A one-of-a-kind club

Coastal Point • Shaun M. Lambert: Back row: Cripple Creek President Frank Vallese, Golf Pro Brian Trout and Drew Sunderlin. Front row: Don Antonucci, Judie Davis and Glenn Hudson.Coastal Point • Shaun M. Lambert: Back row: Cripple Creek President Frank Vallese, Golf Pro Brian Trout and Drew Sunderlin. Front row: Don Antonucci, Judie Davis and Glenn Hudson.Tucked away near Holts Landing, next to the Indian River Bay, is Cripple Creek Golf & Country Club.

Cripple Creek boasts an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Algie M. Pulley, dining experiences that range from casual to elegant, tennis courts and a saltwater swimming pool. But the most special feature of the private club may not be its first-class facilities, but its first-class members.

“A couple weeks ago I was playing golf and someone said to me, ‘Isn’t this a great club?’” recalled Don Antonucci, who has been a member for 12 years. “I was thinking to myself, I belong to clubs in New York, in Maryland, in Florida … I have always felt that Cripple Creek was the best.

“It’s the membership — it’s the people themselves. It’s a unique club from the standpoint of actually caring about its own membership, caring about the community and their charitable initiatives.”

Cripple Creek is the home to a number of charitable events, including Rally for the Cure, which was created by late member Ellen Stephens and over its 20 years of existence has donated nearly $400,000 to the Delaware Breast Coalition and the Susan G. Komen Foundation for a Cure.

Member Judie Davis, who joined the club in 1996, became involved in the fundraising event and eventually chaired its efforts.

“I think when you go into something like that, you always hope it is [successful], but it starts out… The first year there were 40-some players, and they turned over something like $875 to Susan Komen. Now we’ve been averaging 90-some players for the last few years and turning over anywhere between $28,000 and $32,000 each year.”

Davis’ husband, Bob, created the Progress for Prostate golf tournament in 2004, after his own battle with prostate cancer. The tournament benefits Beebe Medical Foundation, with their efforts thus far having raised more than $285,000.

Drew Sunderlin, who has been a member for six years, took over Progress for Prostate from Bob Davis a few years ago and said this past year’s tournament was sold out, with 119 players.

“Last year, Progress donated $57,000, which is the largest donation Beebe has received from a golf event,” said Sunderlin, adding that 70 to 75 percent of the players in the tournament were Cripple Creek members.

But Sunderlin said those who aren’t members continue to support the events at Cripple Creek year after year after year.

“We have people who return every year, guests, and there are three reasons they are doing this: No. 1, they believe in the charity; the second is they love playing this golf course because it’s very challenging and fun; the third reason — and it’s very important — they feel the food and service here is second-to-none anywhere in this area.

“Between the magic show and dinner we hold the Wednesday night before the tournament that Rich Bloch [owner of Dickens Parlour Theater] had been our honorary chairman for the umpteen years he’s been doing it — he donates all his time, sound equipment, stage, assistance — it’s all gratis. It’s a credit to the country club that they have such good staff and quality product that they’re producing, be it golf or food.”

But once members hear about an organization they want to support, everyone does their part to support it. Case in point: Operation SEAs the Day, a nonprofit out of Bethany Beach formed in 2013 with the mission to give wounded veterans and their families a week-long restful beach retreat at no cost.

“Two years ago, there was this new local charity called Operation SEAs the Day. Glenn [Hudson] and I had this little golf event and we said, ‘Why don’t we try to raise some money for this local charity?’” recalled Antonucci. “They are just a great local charity doing great work for the real heroes, in my opinion. We put a little golf tournament together, and we did exactly that.

“Last year, we almost doubled what we gave them the first year. This year, we’re going to double it again. So, for a small group of 40 people, we’re going to be one of their largest, if not their largest, monetary contributors this year, and it’s all because the people here care.

“We got involved just because wanted to do something. What a magnificent idea, a local charity, the town of Bethany bringing 25 to 30 wounded warrior families to the beach for a week. Drew donates his boat; people donate their houses, condos for the families to stay in. One of our members, Steve Hagen, who owns a lot of local restaurants, is sponsoring the welcome breakfast… It’s the membership — it drives everything here.”

Glenn Hudson, who’s been a member for seven years, said that this will be the group’s third year supporting Operation SEAs the Day.

“We’ve reached a platinum sponsorship, which is the highest sponsorship — we’re talking roughly 40 people. We even have people donate to Operation SEAs the Day who don’t even participate in the tournament. They just donate to the cause.”

