When a sandy strand extends out into the ocean, it doesn’t take long for golf to establish itself as a primer recreational and fiscal entity. Cape Cod’s proximity to the Atlantic ocean extends its golfing season on both shoulders of summer. As a result, a great number of diverse golf courses are able to make a financial go of it. If you’ve never been, you have no reason to avoid golf on the Cape any longer.
Of 43 or so golf courses and clubs on the extensive promontory, 31 are public-access venues boasting varied topography, turf base and fairway trace. Stretching from Falmouth in the Southwest corner of the peninsula to Truro at the point of the hook, the golf along Cape Cod should be recognized and respected at a different level of awareness. That it isn’t might be a testament to the ability of Codders to guard a secret or of the variety of parallel activities available from town to town.
For a region known for antiques, seafood, vineyards, cranberries, beaches and wooden-bat baseball, it’s not a stretch for golf to take a back seat to the extraordinary offerings found along the cape, from the mainland out to Provincetown. Fair enough, the Cape doesn’t need to promote itself as Myrtle Beach North or Monterey East. If you find yourself in Woods Hole, Barnstable or Chatham and your clubs happen to be in your trunk, you’ll discover how profound the golf is along the 65-mile stretch of Route 6, from the Sagamore bridge to Provincetown.
My time on Cape Cod was brief, for reasons best left to the denouement of a sad romance novel. I arrived on a Friday morning and left at a Tuesday sunrise. Don’t ask why I spent Thursday night at a truck stop instead of a motel; instead, take a page from my as-yet unpublished golf junket strategy book on pre-pinches and pull-aways. A pre-pinch is a quick nine or 18 that you play the evening before the trip officially begins. I did that at Whitinsville (pronounced like the color) golf club in Massachusetts, a classic nine-hole layout kinda sorta Southwest of Boston. A pull-away is a round of golf you play on your way out of town, serving as a bridge between vacation and reality. I was able to play Pinehills’ Jones course (and photograph the Nicklaus as well) on my way out of town on Tuesday.
Oh, right, the Cape of Cod. There are two types of driving that you undertake when moving east-to-west or west-to-east on the great sandy stretch of Massachusetts. If you find yourself kicking back, enjoying the sun and breeze, the smell of the sea and the taste of lobster, you drive along unmarked paths, through roundabouts and past shanties, cottages and shacks. And it takes a while, but remember, you’re kicking back. If you absolutely and positively need to get somewhere promptly, you take Route 6, also known as the Mid-Cape Highway. It’s four lanes at times and moves well. It doesn’t have much of a shoulder, but you’ll get up to speed and stay there most days. I highly recommend it for golf junkets and you can’t miss it if you enter the Cape at the Sagamore bridge.
Rather than move west to east, as a typical Cape Cod rendezvous works, it just might be easier to reverse direction and start at the hook. In truth, there is no golf in Provincetown, but there are amazing beaches on the outskirts and a funky, hilly, trendy place filled with really good-looking people to pass a day. About 10 miles outside of Provincetown is a can’t-miss golfing opportunity, one of the few, true links golf courses in North America.
For those not in the know, a links golf course is found on land that “links” the sea with the farm land. It was land where animals grazed, too sandy to be of any worth to crop growers. As a result, it boasts perfect drainage for golf, along with firm fairways and a variety of native grasses. Highland Links in North Truro is a nine-hole haven, in the shadow of the Truro Lighthouse. It begins like a Scottish course might, across a bluff to the first green, then down a descent into a valley far below to N0. 2. The third scales the cliff and your breath scarcely returns until you find yourself halfway up No. 4. Highland Links play thus for six holes, then suddenly turns into an Irish glen, offering a different experience the last third of the way. Your only regret is that, looking left or right, a complimentary nine holes on adjacent property are easily imagined.
My next stop along the way was the Captain’s Golf Course, a 36-hole property officially in the town of Brewster, but situated as close to Chatham as one could imagine. I played the Port course early in the trip and anticipated a return to play the Starboard. Unfortunately for me, a foul, rain-soaked wind blew in as my tee time approached, and I was forced to retreat to a local shack where I gorged myself on delicious lobster tails. No matter, for my trip around the Port course gave me a sense of the property. The Captain’s is a memorable layout for vacationing and resident golfers alike. Its conditioning is far above average and the variety of holes is diverse enough to satisfy any architecture buff. The staff was exceedingly accommodating and the pace of play, laudable.
A bit more to the west brought me to the Cranberry Valley golf course, designed by the same architect (Geoffrey Cornish) who laid out the Captain’s. Cornish, who recently passed, was known for his ability to design playable courses that allowed beginners to get around, yet challenged the expert to a certain degree. The Cranberry Valley layout fits that model to a tee. It’s rare that you get bitten with a double bogey or worse, but to make par or better, you have to accurately place each shot in the proper space, in order to access the next optimal space. My best round, score-wise, took place at Cranberry Valley. I picked up a hitchhiking golfer on the No. 18 tee and gave her a ride in. She kept my mind on conversation and off the golf, at which point I promptly hit driver, 5 iron, wedge to 4 feet for a closing birdie. She would have followed me to the next course, I suspect, but you know, the wife and all…
Farther inland, in the town of Yarmouth, lies the Bass River golf course. As far as hidden gems go, lasses and lads, this is one to remember. Donald Ross, the transplanted Scotsman, laid down the fairway corridors and green sites over this magnificent tract of land. Adjacent to an inlet and a bog, the Bass River course arcs beyond crevasses and barrancas, over salt ponds and across rumpled fairways. Putting greens are benched into hillsides and fairways at times are hidden from the tee. It was my good fortune to run into a collegiate hero, Jim Hallet. Hallet was a PGA Tour player whose career was derailed by injury. A native to the area, he is back as a pro and instructor at Bass River. I played 14-or-so holes with his nephew, a good stick and conversationalist. When the lad took off No. 15’s tee, I surmised that the text he received was from a younger and cuter playing companion. Ahh, sweet birdie of youth.
I haven’t mentioned it, but Cape Cod is home to a number of first-class private clubs. They are exceedingly restrictive in their access, but the proper letter from your club professional just might forge the key that turns the lock. It’s worth an effort, as they are the stuff of memories, both in conditioning and strategic layout. For me, I’d seen enough over my four days (plus pincher plus pull-away) to know that I’ll find some excuse to return for more golf. After all that, I’ve still got to get to the Vineyard and Nantucket, where they say that more links golf awaits.