A Golf Vacation in Cape Cod

When the Army Corps of Engineers gouged 20 million cubic yards of rock and earth from the Massachusetts towns of Bourne and Sandwich in the early 1930s, the great canal they cut became an accepted boundary between Cape Cod and the rest of the world. But lately I have stood on tee boxes at new courses like Waverly Oaks and the two Pinehills Golf Club layouts in Plymouth—just seven miles off-Cape—and quietly dissented. Better to judge by your senses than by the swath the Corps arbitrarily dug, I now say. Cape Cod begins when the last ‘burb is behind you and squat-but-fragrant pines begin to press against the guardrails of Route 3, the heavily traveled thoroughfare from Boston.

At that point in the ride south you have crossed onto land blessed with soils that are self-draining and wonderfully easy to fashion—that is, perfect golf terrain. As a further blessing to course builders, the ground in many spots comes pre-shaped by nature into green sites and tee ledges that an architect need only recognize, not invent.

The Pinehills phenomenon is something new to this part of the world, where enjoyment of golf has long been a hopscotch experience. As in, play here, stay there, build your vacation home somewhere else. But the 3,000-acre Pinehills development, once it debuts a planned mid-rise hotel (a Marriott conference center, expected to open in 2005 with 250 rooms and a 12,000-square-foot spa), will be able to bill itself as a complete golf destination. Its menu will range from daily public play to overnight lodging and meeting space to residential neighborhoods within the compound. And, soon enough, a private club. Space for two additional 18-hole courses can be seen on the Pinehills master plan, although the buzz is that a third course, strictly for member play, will get rolling in the next year or two and may complete the golf inventory. Meantime, Pinehills already touts itself enthusiastically as a double-barreled, daily-fee golf romp—play a Nicklaus in the morning, a Rees Jones in the afternoon—and as a real estate opportunity for golf-minded types seeking a prestigious address.

The brand-new Nicklaus course at Pinehills spreads out handsomely through oak and pine woodlands, sailing along natural ridges and hugging the deep, dry depressions known as kettles. There are more holes on this 6,640-yard (blue tees) course that place a premium on the second shot, but you’ll come upon some demanding driving holes, as well. On a moist, early-May day, a threesome I joined up with opted to play from the whites (6,129 yards) and still met a stiff challenge. Working its way through spacious corridors (trust me, there are Cape courses where too narrow a chute was cut for most holes), the Nicklaus layout at Pinehills reveals some stimulating tilt and ripple on its fairways. The slyly swerving par-4 fifth, with rough-lined bunkering at the turn and also greenside, plays tighter than it looks. Throughout this 18 there are aesthetic delights. Finishing out on No. 2 green in a raw breeze, we experienced group hypnosis as we stared at a hillside cloistering the green while its high fescue grass billowed madly but in an odd, repeating pattern.

The Jones Course is no less adventurous than the Nicklaus in the way it scales the ridges and sets up shots across the kettles. Many par-4s and par-5s on this elder of the two 18s feature raised fairways, which give the landing area a dramatic visual definition as you stand on the tee, but also paint a clear picture of the awkward, below-grade lie you’ll have if you drive your ball off-line. On both courses, you find sets of par-3s that play knob-to-bluff or over-the-kettle and offer not just visual satisfaction but a chance to make double-bogey quickly.

The only precedent for the Pinehills concept in this region is New Seabury, which looks back on a zigzag history but appeared reborn during a recent visit. This is a resort-real estate-country club development that opened during the Kennedy Administration (can’t write about the Cape and leave that name out, right?) and stunned the Cape’s leisure industry with its sheer scale and outsized ambitions. A few mission statements later, the 2,600-acre property just across Nantucket Sound from Martha’s Vineyard seems, at long last, to have come fully of age. New ownership (which includes the financier Carl Icahn) knocked down the existing clubhouse (“It was a temporary building that happened to last 40 years,” quips director of golf Scott Nickerson) and replaced it with a jaw-dropping, 42,000-square-foot colossus as swank as any golf clubhouse on the East Coast—private or public. Along with being a drop-dead place to hold your daughter’s wedding (New Seabury figures to do some 120 wedding receptions this year), this tan-shingled, hip-roofed clubhouse sends a message of stability and ample resources to fund the future. Somewhere in that future will be new housing phases and, according to management, a 150-room resort hotel. For now, there are charming clusters of modern rental accommodations and residential resales on a limited basis.

If you haven’t teed it up at New Seabury lately, expect to find a thoroughly renovated Green Course—now known as the Dunes—and a polished up Blue 18 now known as the Ocean Course. The latter’s sublime four-hole glide along the waterfront with thrilling views of Martha’s Vineyard are unchanged, and the overall specialness of this William Mitchell design endures. During a break from his renovation work on the Dunes Course, however, course designer Marvin Armstrong visited the Ocean and redid some landing areas to prevent wily regulars from cutting off doglegs and shortening their trips. Nos. 10 and 18 got the Armstrong treatment, as did the par-4 ninth.

Armstrong’s work on the Dunes improves that course to the point where non-member play at New Seabury can henceforth be routed to the sister course during the peak summer months. The New Hampshire-based architect lengthened this inland par-70 by several hundred yards, redid greens, added a fleet of new bunkers and built additional water hazards. One of these, a bulkheaded pond on the par-5 ninth, offers long hitters the chance for a heroic second shot, with clubhouse denizens looking on.