Hudson said the men’s group was looking for another local charity to support, and Operation SEAs the Day fit the bill. Hudson estimated 90 to 95 percent of the men who play in the tournament are Cripple Creek members.

“We thought, why don’t we run a different kind of format, in three-man teams, which has been done before,” he said. “It doesn’t take much in terms of an idea before the membership starts to run with it. You make a suggestion, you better be ready to do it.”

Club membership forms a family

Along with hosting charitable tournaments for outside charities, the club is also the home course for the Indian River High School golf team and has hosted amateur groups, the AJGA twice and the Philadelphia Junior Tour.

“It’s a different kind of private club,” said Brian Trout, general manager and head golf professional. “And one of the first things I always say to prospective members is, you can look at everything around here facility-wise, but that’s not what makes this place great. It is always the membership.

“As soon as they get hooked up with somebody else, they realize that it’s not just about playing golf or playing bridge or mahjong — they become part of the family here. It’s a unique place in that respect.”

“We’re a private club, but we’re open to everybody,” said Club President Frank Vallese, who’s been a member for eight years. “We have people from everywhere — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the D.C. area... For some, this is the only club they’re a member of; others have multiple memberships to a variety of different clubs and may only just come here for the summer.”

The club also has a large women’s golf program, which plays tournaments with other women’s groups in the area, and it’s a kid-friendly — offering courses and tournaments for kids.

“We also have family-friendly tees that allow younger kids to play. They still get the feel but have a shorter field of play,” Vallese said.

Although the club has approximately 460 members, those members say it does, in fact, feel like family. Groups of members play rounds of golf with each other every day, and share lunch and after-game drinks with each other. There are bridge groups and mahjong groups that they attend for a fun morning of games, and they enjoy the company of friends and a good lunch. Whole families will spend the day at the pool, with ice cream breaks in between to beat the heat.

“A large majority of our membership is seasonal, and they’re only here for a few times during the summer or a few months during the summer,” said Trout. “One of the resounding things you always hear from them when they come back down here is it’s like they just came back home. You don’t have to be here year-round to come right back to the family.”

“It is so easy. Everybody knows everyone else here. Everyone gets along. I can show up anytime, day or night, and play golf with any of the different groups going out,” said Vallese. “I live here, so I get to live and play here with other people in the neighborhood. We do have a large number of people who live here year-round.”

Hudson said he’s belonged to three different clubs, but Cripple Creek is something special.

“I can’t tell you how much of an outpouring there is when someone is hurt, said he really needs us. Half a membership just steps right up to the plate to help out in any way it can.”

“Last year I had a medical issue and went through a pretty dramatic surgery,” said Antonucci. “When I got home from the hospital, there were 60 to 70 emails from the membership here wishing me the best. People don’t have to take the time out to do that. They do it because they want to do it. That’s the community we’re a part of. This is a bunch of special people. You won’t find this in every club.”

“People will just do anything to help everybody else out,” added Vallese.

Sunderlin said the reason Cripple Creek has such a close membership is because it is a private club.

“This is not a public facility where we have people coming in and out. This is people who have committed themselves to the fact that they want to be in a club where friendships can be forged, you can play as much golf as you want to, you can swim, you can come for tennis, you can come for the dining ambiance.

“The club has made gallant strides in trying to keep this course in phenomenal condition. Everything they do is looking ahead to the future in trying to make the most of what we have with our income and giving it back to the membership. This is one of the reasons why we are the jewel of Bethany.”

Trout said anyone interested in learning more about the club’s variety of membership packages may simply call the club and speak with him.

“We’ll set up a time when we can meet, we’ll give them a tour of the facility, let them play some golf and have lunch. It’s all complimentary, on us. We’ve had a pretty good return once they do that. Not many walk away.”

Antonucci encouraged those who would be interested to simply give it a try.

“Come join us at the Creek — this is a special set of people. It’s a family, you feel like a family. This is a super place to be,” he said. “Glenn was born here. Very few members were born here. Most of us lived most of our lives in other locations and elected to come here to live. That’s why you end up holding hands, hugging each other and saying this is a family.”

“It’s the first place I belonged to where there’s not a class within the membership. It is a membership. You can come out any day of the week, man or woman, and you can always find someone to play golf with, and they’re going to be the same tomorrow as they are today,” added Hudson. “You may play golf here twice a month, but it’s a lifetime experience.”

For more information about Cripple Creek Golf and Country Club, visit www.cripplecreekgolf.org or call (302) 539-1446.