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Honoring a ‘tough little golf course,’ George Lewis takes a trip to the past

We sit at a table on the clubhouse porch overlooking the Shelter Island Country Club’s (SICC) signature ninth hole, the one PGA Hall of Famer George Lewis calls a “masterpiece.” It’s a Wednesday afternoon in July. The Flying Goat restaurant is closed. The course is quiet on a hot, sunny afternoon.

George fixes his gaze on the fairway, perhaps remembering the first shot he landed on the elevated green when he was a boy. Or maybe when he shagged balls for long-time greens keeper Bill Congdon, who gave golf lessons from the side of the ninth green and let his students hit into the fairway.

George, who turns 83 this month, was 8 when he first hit a golf ball on Goat Hill, the familiar nickname for the 9-hole public golf course.

“No, no, no. It’s the Shelter. Island. Country. Club,” he says, pausing after each word lest you forget. “Anybody who calls it Goat Hill has to deal with me.”

This is, after all, the place where it started. The wellspring of George’s life-long devotion to the game, the epicenter of his determination at the age of 12 to become a pro. And he would not be denied.

The Lewis family lived in the Bronx and came to Shelter Island every chance they got in the mid-1940s. They rented a  house year-round for $8 a month on the corner of West Neck and West Neck, opposite SICC’s second fairway.

“I would hit golf balls from our yard over the road onto the course,” he says. “I hit so many balls.”

Mr. Congdon, who tended the course for decades with his wife, Olive, became a hero to young George. “He was my pro,” he says, as if the man belonged to no one else.

Mr. Congdon taught him how to work hard. “He would load big barrels onto a truck, drive down to the fresh water pond by Louis’ Beach and fill them up. He would take those barrels back up the hill. Then he attached a little sprayer to the barrel so he could spray the greens to keep them from burning out. He did everything.”

George, like a host of Island youngsters, girls included, was among the caddies who waited in the lean-to if it was raining, or on the hillside if it was not, for golfers to show. “If cars came up we’d yell, ‘Caddy! Caddy!’” he says.

He played on the Evander Childs High School golf team in the Bronx, never losing a match, until the Public Schools Athletic League finals on Staten Island. He and his opponent were even after 18. George missed the putt on the extra hole, the lone blemish in four years. “You gotta be kidding me,” he laments.

He entertained several golf scholarships from big-name universities, but George the elder wanted him close to home so George the younger was sent to Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.

His father ultimately wanted George to go into the family business — Abt & Lewis, Inc., the second largest wholesale fish market in the state at the time. His mother wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer. George just wanted to golf.

“Nobody was listening to me,” he says.

College “was a complete waste of time,” he says. “I just wanted to play. I wanted to play the [PGA] Tour.” Rebellious and frustrated, he often flouted college rules, prompting his father to write apologetic letters to the school. On weekends, George left campus and drove to Shelter Island to practice. In winter, he cleared large circles in the snow where he would take 20 practice swings a day to keep his muscles in shape.

Then he got a lesson from Bob Watson, a renowned head pro in Westchester County. “We played a few holes and he liked what he saw,” George says. “I became his apprentice. He taught me how to teach. He showed me the ropes. He taught me how to dress for the Tour. He taught me how to be a pro.”

Finally, George says, “Someone was listening to me.”

He left college and turned pro at 19. He played his first significant tournament — the Los Angeles Open — a year or so later.

The Tour then took him to courses across four continents, a far cry from SICC where a lanky boy lugged a little golf bag across its hills. “I bounced around the world coming out of this little old golf course,” he says.

At one point, George held scoring records at six different golf courses, including Gardiner’s Bay (65) and Shelter Island (62 for 18) country clubs.

His success on the Tour, however, was bumpy. The game was good — he won the 1967 Grand Bahama Open — and then it wasn’t. Money was good, and then it was gone. Got better, then gone again.

By the time George was 25 he knew it was time to get a steady job with steady pay. A golf acquaintance convinced a reluctant board of directors at Leewood Golf Club in Eastchester, N.Y. They hired him, despite misgivings about his age. George stayed for 26 years, mentoring more than a dozen assistants who would go on to head pro positions of their own. The art of the progression, he calls it, the surefire way to keep golf growing in the right direction. When he retired from Leewood as a master pro, George devoted his time to Golfiana, a business he started in 1980 that specialized in rare golf books and collectibles. He also was the Metropolitan Golf Association’s historian for 45 years.

