The History of Cape Cod Golf

February 17, 2007

Any discussion about golf on Cape Cod should begin with a round of applause for the glaciers. When the last ice age drew to a close, those slowly melting monoliths receded in such a way that the uniquely-shaped Cape was left in their wake.

Considering the sandy soils, the miles of diverse shoreline and the gently rolling terrain they left behind, congratulations are in order.

It wasn’t until Victorian sensibilities contrived the idea of “leisure activity,” that golf was finally introduced to this country from the British Isles — and there was Cape Cod, a hunk of consummate golfing ground just 50 miles from Boston, the nation’s second largest metropolitan area and one of America’s first golf hotbeds.

By 1900, this relatively small peninsula (shaped like a giant elf’s shoe) was already home to seven golf courses. Today there are more than 50, making Cape Cod a veritable smorgasbord, rarely matched for the charm, quality and variety of its layouts.

While we’re certain who discovered and named Cape Cod (a little-known English explorer named Bartholomew Gosnold) and when (1602), it’s never been terribly clear where the Cape actually begins. Today, the Cape Cod Canal provides an obvious but utterly man-made bifurcation. Indeed, this waterway is only 60 years old. When Donald Ross laid out Plymouth Country Club in 1908, was it considered a Cape Cod design?

For the purposes of this discussion, the answer is “yes” — if only because, for the eastbound traveler, Plymouth is where the really good golf begins.

This area at Cape’s edge is quickly becoming something of a golf destination in its own right. While the elegant Plymouth Country Club — a longtime public golf staple — went totally private on Jan. 1, 2001, new course development has more than picked up the slack.

The building boom started three years ago with the christening of Waverly Oaks Golf Club. This 27-hole, Brian Silva design is already considered one of the top daily-fee tracks in New England.

A stone’s throw from Waverly, Rees Jones’ Pine Hills Golf Club will open for play sometime this summer. The Nicklaus folks are now building a second course at Pine Hills, and Silva has yet another design under construction in the locale that promotes itself as “America’s Home Town.”

But Waverly Oaks started it all, and it’s the ideal starting point for any Cape Cod golf excursion. The fairways here, despite being dotted with scads of steep-faced bunkers, are some of the widest you’ll encounter anywhere. They’re generous enough to make driver a reasonable option at virtually every par four and par five. Good thing, because three of the four par fives Silva created here are, for the long and bold, eminently hittable in two.

Each hole at Waverly has been named in the vintage style, and each presents its own risk/reward scenario. For example, “Valley” — the downhill, par four 12th — is drivable should one care to challenge the bunker guarding the elbow of this subtle dogleg left. If you lay-up, the Ross-inspired, inverted-saucer green makes even the shortest pitch a challenge.

On the other hand, one is almost obliged to hit driver at the signature par-three 17th, a reverse Redan that plays 251 yards from the tips. This behemoth has been dubbed “Black Hole” on account of the cavernous bunker that fronts the putting surface — it’s 30 feet deep and should be avoided at all costs.

Discussions of just where Cape Cod begins may rage on, but it is precisely the golf that binds Plymouth to the nearby peninsula. After all, Waverly Oaks and Pine Hills are located just six miles from the Sagamore Bridge, the gateway to the “modern,” canal-defined Cape.

Crossing that bridge and heading south toward the town of Mashpee will bring you to the New Seabury Country Club, 36 holes that will get even better in the coming months, what with pending course refinements from architect Marvin Armstrong.

The Blue Course at New Seabury has long been one of the premier, if slightly schizophrenic golf experiences in all of New England. The par five opener at this 1964 William Mitchell design plays right down to Nantucket Sound, usually into the teeth of a coastal wind. The fourth is an outstanding par three which spans a small inlet, and while the remaining holes on this nine don’t hug the shoreline, they remain completely exposed and utterly subject to the elements. Armstrong’s major tweaks here include an all-new green complex at the 440-yard, par four ninth.

Yet in all respects, save degree of difficulty, the Blue’s back nine is a complete departure: tree-lined, quite hilly and totally inland. The 17th — with its blind drive across a yawning chasm, and its approach to an amphitheater green — stands out as the best of three superb finishing par fours.

