The golfiest state in America? It’ll surprise you

November 1, 2017

If there’s a state with more quality courses per capita than Rhode Island, I don’t know about it. Rhode Island, small-est by far of the 50, has 12,366 card-carrying golfers (GHIN cards) and dozens of good, no-nonsense, pre-Eisenhower walking courses, public, private and in between. The first U.S. Open, in 1895, was held at Newport Country Club, where Thurston Howell III is still on the waiting list. Down the road and over a spectacular bridge, there’s a nine-holer in Jamestown with a $19 weekday green fee. You’d pay that just to try to two-putt its circa 1900 fourth green. It’s like putting on a high sea. The same crusty stahtah has been manning the first tee there since (I’m guessing) the ’30s.

David Fay, the former USGA executive director, has logged many rounds at both Newport and Jamestown. Fay uses one of those indestructible rubber tees you can find at any driving range, with the round flat base and the beige hollow tube rising from its center. A Newport member of a certain age once asked Fay, “Is it a sex toy, too?” That droll Rhode Island/New England wit.

Rhode Island golf, like the state itself, is both highly segregated and highly integrated. There are Jewish clubs and WASP clubs and clubs for golfers flying the flags of Ireland and Italy and Portugal on their cars. Back in the day (and maybe still now), there were clubs for mobsters and gamblers, with tour bags on their gas carts and handguns in the compartment where you might stuff your windbreaker. With these fellas, you learn to make ’em quick. Dana Quigley, 11-time winner on the senior tour, will tell you that.

But he learned to make a stroke-play score winning the Rhode Island Open six times. To win those statewide events, you have to beat players from every walk of life. Brad Faxon spent his boyhood trying to beat Billy Andrade, George Marderosian, Mark Battista, Stan Abrams, Eddie Kirby—you get the idea. All the battlers. Golf in Rhode Island is not like golf in California or Florida. You find out quickly what the guy’s father does and where his father was from. Insurance/Portugal, in Andrade’s case.

Paul Kenyon has covered golf in Rhode Island since ’74, writing up Faxon’s win in the state junior championship that year. (Faxon caddied at Rhode Island Country Club as a kid, and now he’s a member at Newport.) The iron-fisted boss of Rhode Island golf when Kenyon started was Ed Perry, who began every Rhode Island Golf Association event by gathering the players on the first tee and playing the national anthem on a portable record player, holding his heart with his right hand and a “see-through drink” (per Faxon) with his left, half-managing to croak out the high note in land of the free. “He liked how his life had turned out, and he wanted the same for others,” Kenyon told me recently. Juniors learned to play right and fly right under Perry. Kenyon liked him, but in Perry’s later years “he got more country-clubbish.” Not a compliment. His successor, Joe Sprague, was the opposite. Public golf across the state flourished under him.

The epicenter of Rhode Island’s public game is Triggs Memorial, in Providence. You’ll hear people say astounding things like, “Triggs might be the best Donald Ross course in the state.” (Rhode Island has 10 Ross designs, five of them with American Indian names.) One guy who says that is Paul Quigley, Dana’s brother and the father of Brett, the former Tour player. Paul has won scads of Rhode Island amateur titles. (If Kenyon had a dollar for every time he’d typed “Quigley,” he’d have more money than Claus von Bülow.) When Paul first started playing Triggs, in the early 1960s, the tee boxes were covered with large, square pieces of cork, a half-inch thick. “You’d try to find foot imprints with the right spacing and you’d stick your tee through the cork,” he said. But that’s how Paul got good. Scrappy opponents on a scrappy course. Triggs improved in the Sprague years.

I once played three excellent courses in one day in Rhode Island and had another 54-hole day where I was one down after 53. Good times. This year, I’ve been playing some better-ball golf with my friend Steve Harrington, one of the six golf-mad Harrington Brothers, originally from Cranston, R.I. They’re scattered now but gather in the Ocean State each summer, their accents coming out along with their left-handed clubs. (Five of the six, anyway.) I once told Steve that my wife likes the anchor stamped on the Rhode Island license plate. Said Steve, maybe remembering the Sisters of St. Paul’s from his Cranston youth: “We have this hope as an anchor of the soul.”

Shoe salesman/Ireland. More significant, Stevey Hags is a no-quit 4-handicapper who will find your ball. He’s a Rhody golfer.