Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 47, no. 4 (Fall 1998), p. 11-14
A History of Nantucket's Golf Courses
by J. C. Gamble
IT CAN BE ARGUED THAT GOLFING ON NANTUCKET came about because of a conversation in the spring of 1897 between island summer residents Sidney Chase and David Noyes, president of Noyes Brothers and Company of Boston. Both veterans of several seasons on the Grey Lady, the gentlemen were dissatisfied that the island was without a golf links. "I won't go anywhere I can't play golf," huffed Noyes to Chase. With its undulating fields in the west and the north shore cliffs that were once sheep commons, Nantucket lacked a course in name only.
Summer residents Dr. Harold Williams and Mr. Alfred Dabney, along with Chase and Noyes, soon embarked on a quest not only to establish a reputable club on Nantucket but to reach a more thorough understanding of the game and its rules. In an effort to organize interest, the gentlemen printed circulars for a June 1897 Inquirer and Mirror advertising an inaugural meeting on land near the waterworks (near present-day Wannacomet). With an unexpected high turnout, the group moved immediately to secure the land, first with a lease and later by outright purchase. It belonged to John Williams, who had purchased it in 1875 from Charles Myrick, an island developer.
Within a month of that initial meeting in August 1897, nine holes had been completed and a hundred members were on board of what was called the "Nantucket Golf Club." Chase, one of the key founders of the project, summed up the excitement in a 1925 publication:
"Nine links have been laid out in the vicinity of the waterworks and there every Saturday afternoon will be found the gayest company in Nantucket. The new Club has about one hundred members, all of whom want to play, so that when the official games come on Saturday it is necessary to begin early in the morning and keep it up all day."
A grounds crew of sheep and goats kept the fairways of the little course in playable condition. During that inaugural year, Pauline Mackay, who later went on to the United States Women's Championships, teed off on the course. On the very ground where tents had been erected for the first meeting in 1897, a full-fledged clubhouse was constructed just two years later, with a formal fete on July 15,1899.
In succeeding years, golf enjoyed great popularity in recreational circles and, not surprisingly, the Nantucket club soon expanded to eighteen holes. Many years later, in 1949, the Nantucket Golf Club became the Tupancy Links when Sankaty Head professional golfer Oswald "Tup" Tupancy purchased the land. With only a fraction of the Nantucket Golf Club's original acreage, Tup's course was a modest nine-holer open to the public for a mere four years when he decided to suspend play on the course. In 1976, the land that once comprised Nantucket's original course was donated by Tup and his wife, Sallie Gail Harris Tupancy to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation (NCF).
Situated off Cliff Road near the Wannacomet water tower, Tup's bequest to the people of Nantucket is currently open year round to all island visitors. What remains of Nantucket's original course, now in the hands of the NCF, is a popular spot among residents and visitors for ambling along the shoreline cliffs.
The sport of golf was in its American infancy in the late nineteenth century, but by the dawn of the new century it was increasing in popularity among the wealthy. The sport, and its attendant social clubs, underwent a dynamic surge in popularity in the late 1890s. The birth of another island club immediately following that of the Nantucket Golf Club portrays the sport's burgeoning popularity.
The island's second golf club was started in 1898, not yet a full year after the first success. Organization of the east-coast venture centered around John C. Grout and Charles Rich. On grounds near Sankaty Bluff, Grout, who assumed the responsibility of the club's first presidency, garnered the rolling landscape north of Siasconset village. Greens fees for the new course were $1 for honorary members and $2 for regulars.
When the 1899 season came to a close and winter set in, Grout, in rather prophetic fashion, expressed a desire to name his club "the Sankaty Golf Club of the Siasconset Moors, with a gilt lighthouse . . . for the members' insignia." Despite Grout's vision of a "real country club," the course soon faded only to be refashioned in the early 1920s.
Considered today to be the oldest privately owned golf course in the United States open to the public, the Siasconset Golf Club was the third course to be built on Nantucket. Situated on Levi S. Coffin's land just west of 'Sconset village, the course, laid out in June 1899, was a nine-holer that closely resembled the links of Scotland. For a brief period during the early days of its ninety-nine-year history, Siasconset Golf Club was an eighteen-hole course. The economic constraints of prewar America in the late 1930s, however, forced Coffin to revert back to nine holes.
