The oak and eucalyptus trees that Angelo Ruggerio planted and then nurtured for two decades still sway majestically in the wind that often howls across Los Robles Golf Course. The fairways that he mowed and the rough that he let grow are still emerald green. And the putting greens that he treated with such meticulous care still drive golfers a bit batty with their undulations and fine, slick surfaces.
But even though the public course is very much the same as it has been since the late 1960s at Los Robles, nothing is really quite the same anymore. Not since Angelo died.
"The comment I hear from everyone now is that it just doesn't seem the same here," said PGA professional Bob Meyer, who was taken in by Ruggerio as a locker room shoeshine boy when he was just 17 and now is one of two golf pros who work at Los Robles. "Angelo used to be in the starter's window near the first tee all the time. When people came down the path to the course, Angelo was the first one they'd see, and he always had something to say to everybody.
"They come down that path now and they still glance at the starter's booth, but Angelo's not there. It's very strange."
Ruggerio died of cancer on Aug. 9. He was 58 years old. At the time of his death, he was the head golf professional and the course manager. But the titles don't begin to tell his story. Ruggerio was Los Robles. He taught the golfers the right way to play the game and he formed their organizations. He manicured their course. And he was always there when anyone needed him.
Ruggerio was working as an assistant to head professional Jerry Barber at the Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles in 1959. He was 31, and he was about to embark on an adventure that would bring him to Los Robles. On a blind date, he met a girl named Mikki. They dated for a year, then married. On their honeymoon drive to Pebble Beach, the newlyweds passed through Thousand Oaks on the Ventura Freeway. They didn't know it, but they were driving past their future.
"Angelo saw this land on either side of the freeway and said, 'That would make a beautiful golf course,"' Mikki recalled. "At the time it was mostly a pig farm. But Angelo didn't see a pig farm. His eyes saw a golf course. There was a big sign there that said, 'Welcome to the Conejo Valley.' Neither one of us had ever heard of it. We pronounced it Cone-joe."
In 1964, four years after the Ruggerio's had passed by, the land was indeed converted from pig farm to golf course. Ruggerio had left the Wilshire Country Club and was working at the Pepper Tree Country Club in Corona. When the owners of the new course in the Cone-joe valley searched for a golf pro to run the place, Ruggerio's name was mentioned.
"They were asking around for a guy who would work ridiculous hours doing all kinds of work at all hours of the day and night and not want much money," Mikki said. "Someone who knew Angelo said, 'I know just the guy.' "
Ruggerio took the job, and he and his wife packed up their belongings in Corona and drove West.
"When we got here and saw the golf course, right where Angelo said four years earlier there should be one, we couldn't believe it," she said. "It was like we had come home. We just fell in love with this place."
In 1975, Ruggerio became the course manager while retaining his position as golf pro. He made all decisions concerning the golf course, from the paper work and financial dealings that kept the place in the black to the maintenance of the course.
"For the first seven years after we moved there, Angelo worked seven days a week and took no vacations," Mikki said. "When he became course manager, he said, 'Now I can make this place into the kind of course I want it to be.' He worked from sunup to sundown. He never stopped."
In 1979, the strain from Ruggerio's years of never-let-up work habits caught up with him. A doctor diagnosed heart disease, and he underwent triple bypass surgery. The operation may have changed the physical makeup of his heart, but it didn't alter what was inside of it.
"He missed 10 days of work," Mikki said. "Three days in the hospital and seven days at home with his wife sitting on top of him so he couldn't get up and go back to work. But after a week he said, 'That's it, I'm going to work.' He looked and felt great."
Ruggerio no longer gave golf lessons. Not officially anyway. But seldom did a day pass that he wouldn't stroll by the practice range, watch someone duck-hooking or slash-slicing at a golf ball and offer some advice. For 15 or 20 minutes he would work with the golfer, correcting flaws. At a country club, that costs about $100. At Los Robles, it was free.
"After he'd straighten out someone's swing, the guy would be ecstatic," Mikki said. "He'd beg for Angelo to give him regular lessons, but Angelo would always say, 'Sorry, I don't give lessons anymore.' And the next week he'd be at the driving range, helping the same guy again."