North Atlantic gift

On Nantucket island, the famous fog lifts to reveal three of the finest links courses in the world – combining beauty, maturity and a serious challenge for John Gibb.

June 22 2011
John Gibb

I used to think of Nantucket merely as a foggy island 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast, with 3,500 miles of Atlantic before you hit Britain. When Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world, the skippers and their crews would disappear for years in pursuit of whale oil. Many had Scottish roots and when they returned they spent their time playing at “gowf” with wooden sticks. Now the whaling is gone, but the island continues to prosper and the links have matured into some of the finest courses in the world. My old friend, Ryan Grant, a professional who once played on the European Tour, had gone home to live there and beguiled me with stories about irresistible golfing treasures; discreet, stylish links courses where sightings of Europeans were rare.

I flew to Boston last June in Virgin Atlantic Upper Class; around six hours of comfort before being strapped into a draughty Cape Air Cessna, which gamely plunged into a fog bank as it crossed the coast at Hyannis, emerging at low level to land 45 minutes later on the rainy Nantucket runway. It was dark by the time I made it to The Wauwinet inn, where the road runs out high on the windswept northern peninsula of the island. I could hear the sea crashing on the beach and the mournful moan of a foghorn in the distance. Feeling like Blind Pew in Treasure Island, I sat at the bar and ordered a glass of Navy Rum before climbing into bed and dreaming of sun-shadowed valleys rolling by the sea.

Morning brought a view of a long white beach and the whistle of a north-westerly rattling the shutters. Grant arrived with a Jeep and drove me to Sankaty Head Golf Club, a few miles down the coast. I saw for the first time the low clubhouse with the star-spangled banner snapping from the club mast and the emerald-green course below the lighthouse basking in the sun. It took my breath away; the Atlantic on the left, the links on the right and the air as fresh and clear as a diamond.

This exquisite golf course first opened for business in 1923; the dream of David Gray, son of an Edinburgh sweet manufacturer who had emigrated to Detroit with his family when the boy was eight. His father, John Gray, invested his savings in the Ford Motor company and by the turn of the century, the family was comfortably off. David formed the Sankaty Club, bought the land around Mayflower Hill and paid for the airy, cedar-wood clubhouse that he built on it. He hired Emerson Armstrong, the local amateur champion, to lay out the course on 276 acres of land around the lighthouse. The club and the land, although paid for by David Gray, would belong to the members. It still does.

Today, Sankaty, although a little longer than it once was, remains much the same. It is a 6,711-yard par 72 which was laid out to follow the contours of the land. No earth was moved by Armstrong and the result is a classic links that follows the natural lines of the dunes. The rough, crowned with thick, whispering fescue, does its traditional job and the fairways roll and turn as they should do. Each hole is unique and is separate from the others. I played it with Grant and a young lawyer and scratch golfer, Jeff Stetina, and I will never forget the course or the game. With the wind, the grasping rough and the undulating fairways, it is simultaneously a serious challenge and a classically beautiful golfing landscape. I loved the ninth with its long second up to a small, domed green by the clubhouse; but the final nine holes are the real tester, particularly the 10th, a 433-yard par 4 curling away towards Boston to the right with a high green and thick rough all along the left, and the 15th, a 396-yard dogleg to the right up towards the lighthouse. I thought these were the loveliest holes on the course.

The land around Sankaty is protected as a nature reserve. A marsh harrier prospected for food around the scrub oaks while Grant, oblivious to his surroundings, was breaking par by several shots. The finish is a 387-yard uphill par four into the prevailing wind with a long second into a cradled green. The clubhouse lies low and welcoming on the right and the lighthouse gives you a line on the pin. On that glorious summer evening, Bob Kuratek, general manager of the club, was on the green, waiting to take us into the bar and buy us a beer while we watched the gold and purple sun slipping away. What can you say?

The following morning we drove to Miacomet, three miles south of Nantucket town. It is the only public golf course on the island and was originally built to replace the nearby Tupancy Links, which closed in the 1960s. Miacomet opened in 2003 and has prospered ever since. It’s a friendly place with a good restaurant and beautifully kept fairways and greens which, with four tees to choose from on each hole, can be adapted to be either forgiving or difficult. The course is a par 72 stretching 6,890 yards from the back. Being close to the sea, it’s windswept for much of the year and sand is the big hazard, with acres of ribbon bunker snaking through the course. The first is a 380-yard par 4 – benign, although on the left a belt of sand traps stretches all the way from tee to green. The second hole hits you with sand on both sides of the fairway and a vicious little pot bunker where a short second tends to land. The seventh is a long par four with the green turning sharp right at the end of the fairway. I loved the 14th and 15th, a 510-yard bender to the left with a heavily bunkered finish, followed by a 177-yard par three with thick scrub oak on the right and a narrow, bottlenecked green.