Though a solid and enjoyable course in every respect, the Green Course at New Seabury has always been considered the weak sister. Armstrong aims to change that by lengthening the par 70 layout to 6,300 yards, rebuilding all 18 greens, and adding extensive waste and natural areas. The new incarnation will debut this summer.

Just south of Mashpee on a spit of land jutting into Nantucket Sound sits the harbor at Woods Hole, one of the few places where Mr. Gosnold actually set foot. This once-sleepy fishing village is now home to the world-renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. It’s also the place to catch the 45-minute ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, just visible on the horizon.

Farm Neck Golf Club here — located close to the town of Oak Bluffs, one of three harbors frequented by the Wood’s Hole ferry — has it all: fun, challenge, beauty, variety, weather, primo course conditions, you name it. While there are many exceptional holes set amid the island’s native grasses and miniature pine forest, the water holes at Farm Neck stand out. For example the fourth is a favorable knock-off of the seventh at Pebble Beach: a short, downhill one-shotter that plays to a green perched above of a saltwater bay. As with its Pacific counterpart, it’s anywhere from wedge to 4-iron depending on the wind.

The front nine at Farm Neck, opened in 1976, was designed by Geoffrey Cornish whose layouts can be found all over New England. The back nine, opened in 1979 and designed by Peter Milligan, plays longer and more inland. Mungeam has remodeled all but one hole on this side; his work includes a new green at the par three 15th and an entirely new par four, 13th hole.

Just outside the island town of Vineyard Haven, another ferry stop, is the Mink Meadows Golf Course. Wayne Stiles designed 18 holes here on a former mink farm during the 1930s, but only nine were ever built. Until recently, this interesting, scenic layout was undercut by deteriorated course conditions, but all that is changing thanks to recent renovations. A new green at the par four fourth for example, is the crowning touch on a splendid hole which plays as a 455-yard par five. Downwind, it’s reachable in two; into the wind, forget it. The fairways here are all beautifully framed in the heathland style by tall, fescue grasses.

The ferry to Martha’s Vineyard does accommodate automobiles but reservations are required, sometimes several months in advance. So plan well ahead if you choose to bring a vehicle. For the car-less, there are taxis on the island side waiting to transport golfers and clubs to the venue of choice.

Back on the mainland and 30 minutes northeast of Woods Hole is Greater Hyannis, ground zero for the Cape’s full range of resort attractions: gorgeous seaside accommodations (and tacky go-cart emporia), the charming Kennedy compound (and myriad strip malls), some of the best seafood restaurants in New England (and a few of the cheesiest).

Since 1908, Hyannis has been home to one of New England’s most appealing seaside tracks, The Hyannisport Club. This private club does allow some public play from the end of October through April.

As New Englanders understand, golf is played here all winter long. Cape Cod is essentially an enormous sand bar; it snows, but it doesn’t stick around very long. Also, because the Cape juts out into the Atlantic (and the Gulf Stream), mild temperatures aren’t uncommon in the dead of winter.

In fact, November and April are traditionally great months for golf on the Cape for a number of reasons.

It’s perfectly temperate when the rest of the Northeast might be cold and dreary. Most daily-fee and resort courses offer play at discounted rates, and some private clubs open their doors to outside play. Plus it’s much less crowded than the tourist-filled summer months.

The layout here, recently refurbished by architect Ron Forse, is well worth an off-season visit. The 17th is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful par threes in New England, with Nantucket Sound in play on your right and Squaw Island in full view. All the greens at Hyannisport are notoriously quick and the wind alters playing conditions from minute to minute. If it’s blowing out of the north, you’re in for a very challenging day.

Heading northwest out of Hyannis, the intrepid Cape traveler happens upon Olde Barnstable Fairgrounds Golf Course, operated by the town of Marston Mills. Don’t be put off by the “municipal” label at Olde Barnstable or anywhere else on Cape Cod for that matter. Nowhere in the nation can golfers find a better assortment of quality munis.

Olde Barnstable — which hosted both U.S. Amateur and Mid-Amateur qualifiers last year — is loaded with first-rate, diverse golf holes, including the 196-yard 15th with its green set in a sandy waste area, Pine Valley-style.

It’s impossible to play Olde Barnstable without taking away memories of the man-sized 18th, an uphill, 560-yard, double-dogleg par five whose green is carved into a rocky knoll. It takes three solid, strategic shots to get home here; into the wind, it may take four or five.

