Gene Bernstein can claim one achievement that no one else ever has done and no one else probably will. He established a pro golf tournament on Long Island that lasted for 21 years.
"It was a fantastic experience," he said the other day at the Meadow Brook Club, where the Northville Long Island Invitational began in 1987 with a victory by Gary Player. Bernstein reflected on the years when Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and when Lee Trevino won it.
Bernstein, who's still chairman of his family's Northville Industries petroleum business, remained somewhat involved and fully interested even after Northville discontinued its title sponsorship in 1999, right through the tournament's final days in 2008.
"It was a great feeling to have done that, to have gotten it started. It was a little bit heartbreaking, in a way, when it became 'Lightpath,' " he said of the event that ultimately was known as the Commerce Bank Championship. "It's kind of like your kid growing up, and you finally have to let go."
Now he is like a kid again, with a new responsibility. This time, he definitely won't have to start history from scratch. He will inherit a legacy that began in the 1890s when, on Dec. 1, he begins a two-year term as president of the Metropolitan Golf Association.
He will promote the traditions that have flourished for all those years and will plan innovations to help clubs navigate a tough economy and a stagnant industry. Like all previous MGA presidents, he will do it without getting a paycheck.
"Like a lot of volunteer work, it entails almost as much or as little as you want to do. I think when you're at the officer level you've already shown a commitment that you want to do much, as opposed to little," Bernstein said, having spent two years as secretary and two years as vice president. "I love the game. It has been one of the great pleasures of my life and I'd like to give back."
Golf hooked him when he was 12 and placed third with his dad in a father-son tournament at Engineers Country Club. He has never let go, maintaining a healthy 6.1 handicap index as a member at Meadow Brook and Sebonack (his daughter Jennifer had the first-ever hole-in-one on the latter course).
"There is a randomness to it, as there is in life. The ball bounces this way and that way. Things happen. But basically there are traditions and rules that people have abided by for decades, if not centuries," he said of his favorite sport. "People get a great deal of satisfaction from knowing they carry on the tradition and carry on those values."
He can speak of randomness. Bernstein envisioned a long career as an English professor until he unexpectedly was denied tenure after seven years at Notre Dame. Like his brother Jay, a lawyer, he returned home to help run the Northville business in the 1980s. They held a one-day pro-am for customers and clients. Northville bought 23 Long Island gas stations from BP and was looking for a way to promote the brand. The family was inspired by the success of the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. And a senior tour event was born.
By the late 1990s, they had re-branded the gas stations "Citgo," so there was no reason to keep sponsoring the tournament. "But we loved doing it," Bernstein said.
Dealing with the pros only made him appreciate golf more. "Think of that incident when [Derek] Jeter was 'hit' by a pitch. In an equivalent situation, a golfer would be calling a penalty on himself," he said.
Of course, a true golfer always looks toward the next shot. So Bernstein will encourage courses to be more cost efficient, environmentally friendly and creative. And if someone wants to bring a pro tournament back to Long Island, he will be the first to welcome them.