My Shelter Island story started in 1962, my first year as a head golf professional and the start of a lifetime dream.
Anne and I were both 22 years old and already married for three years. We married while I was in the United States Coast Guard. I was the assistant pro at the Southampton Golf Club for two years after that. My break came when Gardiner’s Bay Country Club (GBCC) needed a new young pro. We applied for the position as well as an opening at Shinnecock Hills. That job went to Don McDougal from the Creek Club.
Anne didn’t want to come to Shelter Island. We were offered something sounding much more fun and more money at the Four Seasons Club in Menominee, Wisconsin. But GBCC Club President Sid Beckwith did a sales job on Anne and we decided to come here.
I was young and enthusiastic about my new job. My biggest supporters at that time were Sid Beckwith and Greens Chairman Bill Dickerson. They fought for me since half the board wanted Joe Watrous from North Hempstead Country Club. Their reward was a long life; Sid and Bill are the only two alive today who were members of the club in those days.
Anne and I worked long hours for little pay for years. At that time, the club didn’t have much money, but had a great staff that worked hard. We used to call it a “country, country club” so people understood this was not the city. To join the club in those days, you just applied and you were a member — no initiation fee and yearly dues was a whopping $100.
Our membership consisted of only two members from the South Fork and four from the North. It was truly an Islander’s club. Since many members did most of the work rebuilding the club after the war, they were all full of pride.
There were no houses or roads in all of Hay Beach. In 1962, almost 500 acres of Hay Beach, including the golf club, was for sale for $500,000. A few years later, it sold for $625,000.
The Dickerson family controlled all the playing of championship golf and were extremely active in starting and running the club. The junior golf program was started, and I was asking $10 for the entire season.
Ben Wojenski, a farmer from the North Fork, was the greens superintendent and gave us great greens from the start of his tenure. He worked hard for 25 years, loving the club like it was his own. He even found time to make nine more par 3 holes for the junior golfers in the gully to the left of the 18th fairway.
Ben retired to Titusville Florida, and his daughter Shirley Ferrer is still active on the Island.
When I arrived, Lenny Bliss was the club manager. He and his wife May broke their backs to make the members happy. Len was given projects to do all winter including building me a pro shop. In his spare time he fished and ran a printing business. In those days, when you sat and had a drink at the bar — no cheap peanuts for us — Len would bring out smoked bluefish and scallops to nibble.
I still remember how he did the scallops. He’d boil water, turn off the heat, put the scallops in for five minutes and serve it with red sauce. They tasted like little chunks of lobster.
Len worked at the club about 20 years before buying Basile’s Department Store at Piccozzi’s corner around 1975. Today that store is owned by Len’s daughter Peggy and her husband Walter Johnson. Two of Len’s grandsons, Adam Johnson and Sebastian Bliss, have their grandfather’s work ethic and are currently the two main chefs at Gardiner’s Bay. Len’s youngest son Tommy’s wife, Mary Fran, is working in the pro shop.
Many times I think about the parties every Saturday night. The party was either at a member’s house or the club. Members took turns and they had a ball. Anne and I were always included in the parties.
It was a summer club, going from Memorial Day to Labor Day, perfect for me since like all young pros, I wanted to be a tour player. I played in every tournament I could in search of a victory, but never won anything significant.
I stayed at the club for 50 years as head professional, and although I can’t find any records, people tell me that is a record. If so, it was an easy record, because the life style matched my personality. The changes in the club and Shelter Island are massive, but I find myself excited to start another year.
I’m 80 years old and no longer the kid who happened to make the right decision. The club was always good to me and even today I’m allowed to still do the things I’ve done for so long. I have a lifetime membership, and still do the thing I loved the most — teach.
Now you know a little bit about where the club started and some of the people who made it tick. Many are gone now, but they will be with me as I start another season doing the things I love in the place I want to be.