continuing education department at FIT.
``My mom’s claim to fame is that she sang in the choir at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn with Barbra Streisand,″ Zelnik said.
An avid tennis player, Zelnik learned golf when he was 13 and attended the Kutscher’s Sports Academy in the Catskill Mountains, about 90 miles north of New York, an area whose resorts are famous for turning out a generation of Jewish comedians.
``I took golf only because you had to pick four sports,″ Zelnik said.
He became good enough to win several local amateur and junior events, and went on to one year of college golf at the University of California at Davis before transferring to Ohio State, where he focused on an academic career he hoped would lead to coaching.
For a while he taught golf at Fenway Country Club outside New York while at the same time teaching tennis at nearby Westchester Country Club, where the Buick Classic is played this week.
Now he teaches golf at the Concord Hotel _ another Catskill resort _ in the summer and in Valrico, Fla., in the winter.
``My ultimate goal and dream is to play on the big tour,″ Zelnik said.
But he also knows how difficult that is. He tells stories of 5 a.m. taxi rides before the sun is up from motels to public courses he had never seen to play a Monday qualifier.
``I feel for every Monday qualifier,″ Zelnik said.
His success has been meager. He won the Northern Atlantic Tour Championship in 1995 _ one of the many satellite pro tours in the country. His best finish on the Hooters Tours was 52nd. He missed PGA Tour qualifying school by 20 strokes last year.
Next up is the Monday qualifier at Hampshire Country Club in Eastchester, N.Y., this week for the Buick Classic.
``Now that I’ve jumped a hurdle I think that I’ll get into more,″ Zelnik said.
Asked if he tried to get a sponsor’s exemption into the Buick Classic, Zelnik shook his head.
``I’ve never tried to play the Bronx card,″ he said with a laugh.
If nothing else, Zelnik has memories of his first PGA Tour event.
``I felt numbness in my legs,″ he said about his first tee shot. ``I armed it and knocked it out right into the rough. I got it on the green and then three-putted from 25 feet.
Playing the back nine first, he was three over par after six holes and then rolled in a birdie putt on No. 16, chipped in for birdie on the next hole _ touching off the ``Go Bronx″ cheers _ and hit it a 5-iron to 6 feet on No. 18, though he missed he putt.
``I was thinking. `Wow, I think there’s a chance I can play out here,‴ he remembered.
Maybe he can. But next up is another Monday qualifier for the pro from the Bronx.