But he’s done talking about himself. No, no, no, he says, this story is not about me, it’s about the course. The Shelter. Island. Country. Club. The masterful course built on a hillside without the aid of modern grading tools.

“You gotta be kidding me,” he says, a lot. “This is an experience you can’t have on any other golf course. You have all the blind holes, so you have to feel the course. You have to feel the shots to the green. You have to invent shots to the green. Are you kidding me? There’ll always be longer courses, but this course is tough.”

He learned every shot here. The high hook, high fade, low fade. He remembers every angle to the hole, every downhill, uphill and sideways lie. The giant oak tree near the third hole. The huge bunker by the third green that stretched to the edges of the first fairway. The bunkers on the hills above the 6th and 7th greens. And the sand trap on 5, the only bunker that still exists. Launch a too-long approach shot to the 8th green? “You’re down there with the skunks,” he says.

C.H. Bateman might have surveyed the course in 1901, but Wesley Smith, SICC’s first superintendent, was the architect, George says. “He had to be to lay out the greens. He was some architect. I mean, c’mon! You gotta be kidding me. This course was built just six years after Van Cortlandt Park,” he says, referring to the first public municipal golf course in the U.S., which opened in 1895. “Six years! They played with hickory shafts back then.”

So, let’s imagine, George says, that we own this 40-plus-acre piece of land and we want to make a golf course out of it. How would we do it? First, we walk the perimeter. We don’t think about yardage. We follow the contours along the dirt road that’s Sunnyview Avenue. Then left, down West Neck. A good stretch for a hole. Left again down New York Avenue. We can put a hole here. Along the property lines north toward Dering Harbor then south toward the clubhouse. That gives us six holes. We need three more, so we look to the interior. From New York Avenue toward the dirt road. And, wait, what about over the big hill? We could nestle a green nicely on the other side. And, lastly, a short shot through the woods to a green that slopes left to right.

George, ever the golf historian, studies an original, if not the first, SICC scorecard. He considers each hole by its name, and not necessarily with agreement: The Roads. Cedars. The Oak. Blankety Blank. Devil’s Gulch. Hollow. Punch Bowl. Home. Hole names are important, he says. They reflect a course’s character.

So, what would we name the holes on the course we just laid out? he asks, rather rhetorically. No. 1. The Roads. “Well, it’s only one road now, but that’s OK,” he says. No. 2. Cedar. “No, no. In Britain the longest hole is always called ‘Longfellow.’” So, Longfellow it is. No. 3. The Oak. Perfect, even though the oak tree has long departed this earth. No. 4. Blankety Blank. He scoffs. Doesn’t do it justice. George crowns it “Bunker Hill,” paying homage to the once-giant trap that reached the No. 4 tee. No. 5. Devil’s Gulch. No. 6. Hollow. No. 7 Meadows. No. 8 Punch Bowl. All fine.

No. 9. Home. George ponders that name for the moment. “It’s a great hole,” he says. “It’s all carry. You have to land it on the green. Too short you’re in the side of a hill. Too long you’re in the side of a hill. A fabulous hole.”

Just then a woman launches a shot off the forward tee and the ball makes a rare soft landing about six feet from the flag. George stands and applauds. “Great shot,” he yells. “Great shot.”

He looks at me. “What name would you call it?”

We gaze again down the sun-parched, brown fairway that slopes upward in a dusty trail to the tee box. The ninth green is brilliant in comparison.

I imagine a young boy with long legs, dressed in a blue and gray wide-striped shirt and blue jeans, toting his golf bag down the fairway, a boy who knew when he was a pre-teen exactly what he wanted to do in this life. No ifs, no ands, no buts. A boy whose destiny was set into motion by one short, tough little golf course.

“Oasis,” I say. The green looks like an oasis. George smiles, nods: “The Home Oasis.”

Young George Lewis on the third fairway of Shelter Island Country Club. (Credit:Courtesy photo)