A typical golf course begins with an idea from a developer, a corporation or a billionaire. Then there is Rock Hill, which started with a card game. Not a cutthroat card game, either.
"We'd play for $5. If you lost $5, they'd keep dealing you hands until you won something," said Ernie Vigliotta, who was at the card table with a bunch of buddies in 1964 when the topic of golf came up. They said they wished they didn't have to travel so far to play. Before they knew it, they were planning to build their own course.
They recruited other investors to form a 16-member group that included duck farmers, doctors, a turkey rancher, a tailor and a dentist. They bought 438 acres on Clancy Road in Manorville, which included one of Long Island's highest points and rolling woods. Rock Hill opened for business the following spring with a trailer for a pro shop and a nine-hole layout at the end of a dirt road.
Apparently the owners -- who now number 63, including a handful of founders or their children -- have played their cards right ever since. While other clubs have come and gone, Rock Hill still is standing and thriving, one of Long Island's busiest spots for golf outings. On Oct. 10, in the restaurant that stands where the original trailer used to be, the club will hold a dinner marking its 50th anniversary.
"We're all on a first-name basis here. It's a family," said Vigliotta, a retired duck farmer who has been club president for the past 28 years. "We keep on top of things. We run it like a small business."
Thinking back to the group around that card table, Vigliotta recalls that much of the vision came from the late Adolf Stampfl, the genial family doctor who ran his practice in his East Moriches home. Stampfl was the one who persuaded course architect Frank Duane to buy in.
Duane, an associate of Robert Trent Jones and later a partner in Arnold Palmer's course business, invested in Rock Hill and designed a layout that still appeals to single-digit handicappers (the course hosts the Suffolk high school championship) and casual golfers who play in charity fundraisers. He and his partners hired local nurseryman Joe Lemmen to do the clearing and planting, a year before Roger Tooker arrived as the first official greenskeeper in time for the second nine (currently the front nine).
Nobody foresaw the course's current lush grass or Manorville's booming population. When Tooker moved his family into a house on the property, there were no neighbors for miles. Nor were there many golfers.
"I said to myself, 'What am I doing here? I'm in a trailer, there are no customers and I left a nice 27-hole facility,' " said Bob Fox, a young assistant pro at Middle Island Country Club before he became Rock Hill's first head professional.
But the little public course hung in there. Golf became more popular and so did Rock Hill. "I tell you what, we had some good times up there," said Fox, later the head pro at Indian Island in Riverhead and now retired in Shirley. He still visits Rock Hill a few times a week.
The place has been good training ground, especially for assistant pros: Art Silvestrone went on to play the Senior PGA Tour, John Schob became head pro at Huntington Crescent Club, Leo McMahon and Jason Scharf are general managers, respectively, of Lawrence Yacht & Country Club and Swan Lake Golf Club. Former Rock Hill head pro Tom DeBellis left for a long run at Pine Hollow. Tooker's son Steve is superintendent for Suffolk County's municipal courses.
But the real success story is Rock Hill itself. "We're always trying to do the newest and latest, we keep the course in as good a shape as possible. And everything runs on time," said Mike Jacobs, who arrived as an intern 19 years ago and never has left. He is the head pro, runs a popular golf school and produces books and DVDs in the shop.
"There are a lot of golf courses out there, a lot of places wanted me to be a teaching pro. But this always felt like home," Jacobs said, echoing the men who have held a winning hand for half a century.