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Golf in Cape Cod

Consider the Golden Sprinkler Award, the coveted annual citation presented to the course with the best kept turf on Cape Cod. Last year, Dennis Pines Golf Course wallowed in the glory of the honor. An impeccably groomed and murderously tight layout cut from a forest of scrub pine and oak in the cedar- shingled hamlet of Dennis, the 1997 Sprinkler winner is a muni where hand-carts are a popular option, the fairways are as contrived as your grandmother's lawn and the greens fee is only forty dollars. After 2 p.m. in the fall and spring, and after 3 p.m. in the peak season, it's twenty-two dollars for as many holes as you can play.

Such is golf on the Cape: unpretentious, thrifty, picturesque, challenging, quaint, surprisingly abundant -- and, come September, even leisurely and uncrowded. Most people think this sandy, seventy-mile hook of a peninsula sprouting from the Massachusetts coast is nothing but saltbox charm and seafood. Plenty of that, for sure. But it's also loaded with golf. The Cape has about forty courses, as diverse as the ingredients in a hearty chowder. Some are historically interesting -- two of them date to the 1890s, another to 1900. There are even some wonderful par-three and executive tracks. Seventy-five percent of the courses welcome visitors, falling into the categories of resort, public and municipal, the latter being most prevalent. Forget the munis' lousy rep: On Cape Cod these courses reflect intense small-town pride and display all the meekness of a drill sergeant.

For the ultimate golfer's Cape escape this fall, you'll want to sample the best, and those are Dennis Pines Golf Course, Bayberry Hills Golf Course and Ballymeade Country Club. The next best thing to playing these layouts is driving to them. Many golf courses in this rustically romantic province are at the end of sweet, bucolic roads, with only a discreet, weathered sign pointing the way. En route to your tee times you'll invariably pass through a string of delectable villages, each dripping storybook New England atmosphere. How lovely that the golf here hasn't gone slick and broken the spell.

In fact, Dennis Pines is downright old-fashioned. Save for the summer's heavy traffic, nothing about the place screams "Boom Sport of the Nineties!" No fairway homes, no posh pro shop with mounted TV tuned to the Golf Channel. Designed in 1964 by Henry C. Mitchell, Dennis's fairways go with the rippling roll of the land, and the greens are studies in subtlety -- medium size, slightly bowl shaped and edged in back by grassy ridges that snare skulled wedges and muscled approaches. And there's not one modern-art bunker, only a few smears of sand that dutifully flank putting surfaces.

At first glance, Dennis looks, literally, like a walk in the park. But beware the bogeyman lurking in those woods. This is among the narrowest layouts on the Cape and one of the longest (7,029 yards from the back tees). The fairways thread through stern stands, demanding extreme precision from launch to target. Those who automatically grab the big gun on every drive are in for a wake-up call. There's virtually no rough, but great walls of trees present quite enough trouble. Not only are the fairways frightfully skinny, they're also rife with squirrelly dips and bends. And many of the tees are fronted by rises that block out whatever lies ahead.

Best bet: Aim dead center.

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