GREAT LESSONS LEARNED
In 1959, I was a young 20-year-old boy being discharged from the United States Coast Guard. I was already married for a year to my wife Anne and we were looking for our next move on our life’s journey. Not having many talents, I was lucky enough to be a good golfer. With that in mind, and my father’s words, “Do something you like and you will never work a day in your life,” I was blindly led to doing something in the golf world.
I questioned what to do first and reached the decision to just write letters to golf clubs all over the United States. My goal was to find a position of Assistant Golf Professional, anywhere. My answer came in the mail a few months later in 1960. It was from the head golf professional of the Southampton Golf Club in Southampton, New York, Mr. Andrew C. Lees.
After living in New Jersey all my life, I had never even thought about or been to Long Island. After looking at a map, you can imagine my surprise when I finally located Southampton. Now remember, in 1960 there was no such thing as the Verrazano Bridge or the Southern State Parkway. There was a thing called the Staten Island Ferry and Sunrise Highway which both became a part of my 7-hour trip from the Jersey Shore.
The directional help Mr. Lees gave me was, when you go over the bridge at the Canoe Place Inn, take the cement road to the left. As we passed hundreds of cement roads on our journey, his directions became our private joke.
Fortunately, we never lost sight that the reward was a job and a start toward our American Dream. To us, it really didn’t matter where it was, what it paid or how many hours we had to work. We were committed since we both packed and left our families in New Jersey. We took this opportunity to leave home, work long hours with a few days off, and all for a seasonal salary of $200.00 a month.
We stayed in Southampton for two years but living was tough. My winters were spent working in Central Kitchens for Bob Scerbo or refinishing floors with Vincent Armusewicz. Anne worked two jobs. She worked as a secretary to a young attorney, Thomas Burke, while also working in a travel agency for John Osborne. Luckily, with only one car, we lived on Lewis Street and both places that Anne worked were on Main Street.
In other words, Anne was also doing everything she had to do to make that dream come true. Mainly, we were together, young, happy and in love. Today, 57 years later, although old, we are still together, happy and in love.
Although only seasonal, I enjoyed this first job in the golf business. For the first time in my life I had a talent that people admired, that gift made me feel somewhat important. Mr. Lees told me that in case I was asked my age, I must tell them that I was 27 years old. Later, when they found out that I was only 20 years old, it cost me the job as head professional at Southampton Golf Club.
For me, every day was a new learning experience. I spent those days doing what I thought a golf pro was supposed to do. Like most young men, I made a lot of mistakes. Of all of my mistakes, I feel the largest was that I eventually did not get along with my boss, Mr. Lees.
I was young, enthusiastic and in love with everything about the business. Mr. Lees was in his mid-60’s, and not particularly enthusiastic nor in love with the business anymore. As a young man, I did not understand the world through his age and experience. In my second year with Mr. Lees, my dislike of everything he did got worse. As a result, I refused to say anything kind about him at any time.
So there I was, 21 years old and already undermining my boss. Since then I have learned that nothing good can happen when this scenario appears. Mr. Lees naturally treated me in the same manner that I treated him, never saying anything good about me. I went farther by repeating his treatment of me to the board members. Mr. Lees was the golf professional at Southampton Golf Club for 35 years and my mean posture ended it all. At the end of my second year, Mr. Lees was fired.
He was 66 years old and was out of a job, and largely because of me. Nice going Bob! At his age, the only work he could find was teaching golf at the Poxabogue Golf Club for the short summer season. It was that same season that I started a 50-year stretch as a young head professional on Shelter Island.
As far as I know, I was probably the youngest head golf professional in the country. I was getting my first taste of running the whole show and being in the spot where the buck stops. My treatment of Mr. Lees never stopped bothering me and the more I worked, the more I realized why he did the things the way he did.
Disgusted with myself, that summer, I could not stand it anymore and made the trip to Poxabogue Golf Club and waited while Mr. Lees finished teaching his lesson. I approached him and asked if he had a few minutes. I wanted to clear my mind and apologize to him. Mr. Lees looked at me with a look of disgust that I shall never forget his answer, “I have nothing to say to you.” That was 55 years ago and my last meeting with Mr. Lees.
That might have been my final meeting with him but far from the last time I thought about that day. That important lesson created a phrase that I have repeated often through the years. Whenever I saw friends falling into the same trap I would say, “Taking an axe and chopping your neighbor’s furniture, doesn’t make your furniture look any better.”
Putting that lesson aside, today as I ride through Southampton, I have nothing but good memories of those times. In my mind, few spots are more beautiful than taking the ride to the end of the road by the MacDonald Gates that lead into the National Golf Links of America. The end of that road, with that magnificent view is the spot that Anne and I would sit almost every day having a picnic lunch.
Or what could be better than walking on Jobs Lane, the same street the wealthiest people in the world go to shop. While on that street, our thoughts always wander back to us walking and looking in the windows. I still remember how we laughed while looking in a store then called Shep Miller. In that store we saw a sweater that cost as much as our combined weekly salaries.
No story of that time would be complete without my highlight golf lesson with Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilco) in his heyday. He was a terrible golfer and I couldn’t hold back telling him that I caddied for him at the Hollywood Golf Club in New Jersey four years ago. Although his golf was not that memorable, I revealed what I remembered most about that day. He never took the short route to his ball in a sand bunker. When he finally got the ball out, I spent the next five minutes raking the entire trap.
Our saddest memory was of losing our best friend, Tom Armusewicz. Tom had a wife, Pat, and 5 children and he died of cancer at the young age of 41. It was our first time of losing a good friend. When Tom was told that he had a month to live, I got a call. He said that he had to talk to me because he wanted me to know what a man thinks about when they only have a month to live.
I sat alone in his room with him for quite a while and this is what he said, “Although I never really looked forward to old age, I would like to have a few more years to watch my kids grow up.” He felt that he was lucky to have this time to get all his finances in order. But above everything else, he said, “I want you to know that nothing else matters but your family, and every minute my wife and children are in this room, that is my treasured time.”
Even though we might have to go back 50 years to clearly see that our lives have been molded by our many friends and life experiences. To Anne and I, most of ours happened on the east end and we now call this home.