The year was 1962. JFK was president. Gasoline cost 28 cents a gallon. The average annual household income was $5,556. And Johnny Carson began hosting “The Tonight Show.” The top movies of the year were “Spartacus” and “West Side Story.” The New York Mets began their first year of play and lost 100 games. The best-selling records were “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by the Four Seasons, and Chubby Checker’s classic, “The Twist.” Television favorites in 1962 included “Bonanza” and “Dr. Kildare.” Arnold Palmer dominated golf, but lost the U.S. Open in a playoff to a rookie named Jack Nicklaus.
Oh, something else happened in 1962. Bob DeStefano began working as head professional at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club on Shelter Island — a job he has held for the past 50 years.
DeStefano will be retiring in June, and according to the PGA no head pro in America has worked 50 straight years at the same club. I recently had the privilege of sitting down and speaking with Bob about his amazing career.
“My father told me if I do something I enjoy, I’ll never work a day in my life,” DeStefano said. If you know Bob, you know he has enjoyed every day of his 50-plus years in the golf business.
DeStefano’s interest in golf began as a youngster when he caddied at Hollywood Golf Club in Deal, N.J. “I won the caddy championship four years in a row. I still keep the trophies polished. Those trophies are one of the highlights of my life,” said DeStefano.
“I would caddy for the pro at Hollywood, Lou Barbaro. Lou drove a fancy car, wore nice clothes, taught golf in the morning, had lunch with the members and then went out and played golf. And he worked seven months a year. I knew right then and there that was what I wanted to do.”
After graduating high school, DeStefano married his sweetheart, Anne, and entered the United States Coast Guard. “When I enlisted they asked me what I did for a living,” DeStefano remembered. “ I told them I was a golf pro, so they made me teach golf. I was never on a boat.”
Returning home to New Jersey after a two-year stint in the Coast Guard, DeStefano began job hunting. “I listened to my brother-in-law and wrote to many clubs. I was willing to go anywhere in the world.”
In 1960, DeStefano went to work at Southampton Golf Club as an assistant pro, a job he held for two years. Then, in 1962, he was hired by Sid Beckwith and Billy Dickerson as the head professional at Gardiner’s Bay. “The best thing I ever did as president of the club was to hire Bob DeStefano,” Beckwith recalled.
Beckwith is not alone in his admiration of DeStefano. A former junior student of DeStefano’s, Tim Matthews, now a single-digit handicapper, put it this way. “Bob is a great teacher and he definitely helped improve my game. All the lessons he taught me I still apply to my swing today.”
DeStefano loved everything about his work as a golf professional, but his true passion was teaching junior golfers. “From my first year at Gardiner’s Bay I wanted any youngster who had the desire to learn to play golf to be able to participate,” he said. “Not just members of the club. I wanted everybody to get a chance to play golf.”
DeStefano has helped thousands of young golfers during his career. His daughter, Nancy, put it best. “Junior golf is Bob,” she said.
I asked Bob if golf had ever gotten tedious during his career. For the next half-hour I sat back as an enthusiastic DeStefano explained to me his theories about the golf swing. If teaching golf has gotten boring for Bob DeStefano, you would never know it.
Asked if he could change anything in his life, DeStefano answered: “I’d change absolutely nothing. I wouldn’t want to be at any other club or live any other place.”
As my time with Bob was winding down, we talked about the numerous awards that hung in his office. This year DeStefano received the Top Teacher Award. “It took 50 years, but I appreciate it coming in my final year,” said a beaming DeStefano.
There is one position DeStefano has held longer than head professional at Gardiner’s Bay. Bob and Anne DeStefano will celebrate their 53rd wedding anniversary in October.
In retirement, DeStefano will not be sleeping until noon, watching reruns of “Caddy Shack” or seeking out restaurants offering early-bird specials. Not on your life. DeStefano is throwing his hat into the ring. No, not his golf hat. Bob is running for superintendent of Shelter Island. “I’ve always wanted to become involved in politics and now I have a chance,” he said.
How can you write about this extraordinary man and his unparalleled career in a few hundred words? You can’t. For those of you who have had the good fortune to cross paths with Bob DeStefano, consider yourself lucky. For those who have not, there is still time.
Gardiner’s Bay Country Club will hold a party to honor Bob on June 25. You don’t need to be a member of the club to attend. Call the club at (631) 749-1319 for information.