Late one sunny afternoon last June, I pulled into the Mountain View Country Club in Greensboro, Vermont, just as the Tuesday evening men's league was getting started. Mountain View, a semiprivate nine-hole course built in 1898, was once what is known locally as a cow-pasture course. Its holes were laid out, ingeniously and with no earth-moving equipment, on cleared grazing land overlooking idyllic Caspian Lake. Maples and oaks have since grown in around the holes, and the greens are now maintained to high modern standards, but the quirky, handmade nature of Mountain View still shines through. The fairways, for instance, ripple and hump the same way they did a century ago. And the people around Greensboro love their little course all the more for it.
Pat Hussey, who manages the hardware store in nearby St. Johnsbury, insisted I join his team in the competition, and I happily plunked down my sixteen-dollar greens fee. "You'll love it," he promised. And I did.
The thing about playing off-the-radar courses like Mountain View in the part of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom—basically the northeast quadrant of the state, just below Canada—is that you check your usual expectations in the parking lot and engage in golf the way I like to imagine that kids do: Here's the tee box, there's the flagstick; let's see who can get the ball in the hole in the fewest strokes.
The routing at Mountain View starts uphill then loses all that ground in one fell 150-foot swoop on the par-three third. After some big sweeping holes along the flats, the course climbs again on the short par-four eighth. "The good news is your ball's in the middle of the fairway," Hussey informed me after my drive on that hole. "The bad news is you've got no shot at the green." A tall pine juts up from the precise center of this fairway, and the golfer's job is to figure out some way around it.
Afterward, at the men's league cookout in the maintenance shed, I learned that William Rehnquist, former chief justice of the United States, was a longtime summer resident in the area and had been a member at Mountain View until his death in 2005. "He liked it because we treated him just like anybody else up here," the head of the greens committee told me.
I also heard some grumbling about the new clubhouse, a modest cedar structure that nevertheless cost $500,000, over half of which had been donated by members. Not everybody preferred the new place over the tumbledown starter's shack that had been the club's heart and soul since the 1950s. Fancification runs against the grain in the Northeast Kingdom, which is precisely why a golf trip to the region can be so refreshing. You won't find any cart-mounted GPS yardage systems here, nor anything resembling a golf concierge. But you will find friendly people who love the game—and possibly the opportunity to rediscover why you love the game so much yourself.
The best and most sophisticated course in the Northeast Kingdom is the semiprivate St. Johnsbury Country Club. The original nine, with rash elevation changes and several blind tee shots, was designed in 1923 by Willie Park Jr., who also built Sunningdale in England. About fifteen years ago the club engaged Geoffrey Cornish to oversee the addition of a second nine encircling the first, but it wasn't as if the members just raised the money and wrote a check—first, because the St. Johnsbury area is not rolling in cash, and second, because Vermonters are inveterate do-it-yourselfers. In the end, the new nine cost only $700,000, with the vast majority of that sum coming from voluntary debentures purchased by members. Cornish, the patriarch of New England golf architects, lives in western Massachusetts and accepted no fee. Several club members donated manpower and equipment to help with construction; one, an architect, did most of the drawing for free; and everyone chipped in with advice.