English golf pro settles on Shelter Island

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Leigh Notley, Gardiner’s Bay County Club golf pro, has found his sweet spot on Shelter Island.

It’s a long way from England’s Lake District to Shelter Island, and not just in matters of geography. That’s one discovery 38-year-old Leigh Notley, head golf pro at the Gardiner’s Bay Country Club, has made.

Born in the town of Windmere, about 70 miles from the  birthplace of 19th century poet William Wordsworth in the fabled and beautiful part of England known as the Lake district, one immediate difference Notley found between there and here is that working as a golf pro in his native country at times seemed like working in Wordsworth’s era compared to 2012 America.

“When my father became the head professional at Sandwell Park just outside of Birmingham, as the head pro he wasn’t allowed in the clubhouse, unless invited by a member,” Notley said. “Tradesmen were considered second class citizens to the gentlemen who were the members of the club.It’s mostly considered a trade. It harks back to a previous generation, a previous century really, One of the reasons I like America and it’s endeared itself to me is that is not the case.”

Now about geography: Windmere, is, he said, a place with lots of “little mountains, not American mountains,” and lots of lakes and little hamlets and villages. His English hometown was also the home of Beatrix Potter, of “Peter Rabbit” fame, and Leigh’s family has a Potter connection. His mother teaches English literature at the local high school and, as a semi-professional actress, portrayed the author often in the community’s Beatrix Potter Museum. The town was also, as Shelter Island is, a summer tourist destination, with a population that changed ten fold each year with the coming of warmer weather.

He came to America for the first time at the beginning of warm weather in 1999 at the age of 24, stopping off on his way to Australia, where he had family he wanted to visit. Since golf professionals “follow the sun,” his plan was to spend the summer here and then go on to “down under” when it turned summer there.

He had answered an ad to teach golf to children at a school in Philadelphia — he had qualified as “pro” in England the previous year — and the school “wanted the kids to meet culturally different people. So there were new Zealanders, South Africans, Americans, and we just had a wonderful time together. That was my first summer in America.” For the next few years he “commuted” between the two continents and then when his Philadelphia school opened an annex in Wellesley, Massachusetts he went for the summer.

That led to contacts in Newport, Rhode Island and a job for the next five years at Carnegie Abbey, a golf club there. And a blind date with a woman named Bethany. “When I knew her for three weeks, I said ‘Would you like to come to New Zealand and Australia for the winter?’ Fortunately, she said yes. We learned a lot about each other very quickly because we camped and stayed with family and in youth hostels and actually in the car. It was a lot of fun. Then about a year later, we got married.”

Bethany is from Providence, a University of Rhode Island graduate who majored in fashion, merchandising and textiles. She had moved to New York City and been working there for five years when 9/11 happened; her apartment had been close to Ground Zero, and she returned home to Rhode Island. The couple spent the next several years, traveling in Europe, returning to America and “commuting” from Rhode Island in the summer to Naples, Florida in the winter. Currently, she’s been working closely with Sylvestor Manor, involved with Plant and Sing, and off the Island, busy with the program, “Goat on a Boat,” a nonprofit children’s puppet show and theatre in Sag Harbor, where she serves on the board.

During that first winter in Naples, 2006, Leigh met a member of the Gardiner’s Bay Country Club, who told him the club was looking for an assistant golf pro. He had never heard of Shelter Island, but “I asked everyone I knew and I knew a lot of people and one person actually had been a member of the gun club at Mashomack. He said the Island was beautiful and there was ‘a cute little course.’ So we went online and in May of 2007 we moved here.”

That summer was the start of his Island life, “And it’s gotten better and better.” The summer of 2011, Leigh replaced a legend, when head pro Bod DeStefano stepped down after 50 years at GBCC.

For the first year or two they returned to Naples for the winter, but with the arrival of their son, Max, now 3, they needed to put down deeper roots and they’re now “year rounders,” and waiting for the any-minute-arrival arrival of a baby girl.

He thinks the course at Gardiner’s Bay is an “absolute gem,” and has been a major part of the club’s effort to improve it even further by “opening it up, opening vistas. It’s very exciting to be able to be a part of that and the chemistry that’s making it happen. It’s something I have a lot of passion for.”

He’s equally pleased that the club is doing well financially. The 2007-08 economy was a difficult time with many private clubs going under. Gardiner’s Bay lost just under 10% of the membership but now is actually 15% ahead of where they had been. Leigh predicts this spring they’ll be back up to maintaining a waiting list. Part of that, he maintains, “is the improvements made on the course and people coming and just seeing how beautiful the place is. It’s been a success story in the last few years. We’re very healthy, doing very well, so we’re excited.”

The day after his interview with the Reporter, he and his dad, visiting from England, were off to play at Shinnecock Hills, later to return to Gardiner’s Bay, where the elder Notley will be more than welcome in the club house.