Golf: At the Heart of Rotonda West From Day One
By Jack Alexander, RWA Historian
Longtime Rotonda golfer Charlene Diggins said, "In the old days (mid-late 70's) it was fun. The bar at the club was packed evenings, everyone having a good time, especially Fridays after Guys & Dolls. The early golf pros -Walter "Red" Lathrop, later Ray LaGoy - always mingled with the golfers. The fun often lasted beyond eleven o'clock, the pros participating. LaGoy knew everybody's name and handicap."
By all accounts, the golf clubhouse was central to Rotonda's social life. Red, Ray and other early pros took a prominent role in developing the club's social milieu with the members, including many non-golfers. First pro Lathrop and his wife, Eunice, were hugely popular. "We had about fifty members then," said George Manyak. "Many had never played golf, but Red Lathrop worked cheerfully with them all." (George settled into the only two-story house in Rotonda, adjacent to the 4th tee, a story in itself related in my book-Rotonda, The Vision & The Reality.)
Also much beloved was Ray LaGoy, who became head pro in 1979. Ray was a 29-year Class-A PGA member, a PGA Pro-of-the-Year from Ohio. An excellent golf instructor, LaGoy's appearance confirmed Rotonda's credibility as a golf center. The members kept agitating for the promised new, more permanent clubhouse. In 1974, the developer always said: "In the near future." Page 190 of my book features a photo of the proposed clubhouse, as conceived by an architect. "It was something out of Arabian Nights," said Helen Waldron, first ladies golf champ (1973). "It promised a sauna, health club, and underground parking." Talk about the Taj Mahal.
"They got a bit fancy, we didn't exactly have the clientele for it," said John Meadows, in classic understatement. There was only one course then. Designed by local engineer Jim Petrides, it was built in 1971. It was called the Sunday course, to distinguish it from the six additional courses promised by December 1977, along with the seven marinas (which, of course, didn't happen. The Links and Palms courses finally opened late 1989, long after the first developer was history.)
After years of false hopes, the new clubhouse (now The Hills) was completed in 1978. The members were happy. "It was much toned down from the Taj Mahal they originally planned," one member said, "and we lost our original happy bar, which was where the kitchen is now." The new bar never "clicked," socially.
By 1981, the developer (the third) was complaining, "The club has operated at a loss for years." In the face of that dash of cold water, LaGoy was reporting over 200 golf rounds played daily. He said, "1981 will be our best season ever." Of course the club expanded in time, underwent several ownership changes, survived "the Ray Floyd era" (another story), and has evolved into the best golf value around. But old timers still claim that a memorable era ended in 1978 when the old bar was modernized. Another ended when LaGoy left in 1986.
Editor's Note: Updated copies of Jack Alexander's book, "Rotonda, The Vision & The Reality", are available for $6.00 at the Rotonda West Community Center, 3754 Cape Haze Drive, Rotonda West 33947, (941) 697-6788.