During the gilded age of the late 19th century, Newport was a summer playground for America’s robber-baron elite. Bill Gates has nothing on business titans like Cornelius Vanderbilt II, J.P. Morgan and John Astor, who together possessed more money than the U.S. Treasury and built their summer “cottages” on Newport’s rocky oceanside cliffs.
Today Newport is still a blue-blood summer hot spot and home to one of the nation’s most exclusive golf clubs, Newport Country Club (where you’re welcome as long as you’re applying to mow the lawns). But one thing that has changed in Newport is the quality of public golf, thanks to five fine courses within 40 minutes of downtown.
You can drive to Newport in less than three hours from most places in the Northeast, and Providence’s T.F. Green International Airport is just a 45-minute drive north from Newport on Interstate 95. Newport Bridge, which straddles Conanicut and Aquidneck Islands, serves as the gateway into town.
Just over the bridge and through downtown, the 3-year-old 7,244-yard Orchard Course at Newport National Golf Club is the baby of area courses. It’s also the most difficult course in the state, with a daunting slope rating of 138. Architect Arthur Hills built all 18 tees with views of Rhode Island Sound but the real drama comes on the mountainous, multitiered greens.
Take the dogleg-left 489-yard par-4 17th, where the green slopes severely right to left. Approach shots are usually with a long iron from the right side, making the green extremely tough to hold.
A less painful — but not exactly easy — experience lies five miles north at Green Valley Country Club in Portsmouth. The course sits in the middle of Aquidneck Island, where there are few ocean views but the breeze is constant.
Farmer Manuel Raposa built this blue-collar country club on his family’s property in 1957 and today his son, Ron, runs the course. The par-71, 6,830-yard layout demands precision from the back tees. Thick groves of evergreens line most fairways and swallow errant tee shots.
The most fun hole is the 548-yard par-5 17th, which plays downhill with the wind at your back to a large green with a single bunker standing sentry on the right side. Medium-length hitters don’t often face a putt for eagle, but this hole offers a rare chance.
Before Newport National opened, the town’s most popular course was Montaup Country Club., which still sees more than 30,000 rounds a year. Another family-run, laid-back track, Montaup opened in 1923 and plays 6,513 yards along the rocky shores of Narragansett Bay.
The course is forgiving off the tee — misses are often playable from a parallel fairway. The test here comes on the greens: Most are pedestal-style and slope from back to front. In the dry summer months, they can run as fast as 11 on the Stimpmeter, ensuring that even a solid ball-striking round can come undone on the putting surfaces.
And watch out for the 528-yard par-5 16th: A water hazard fronting the green forces a healthy carry on the approach, but don’t overclub or you’ll end up in Narragansett Bay.
Twenty miles west of Newport in the rolling countryside of rural Rhode Island, the tiny town of Exeter is a genuine slice of Americana. It has a church, a general store, a firehouse and a golf course — Exeter Country Club.
Architect Geoffrey Cornish designed the course in 1969 and it’s a mid-handicapper’s heaven from the 6,406-yard white tees, with enough teeth for better players from the 6,921-yard tips. Holes here usually narrow on approaches to greens that often are surrounded by bunkers.
From the 576-yard par-5 second (530 yards from the whites), the charming town of Exeter is visible in the distance, but don’t take your eye off the ball. The tee shot here is blind over a hill, so the course erected a rusty 15-foot-high lookout post on the tee for golfers to climb to see if the coast is clear. And on the 324-yard par-4 13th, golfers must cross a rickety, covered wooden bridge that connects the tee box to the fairway.
A trip to Rhode Island would be wasted without a round at Triggs Memorial Golf Course in Providence. It’s a perfect stop for air travelers and just a 45-minute hop by car from Newport.
The Donald Ross design is the best layout in Rhode Island and, according to Rhode Island native Brad Faxon, “one of Ross’ best” in the country. Opened in 1932, the 6,522-yard course had fallen into disrepair by the 1980s. But the current owners took over in 1990 and, armed with Ross’ original plans, have spent the last 15 years restoring the course to its former glory.
Triggs still plays like a muni. The course sees more than 35,000 rounds a year, many of them in the five-hour range, and if you’re looking for electric carts with GPS, you’ve come to the wrong place. But at $36 for a summer weekend round, Triggs is the best deal in the state, possibly even the country.
Ross’s genius shines through at the 508-yard par-5 15th. Big hitters will be tempted to try reaching this slight dogleg left in two shots, but maple and oak trees catch misses to the left, and out-of-bounds on the right awaits even slightly pushed tee shots. The wise play is to swallow your pride and lay up. Not that you’re likely to listen. After a weekend in Newport, everyone feels like they have money to gamble.
Where to eat
In Newport, a restaurant is judged by the quality of its clam chowder. The Mooring is no longer allowed to enter its chowder for awards because it won so many. ‘Nuff said. Cups go for $5. Sayer’s Wharf; 401-846-2260
Overlooking the harbor, 22 Bowen’s Wine Bar and Grille is Newport’s steak and seafood specialist. Try the lump crabmeat cocktail with spicy mustard ($14) followed by an eight-ounce, 21-day-aged filet mignon ($32). 22 Bowen’s Wharf; 401-841-8884
Established by a reformed pirate in the late-17th century, the White Horse Tavern is the oldest working pub in America, though “pub” is stretching it, as many consider this Newport’s finest restaurant. Marlborough and Farewell Streets; 401-849-3600
|Exeter Country Club
Greens Fees: $32-$37
|Green Valley Country Club
Greens Fees: $45-$61
|Montaup Country Club
Greens Fees: $45-$61
|Newport National Golf Club
Greens Fees: $125-$150
| Triggs Memorial Golf Course
Greens Fees: $21-$36
Where to stay
If you want that high-life vibe, stay at The Chanler at Cliff Walk. Signature rooms feature private entrances, outdoor Jacuzzis and saunas, and plasma televisions. Doubles from $325. 401-847-1300; thechanler.com
There’s a bed-and-breakfast on every corner in Newport, each with its own unique charm. The La Farge Perry House, the 19th-century home of stained-glass artist John La Farge, is the best. Its five rooms fill up fast, so book ahead. Doubles from $145. 877-736-1100; lafargeperry.com
A clean and comfortable .roadside motel only five minutes by car from downtown Newport, the Harbor Base Pineapple Inn is a solid option for bargain hunters. Doubles from $40. 401-847-2600
Newport’s mansions, grand remnants of an age of excess, line Bellevue Avenue. The must-sees: Cornelius Vanderbilt II bought entire rooms from Italian palaces and brought them to America by steamship to build The Breakers. Coal magnate Edward Berwind modeled The Elms after an 18th-century French chateau at a cost of about $1.4 million (a cool $30 million today). William Vanderbilt, Cornelius’s brother, presented his wife, Alva, with The Marble House on her 39th birthday. (It’s built from 500,000 cubic feet of imported marble.)
She divorced him three years later and kept the house. Silver heiress Teresa Fair Oelrichs fashioned Rosecliff after the Grand Trianon, the garden .retreat at Versailles. $15 per mansion; package deals available. newportmansions.org