Appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of LINKS.
OVER THE PAST FOUR DECADES, I have been fortunante to punch many of the toughest tickets in American golf–Augusta, Cypress Point, Seminole, Pine Valley. I am hardly alone in carving those particular notches into my golfing bedpost. But throw in a visit to a certain golfing destination in Maryland and the Venn diagram of those who have played all five venues suddenly get much less crowded.
In the summer of 1979, when I was 26, President Jimmy Carter appointed my father, Hedley Donovan, a senior advisor. Along with the appointment came an invitation to spend a weekend at Camp David. For me, the prospect of spending a weekend with the President and the First Lady was exciting, but what truly got my juices flowing was the opportunity to play what Sports Illustrated called “the world’s most exclusive golf course” in a Herbert Warren Wind article in 1955. Truth be told, that headline was not terribly accurate. Camp David does not really have a golf course; it has a single green, designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. at the request of President Eisenhower, with several tees.
No matter. I was determined to play “the course” at Camp David (just as I was determined to bowl a couple of games on the lanes located in the basement of Hickory Lodge). I didn’t bring my clubs or my shoes, but I did pack a few balls. A Secret Service agent told me where I could find some wedges and 9-irons and directed me to the first tee. (Jones’s original layout had four tees; by 1979, there were three.) Thirty-three years later, most of the details of my “round” at Camp David escape me. I remember that I wore sneakers. I remember that the tee boxes were small and a bit scruffy, and that the green was a little burned out, suffering from the August heat. The holes were 120–140 yards long. I believe I had one greenie and two pars, but it might have been two greenies and one par. And I remember that it was so hot that I was delighted to join my father, my sister, and President and Mrs. Carter in the Aspen Lodge pool afterward.
According to the National Golf Foundation, there are 15,751 golf facilities in the United States. Of these, 4,174 are private. Of these, only a handful would qualify as extremely private. So private that the list of members consists of just one name.
For the super-rich, the ultimate backyard accessory is a golf course. Just as backyards come in all shapes and sizes, so do personal golf courses. Some were designed by renowned architects, such as Dee’s Place (laid out by Ken Dye) in Mendham, N.J., and some were do-it-yourselfers, such as Porcupine Creek in Rancho Mirage, Calif., which was designed by land developer and 15-handicapper Tim Blixseth, who reportedly spent $40 million to convert his front yard into a full-fledged 18-hole, 6,700-yard, par 72 layout. To get a feel for both approaches, I wangled myself a couple of invitations.
Surrounded by nothing but corn, cows, and farmland, Honey Pond Golf Course appears suddenly to the west of Route 133 in Vermont—a fleeting glimpse of fairways, greens, and bunkers set down incongruously in a bucolic Norman Rockwell landscape.
Honey Pond’s owner is Gary Kanew, who has spent most of the past 40 years making movie trailers. His course, as its entertaining website will tell you, was built as “a labor of love” in 1998, prompted by a wintertime visit from Kanew’s wife’s uncle, an avid golfer named Dan Gaydos. Gaydos noticed that part of Kanew’s 600-acre parcel of land might be able to accommodate a couple of golf holes. “I wasn’t much of a golfer at the time, but I was intrigued,” says Kanew.
The initial sketch called for two greens and 10 tee boxes. The next spring he got down to work. “Did you know that Vermont has a lot of rocks?” Kanew asks me. “Billions of rocks.” Since then, Kanew, who has no training in turfscience, has encountered all the problems that plague golf courses everywhere—weeds, fungus, drought, Hurricane Irene, you name it. “If I had known what I was getting into,” says Kanew, “I never would have done it.”
Honey Pond covers about 25 acres. It now has three greens, 18 bunkers, and 24 tees, all cared for by a staff of two—Kanew and superintendent Rich Miller, who says he works “6 to 10 days a week.” The course hosts three charity events each summer and an invitation-only tournament for 20 of Kanew’s friends. “I try not to think about how much money I’ve put into Honey Pond,” says Kanew. “I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.” He pauses, shrugs. “Some people have yachts,” he says. “Well, this is my yacht.”
Kanew’s “yacht” is charming and whimsical. There is an elevated tee known as the Sky Box, a bunker called Joan’s Beach (get it, New Yorkers?), and a centrally located flowerbed named Gary’s Garden of Evil. The Diabolical West green—adjectival usage encouraged—is presided over by a malevolent character named Bob the Bear, who supposedly is responsible for the devilish pin placements. In the middle of the course stands the Caddyshack, even though there are no caddies. Why the name? Kanew made the trailer for Caddyshack.
Yes, this is a golf course that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but—make no mistake about it—this is a serious golf course. A modest 5,000 yards, it plays to a par of 71. It has an official USGA rating—65.0 and 120 slope—but those numbers are misleadingly low. Almost every tee shot has to go over something—a pond, a tree, a creek—and landing areas are tight. Greens are small, too, putting a premium on one’s short game. Water comes into play on almost every hole. The course record is 73.
Kanew, whose index is 12.6, steps up to the first tee and launches a 250-yard drive right down the middle. He pitches onto the South green and drains a 35-footer for a birdie. I settle for what I hope is a routine par. After putting out, we place the pin in the next cup, moving clockwise. (Each green has three cups; you putt to each cup twice.) We proceed to the 2nd hole, which is played from tee number 4; the 3rd hole is played from tee number 11. If this sounds confusing, it is—even for Kanew, who has to study the scorecard a couple of times to see where to go next. “I reconfigured a few holes recently,” he says by way of explanation.
