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Kittansett Club

By: Hal Phillips

Appeared in September/October 2006 LINKS

Rolling down Point Road, past Sippican Harbor and along a stately line of summer “cottages,” all in gray shingle weathered just so, an ancient course comes into view out the driver’s side window—initially a hole or two bounded by Cape pine, but then an open expanse punctuated by golden fescues, lines of bracken hedgerows and chocolate-drop mounds. From this introductory vantage, it’s easy to lump The Kittansett Club in with the dozens of quirky, wind-dependent, antique but ultimately docile tracks that dot the Northeast coastline.

But Kittansett is seldom what it appears to be at first glance.

The members certainly bleed the right color and the course itself, perched on Butler Point and surrounded on three sides by Buzzards Bay, is surely transformed by a stiff wind. But the layout is so much more: a steely, uncommon test on the calmest of days. Kittansett’s smallish, steeply pitched greens and overall strategic mettle are enough to test and humble in any sort of weather.

“I’m not sure people realize just how difficult this golf course really is,” says Steve Demmer, the head pro since 1994. “Not even the members, who are used to the carries, the obstacles and the speed of the greens.”

In 1996, Kittansett hosted U.S. Amateur qualifying. Over 36 holes on an 80-degree day with no wind and accessible hole locations, the low round in the 101-player field was 71.

Opened for play in 1923, Kittansett’s attributes surprise visitors. It’s a seaside course—the Aboriginal American name means near (sett) the sea (kittan)—but there isn’t a proper dune in sight. By all geographical rights, the course should be links-like, but trees line two-thirds of the holes and the soil isn’t sandy, so it seldom plays hard and fast.

The course feels natural but was in fact designed to within an inch of its life by Frederic Hood, who had consulted with Donald Ross. Working from some drawings provided by William Flynn, Hood built the course himself with local crews of similarly inexperienced folks. Hood never designed nor built another course.

Indeed, on a largely tree-lined course, it’s hard to imagine a seasoned architect would have created such a proliferation of fairway-impeding obstacles. The corridors are naturally ample, but hardy stands of white pine, oak, cedar and tupelo frame the inland holes, and 13 holes feature some sort of cross bunker or line of mounding perpendicular to play, creating an extremely stout test of driving—between the trees, over and around cross features, and amid a random collection of chocolate drops.

Here and there these Kisses (more like chocolate-covered cherries, really) sit, often without apparent purpose on the periphery, but other times quite strategically. Two that stand sentinel on either side of the somewhat lunar 16th fairway appear to frame the target but are actually 50 yards short of the green, messing with a player’s depth perception.

Despite the apparent difficulty, Hood’s design rarely calls for forced carries into the greens themselves. The 167-yard 3rd, across an ocean inlet to a green surrounded by beach sand, is the notable exception. More often the cross hazards come earlier in the hole. On the 424-yard 6th, for example, the last of three staggered lines of cross mounding jutting in from the left sits 220 yards from the back tee.

The massive cross bunker gaping in from the left on the 11th is perhaps the most brutish on the course. The eye-catching hazard sits well short of a flamboyant green cleaved by a deep swale—but all this is obscured by the bunker’s seven-foot lip. From the back tee, 241 yards away, the tiny, exposed portion of the putting surface appears to sit precariously (and inaccessibly) at the edge of the world, 15 feet above a bunker bounded by ball-sucking bogs.

Most seaside courses of this vintage started out treeless only to experience forestation in succeeding years. At Kittansett, the trees were here first and the thicket has been reduced over time, both by nature and by design. Out by the 7th tee, a signpost shows the high-water marks of the major hurricanes that have blown through over the years: 1938, 1944, 1954 (Carol), 1991 (Bob). More recently, concerted clearing efforts have rendered portions of the routing more links-like, especially those holes farthest out on Butler Point, which are more open and scenic today than when Hood finished his life’s work.

Some of that credit goes to Gil Hanse, who recommended some serious tree clearing when he refurbished the bunkers in 1995 (adding fescued eyelashes to each). The club has followed through by continuing to fell trees, opening up vistas on the point holes: 1, 2, 16, 17 and 18.

In an age in which clubs pay millions to return their courses to an original, classic ideal (real or imagined), Kittansett has charted a more honest, practical course, ever capitalizing on its superb routing, features and location to make the course incrementally better, more classic and sterner than ever.

Which isn’t to say that despite its quirks, Kittansett hasn’t been well regarded for a very long time. The club hosted the 1953 Walker Cup, won easily by the U.S., which had a very strong team consisting of, among others, Ken Venturi, Gene Littler, William Campbell, Charlie Coe and E. Harvie Ward.

More impressive was the list of spectators, which included Bobby Jones, Francis Ouimet and Glenna Collett Vare. Attending his first Walker Cup in 21 years, Jones already was ailing and confined to an “electric golfmobile.” Besieged for autographs, Jones accommodated everyone, turning aside compliments with praise for Vare. “Now there was a great player,” he would say.

Current Kittansett members have the good sense to know big tournaments and their attendant crowds would overwhelm their little slice of heaven. And so Kittansett remains a bit of a mystery, even to Bay State golfers. Tucked away in a sort of nether region between Cape Cod and the Rhode Island coast, it’s widely acknowledged as the second best course in Massachusetts (after The Country Club), though few have actually played it and none passes up a chance. Kittansett has hosted the state amateur four times; each time it set a record for the number of entries.

That should tell you something about Kittansett’s allure. The high scores tell you something else. The rest, to be believed, must be experienced first-hand.   

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