Back across the canal and down the road from Pinehills you’ll encounter one of several fine Brian Silva layouts that dot the area. Waverly Oaks, opened in 1998 (with 27 holes that include a par-33 nine), charges boldly up and down hills and highlands but spreads out generous landing areas that permit aggressive play off the tee. This is Silva, however, so don’t expect to hit without thinking, unless you thrive on long second shots from bunkers and rough. If you play a fade, there are at least two spots on the course where you can use that little leaker to great advantage—your approach on the long par-4 sixth, where balls drifting right of target catch a closely mown half-bowl and feed back toward the green, and the glorious 221-yard (that’s not even from the back tee), par-3 17th, where a softly cutting 3- or 4-wood will land left and short, then feed toward the cup in “reverse Redan” style.

Continuing on the Silva Tour, a shrewd Cape vacationer would parlay a one-night (or—by all means—longer) stay at the outstanding Wequassett Inn into golf rights at the otherwise private Cape Cod National Golf Club, on South Orleans Road in Brewster. This 6,900-yard layout finds the architect hewing to his theory that the great hole-design concepts have been discovered already; one need only try new executions of them. The Redan fifth at Cape Cod National and the Punchbowl sixth crib from the Seth Raynor songbook, but the overall flow and look of CCN is unforced and elegant. Green complexes—the 10th is particularly bold—and tee-shot landing areas are delightfully varied, creating a tingle of anticipation throughout the round. At No. 17, where the fairway heaves up like cresting waves, you’re almost glad for the tilting lie from which your approach shot must be played.

The aforementioned Wequassett Inn not only can book you on Cape Cod National, it’s a beauty of a resort. Well-designed and tastefully landscaped, it spreads along a secluded bluff that overlooks the region’s most inspiring body of water (besides the Atlantic and Cape Cod Bay). Guestrooms are spacious and quiet, with luxurious built-in details and subtle lighting. The property plan is such that you don’t get those first heartbreaking views of Pleasant Bay until you’ve stepped onto one of the Wequassett’s many winding footpaths and ventured several hundred yards on an easterly heading. Most guests don’t stop at water’s edge, but instead continue down a 200-foot wooden pier that terminates in a floating dock whence all sailing and windsurfing adventures begin. Cocktails with a Pleasant view are sipped every summer evening at Twenty-Eight Atlantic, a formal but friendly bar with a patio that commands long views across the water to that distant point where the bay, in 1987, finally breached along one point of its narrow duneland barrier and became connected to the Atlantic.

The pleasure you get from working that Cape Cod National-Wequassett Inn parlay helps offset the ache of exclusion from such recent members-only beauties as Nantucket Golf Club. This Rees Jones canvas is now five years old, but its Brontëesque blending of wild and refined looks continues to influence course-builders who ferry over to study its award-winning contours.

Of all large-scale vacation resorts on Cape Cod, Ocean Edge is the most prepossessing to an arriving visitor. Your first glimpse of it from Route 6A takes in a broad upsweep of lawn with a long stone manor house set back at the crest. It goes without saying that this wonderfully eclectic structure was built as a sea captain’s private home.

Ocean Edge is a time-management challenge. Its bayfront beach has a wonderful island-y feel that makes it hard to visit briefly. There is also a tournament-worthy tennis center, exciting golf, a new tavern with fairway-view dining and a refurbished golf clubhouse. One unique amenity is direct access to the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a 26-mile paved ribbon for bicycling clear to the National Seashore areas around the Cape’s elbow. The Ocean Edge golf experience is both wry and robust, unfolding over an ’80s-vintage Cornish and Silva layout done up British-style, with revetted pot bunkers and waving fescues that need just a Cape breeze—or a tourist’s rusty golf swing—to bring them confoundingly into play.

Beyond the confines of these high-profile golf venues there are beloved courses where golf itself is the thing. Selecting among them is often a matter of sentimental preference. In Brewster, the 36-hole Captains complex fills its twin tee sheets all summer with loyal patrons. Cut from a thickly wooded parcel, it features treelines as a playing hazard more so than many other of the younger courses—it’s reminiscent of Dennis Pines or even Hyannis Golf Club, where the biggest kettle on a Cape course strikes finishing-hole fear into players who aren’t ready to glimpse its yawning depths. Olde Barnstable Fairgrounds, now in its second decade, is another daily-fee with excellent shot variety and formidable greens. There are a dozen others, but Highland Links, a nine-hole course I have played at least 30 times, is the most dramatically set golf property on the entire Cape—among public courses, at least. There is a 280-degree ocean view from several spots on this linksy wonder, which seems to be in better shape every summer I return to it.

But somehow I never seem to get in all the rounds I envisioned during our annual July sojourn. Too many distractions, from gallery-haunting to whale- and people-watching in Provincetown, to pickup volleyball out on Cahoon Hollow Beach. Plans are crafted on the trip down, then a summer-on-the-Cape bliss undoes them. That’s where fall comes in—the Cape’s quietly superior season for golf. It’s upon us now—you should pull out your map and chart a course.