The pro who played with us, Phillip Truono, runs the Nantucket Golfing Academy at Miacomet and is a skilful teacher. Some instructors look at your swing and tell you what you are doing wrong, but the trick is never to offer an unsolicited opinion. Most of us are sensitive about our sporting shortcomings; Truono tactfully watched my ungainly technical misdemeanours and remained silent. However, his analysis of the theory of linear putting, which he delivered with great style over dinner, has transformed my short game, even though what he said was just general observation rather than personal advice. Truono is one of those pros who manages to simplify golf and communicate well – just the man you need to save you from your quick hook or fractured chip. Together with the quality of the course, he makes Miacomet a compulsory visit.

I had by now moved into Nantucket Town for two days, to The White Elephant Hotel, which looks out over the harbour. We went for dinner at Lola 41º, so-called because all the food is sourced on the 41st parallel. It serves sushi, salads and American fare such as burgers with truffled fries (don’t ask). Nantucket Town at night, with its marina and the laid-back restaurants and bars such as The Pearl, is perfect for après-golf.

The following day we played the Nantucket Golf Club, just a mile or so from Sankaty Head. The club has a sister establishment in England called Queenwood, which, like Nantucket, you can’t play unless you acquire a membership for several hundred thousand dollars. These exclusive golf clubs provide security, privacy, luxury, a high level of service, fine dining, a great course and the dubious excitement of rubbing shoulders with celebrities and other rich people who are not keen on mixing with riff-raff like me. When, on the odd occasion, they do extend the hand, however, they can do it with great style.

The course is off the Milestone Road, and we proceeded down a long drive through a security check to the enormous cedar-tiled clubhouse. I had met the president of the club, Fred Green, many years ago in England when he showed me round Queenwood, but this time it took several weeks and many long-distance phone calls to get a starting time. Nantucket GC is hallowed turf and the clubhouse is stuffed with thick carpets, leather sofas and a roaring fire, even in June. The few members I saw moved about slowly like ghosts as they wallowed in privilege, and the dining room reminded me of the restaurant in the Goring hotel. We were taken to a locker room with personal service, then compulsory caddies in white uniforms escorted us to onto the course, where I was fitted up with a brand-new set of Callaway Diablo rental clubs.

Once on the course, the luxury is over and it is serious golf. Designed by Rees Jones and opened in 1997, this is a 7,081-yard par 72. There’s no easy start to get you into the mood. The first is 380 yards with a green protected by high dunes and clusters of bunkers; the second, a few yards longer, is a tricky dogleg to the left after a tight, blind drive. By the 5th, I had made friends with Dave, my caddy. It’s a 217-yard par three. You can play short but face a nasty little pitch over a range of bunkers to a narrow green. Ryan is on in one, of course, but he plays a different type of golf to me. Nevertheless, I manage to scramble a half and I’m beginning to read the greens. By the seventh, a long 470-yard par four, it becomes plain that Rees Jones and his designers moved many tons of earth when they built the course. There is a range of high-buttressed dunes with heavy fescue along the left and a sloping green. The 12th is one of the great holes in golf; 531 yards with a narrow diagonal fairway. You have to draw the ball on to it and then hit a long straight second. The green skulks behind high-fronted sand traps with threatening mounds of rough on the right. The crescent-shaped greenside bunker is very deep indeed.

The Nantucket is no pushover and finishes with a punch. The 17th is a narrow right-hand twister to a high pin with a scattering of deep bunkers just short of the green. The 18th, with the clubhouse to the right, is 590 yards of narrow, rolling valley with steep volcanic dunes to catch a fading ball and a well-protected final approach. I managed to get on in three; a drive, a five wood and a six iron. It felt like a triumph.

I loved this course and my advice is to do all you can to find several million dollars and buy the club, or get to know a member and be very nice to them. The Nantucket, like Sankaty Head, is a masterpiece. I can’t really comment on the club. After the game we shook hands with Luke Williams, the pro, and were escorted off the premises. No sign of a drink, unfortunately.

I would grab any chance to return to Nantucket island. Time stands still here but it’s best in midsummer and the autumn. Book your tee times before you go; and remember, when someone says, “Hi, howyadoin?” you don’t need to answer.

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