Quick Facts
  Waverly Oaks
(508) 224-6016 May 18-Oct. 8: $85

  New Seabury
(508) 477-9400 May 16-Oct. 8: Blue Course ($140-$175), Green Course ($100-$125)

  Farm Neck
(508) 693-3057 May 11-June 23: $70 June 24-Sept. 16: $125

  Mink Meadows
(508) 693-0600 May 15-June 15: $35 June 16-Sept. 15: $60

  Hyannisport Club
(508) 775-2978 Oct. 31-April 30: $100

  Olde Barnstable
(508) 420-1141; $45-$65

  Captains Golf Course
(508) 896-5100; June-$45, July and August-$60

  Cranberry Valley
(508) 430-7560; $55

  Cape Cod National
(508) 240-6800 Rounds arranged through Wequasett Inn (508) 432-5400.

  Highland Links
(508) 487-9201; $16-$20

Seasonal rates vary at most courses. Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

The Ross-designed Bass River Golf Course in nearby Yarmouth is another muni gem, but no Cape community can boast a better town-owned facility than Captains Golf Course in Brewster. Opened in 1985, Captains fairly well invented the idea of upscale municipal golf.

There are 36 holes here now, all named for local sea “captains” — 18th- and 19th-century men who sailed the seven seas but made charming Brewster their home. Last year, Silva returned to design 18 new holes that are arguably better than the originals.

The land Silva inherited for Son of Captains helped make the new holes both work individually and mesh with the originals. The par-four 16th on the Port Course, for example, is a dogleg right measuring 371 yards. The green’s entire right side is shaped by a dramatic “kettle” hole (a steep-sided, bowl-shaped depression formed when blocks of ice were left behind by the glaciers); if the pin is back right, bold players must play over a corner of the kettle itself.

The demanding par three fifth on the Starboard Course stretches 213 yards; a kettle on the left gives the putting surface a right-to-left tilt, allowing long-iron shots to bounce their way on.

Before Captains debuted, Cranberry Valley in nearby Harwich was the Cape’s daily-fee standard-bearer; indeed, for years it was listed among the nation’s top public courses.

Designed by Cornish and opened in 1974, Cranberry Valley is still an extremely enjoyable venue, with its cute doglegs and heroic par threes, all them flanked by ubiquitous bogs.

Cape Cod is also home to several private courses whose fairways are accessible to guests of certain, upscale hostelries. It’s wise to ask innkeepers if their establishments enjoy this sort of association. One such arrangement exists between the tony Wequassett Inn in Chatham and Cape Cod National Golf Club in Brewster.

Although it opened just three years ago, the course (another Silva product) is decidedly old school. Vintage touches abound here. The par three sixth is a Redan that would make Raynor proud, while the seventh — a short, uphill parfour of only 290 yards — plays blindly to a punchbowl green. The 17th, on the other hand, is a 460-yard par four whose fairway and putting surface are both guarded by the same enormous kettle hole; it plays more like a par five.

Cape Cod National isn’t exactly cheap (neither is the Wequassett) but this is one of New England’s premier tracks, public or private.

It’s fitting that this Cape expedition ends where it all began, at Highland Links, which is operated by the tiny town of Truro, just a few miles south of Provincetown. Opened in 1892, this eccentric nine-holer is the oldest surviving layout on Cape Cod and it remains one of the most exhilarating despite time and the elements take a considerable toll. here at land’s end. Two years ago, the working lighthouse beside the seventh hole was picked up and moved inland (closer to the seventh tee) because its structural integrity had been threatened by beach erosion. Indeed, the nine holes at Highland Links have been rerouted and tinkered with many times. But the terrain here is so perfect for golf, it’s virtually impossible to screw it up.

The short ninth — a wind-ravaged pitch played across a tiny fjord to a minuscule green — has been recognized as one of the great par-threes on earth.

The playing conditions have always been spotty at Highland, and don’t hold your breath waiting in the parking lot for some young chap to fetch the clubs from your trunk.

Long ago (even before Mr. Gosnold made the scene) the Scots recognized that golf is best played where land meets sea, in weather conditions which only the meeting of land and sea can provide.

On Cape Cod, one is never very far from the Atlantic, which explains why, for so long, so many golfers have been drawn here. The courses themselves, some old and some new, are what keep them coming back.