Strange things happen during our round. I hit my second shot into a hazard on the par-five 8th, then jar a 100-yard sand wedge for a birdie. A rooster crows even though it is after noon. We negotiate the Diabolical West green six times with nothing worse than a three-putt. “Unprecedented!” claims Kanew. On the 16th hole, I notice that Kanew is one under par on the back nine.
“What’s your best score ever here?” I ask casually.
“I sort of remember an 83,” says Kanew.
Kanew taps in for par on the final green and I add up our scores on the way back to the clubhouse, aka his house. Eighty-six for me—“That’s really good for someone who has never seen the course before,” says Kanew—and, for the proprietor, a sparkling 77. His lowest score ever. Anywhere.
Come October, Kanew heads to Kiawah Island for eight months. There, he breathes a sigh of relief and plays on manicured courses maintained by someone else. Even on Kiawah, though, he is dreaming about what will happen next at his own private Idaho. His latest plan is to add a tee in an adjacent cornfield and cut a narrow chute among the cornstalks to create a 584-yard par five. Kanew smiles, picturing his very own field of dreams. Watch for the trailer, coming soon to a theater near you.
I hope you don’t mind dogs,” says Cheryl Krongard, the owner of Three Ponds Farm in Bridgehampton, N.Y, as I emerge from my car on a breezy afternoon in August. She then introduces me to Faust, a German shepherd, and Little Miss Sunshine, a Shiloh shepherd, who will be rounding out our foursome. The three of them will share a cart; I have my own.
We proceed directly to the first hole, a formidable 567-yard par five. To reach the fairway, the tee shot must carry 200 yards over a pond into a stiff breeze. “Yikes!” I say. Krongard laughs, telling me that Three Ponds architect Rees Jones calls this “the toughest first shot in golf.” I clear the pond—barely—and we’re off.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Three Ponds Farm is, as Jones himself describes it, “the real deal.” On 35 acres of land, he has fashioned a mini-masterpiece—a par 70, 18-hole layout that tops out at 6,307 yards, consisting of five fairways, four oversized greens (three of which have two pins, the fourth with three), and 10 sets of tees, ingeniously creating different angles of approach, different pars, and different strategies. Red, white, and blue pins match up with red, white, and blue markings on the scorecard to indicate which hole you are playing. It may sound confusing, but it isn’t.
The course is the brainchild of Krongard’s first husband, real estate mogul Ed Gordon. Gordon and Jones were sitting in the clubhouse of the Atlantic Golf Club in 1994, indulging in a shared passion—hot dogs and olives. Gordon floated the idea of Jones mapping out a few holes on his recently purchased 60-acre piece of property right across the street. Jones came over for a look and liked what he saw. “At that point,” says Krongard, “Ed and Rees were off to the races.”
According to Jones, the course was “not that expensive” to build. As for his own fee, “Let’s just say that Ed out-negotiated me,” he reports with a chuckle, “as he did everyone else.” Jones started work in the winter of 1995, and by the fall of 1996, Three Ponds was open for play.
Back on the course, Krongard shepherds me around graciously. Two-time women’s club champion at The Bridge, another private (but not Three Ponds private) club near the tip of Long Island, she carries a 12.1 index. She has an excellent, repeatable swing and a dependable short game.
“Is it always this windy?” I ask.
“Only in the afternoon,” responds Kron-gard. “You want the morning tee time.”
The course is immaculate—so immaculate that I apologize to superintendent Ryan Loudenslager for taking a divot. No wonder there are so few divots: Three Ponds averages less than one round per day. “Since Mr. Krongard [that’s Buzzy Krongard, Cheryl’s second husband, formerly of the CIA] is recovering from shoulder surgery,” says Loudenslager, “play has been cut in half this season.” As for next season, it’s hard to say how much play there will be, because the Krongards, whose primary residence is in Maryland, have put Three Ponds Farm on the market. Asking price? $60 million.
Krongard gets a favorable kick off the mound to the right of the 4th green. “Member’s bounce,” she says with a laugh. Approaching the next tee, she blithely drives through two signs that say “No carts.” Owner’s prerogative, I figure, and follow meekly. Somewhere on the front nine, Krongard loses a head cover. Like most golfers, she frets about it; unlike most golfers, however, she isn’t worried that it will end up in someone else’s cart and get lost in the bag room. Sure enough, we come across it a few holes later.
Krongard reels off four straight pars on the back nine, finishing with a 39. After we putt out on the 18th green, we repair to the two-story “pro shop” for a drink. Downstairs there are shirts, balls, umbrellas—all emblazoned with the Three Ponds logo. Upstairs, there is a clubby man cave, straight out of a Ralph Lauren catalogue, with comfy leather chairs, three slot machines (one that pays out in golf balls), and a couple of pinball machines. On the wall are childhood photos of “Ed’s friends”—among them Candice Bergen and Donald Trump.
As I lean back in one of those comfy chairs, Krongard tells me what it was like when a delegation from the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Golf Association came to rate the course. “Like most people who come here for the first time,” she says, “they didn’t know what to expect. I think they were impressed.” (The 71.2 rating and 132 slope would seem to back that up.) “They were very nice,” she adds, “but they sure did eat a lot.”
Mark Donovan is a New York-based writer, editor, and teacher of English.