While John Grout's dream of a Sankaty Golf Club dissolved along with his course in the first decade of the new century, it was resurrected by David Gray of Detroit in 1921. A multimillionaire and former partner of Henry Ford, Gray personally donated 280 acres and a clubhouse for the fledgling club.
"I have traveled a great deal, and I have seen nothing more beautiful, more restful, than this wonder country here at 'Sconset,' said Gray to William De Lue of the Boston Globe Magazine in June 1923. It was the simplicity of 'Sconset and the unassuming wealth of Nantucket's easterly villagers that captivated Gray and motivated his philanthropy.
"Why, down here you go along and come to a little piano-box of a cottage and see a man out front dressed in an old golf suit, and perhaps he is the president of the Southern Pacific; but you'd never know it to look at him."
It was those very gentlemen of which Gray spoke that were among the one hundred charter members to pay $47,000 in total dues in the fall of 1922. Two years and a total of $96,000 later, architect Emerson Armstrong's achievement of landscape, with wooden clubhouse on Mayflower Hill designed by F. P. Hill, was complete. Characterized by rolling fairways, crater-like and sloped greens, the Sankaty Head course winds through the topography like a snake. Its close proximity to the water often leaves players at the mercy of inshore winds, an experience that can transform a pleasurable outing into a frustrating affair.
Just a year ago, the private course, whose hallmark is the candy-cane lighthouse that inspired its name, celebrated its seventy-fifth season. While pins on the course greens are often moved to keep it challenging and interesting, Sankaty itself has remained virtually unchanged since its beginnings. As a result, the course's popularity and reputation as one of the New England's finest courses has endured.
A course continuously revered by Nantucket's year-round population, Miacomet Golf Club owes its existence to Michigan native Ralph P. Marble. After purchasing a 400-acre dairy farm in 1956, Marble thought he could make a living on the island's southern shore with cows. Four years after he began his venture, Marble set his sights on a pastime more challenging than farming, one involving a ball of dimpled, cased rubber and small holes with flagsticks.
"Why did I build the golf course? Well, the dairy market went to hell, so I sold my herd of cows and started to build in 1960," said Marble to Yankee Golfer magazine in May 1974.
Officially opened in 1963, Miacomet was a year-round course for islanders and visitors. A local group known as the Wesco Golf Organization, a tribe of local golf devotees loyal to Tupancy Links until its closing, switched its allegiance to Miacomet.
The course designed to serve the community was in turn served by its community. In the early 1970s Miacomet's clubhouse was rebuilt without spending a cent. A 40-by-50-foot building was erected with donated lumber and free labor to replace the original, which had been destroyed by fire.
"We're proud of what we accomplished and that's perhaps why Miacomet means so much to all of us here on the island," said past president Sidney Small to Yankee Golfer magazine. It is therefore unsurprising that the nine-hole public course, with its vast local membership, is regularly involved in supporting the local community. In the middle of the last decade the course, excluding the acre surrounding the clubhouse, was purchased by the Nantucket Land Bank.
Nantucket's most recent addition, the eighteen-hole, par seventy-two course that has risen from the heath-land off Milestone Road, may challenge Sankaty's seventy-five-year reign as Nantucket's most luxurious links. Wadsworth Golf Construction's three-year project was completed just in time for the 1998 season.
On land abutting Siasconset Golf Club, the Nantucket Golf Club was created on a 250-acre spread of rolling terrain that was part of Levi Coffin's former farm. A small group of island residents, perhaps motivated by Sankaty Head's lengthy waiting list for membership, felt they needed a course of their own. Employing course designer Rees Jones, son of eminent course designer Robert Trent Jones, and Gage Davis for the architectural design of the landscape, the founders envisioned a world-class private golfing experience tucked in amongst the island's moors.
Upon looking at the sunlit greens just off the Milestone Road, one can't help but think how vision and resources molded the island's landscape in 1997, just as it did a hundred years earlier in 1897.
J. C. Gamble is the former sports editor of the Nantucket Beacon. A graduate of Trinity College in Connecticut, he is an avid fisherman and is currently studying outdoor education in Washington State. Nantucket has been his home since the summer of 1996.