The result is a splendid and eccentric eighteen. Cornish's home nine builds toward a remarkable run of finishing holes that includes two diabolical downhill par threes and the perfectly proportioned uphill par-four fourteenth that sweeps around a rock outcropping. The eighteenth requires precision off the tee followed by a short, unavoidably risky approach to an elevated green beneath the clubhouse veranda. Conditioning, in season, is uniformly excellent.
St. Johnsbury has an active membership, but visitors are made to feel welcome at any time, and greens fees, as everywhere in the Kingdom, are modest. I played with Tim Thompson, a Yale grad and self-described country doctor who with proprietary affection regaled me with the design history of every hole as well as his suggestions for future tweaks. He also insisted that I couldn't leave St. Johnsbury without playing two other nine-hole courses, each entirely handmade.
The first of these is five miles east of town on a two-lane highway that winds through low hills with many cleared pastures. If you're like me, the sight of so much rolling greensward on a summer day fills you with golf lust and idle thoughts of hitting an eight-iron approach from that little swale to a green nestled in the saddle of the next rise—an urge satisfied at Kirby Country Club, created by Marc Poulin from eighty-five acres of family pasture land. Poulin designed and built the nine-holer seven years ago with only a bit of professional help—primarily with the greens—from the superintendent at St. Johnsbury.
"I had to do a little bit of leveling with a bulldozer, but not too much, really," he told me in the one-room clubhouse. Poulin, 78, a retired logger, placed the greens and tee boxes exactly where any self-respecting course designer from 1900 would have: on the high spots of the landscape to permit drainage. Each green required five or six truckloads of sand plus a layer of topsoil and some bent-grass seed. Creating fairways was just a matter of mowing and fertilization. Presto—a golf course.
"It wasn't too good at first," Poulin admitted, standing in the middle of the clubhouse, legs apart, wearing work boots, suspender jeans and a de rigueur red plaid Vermont shirt. "But we've kept working at it, and now people seem to like it."
On long summer evenings the course is mobbed, as locals like to squeeze in nine or eighteen holes after work. Weekends are so busy you'd be well advised to book a tee time in advance. But any other time you can walk on at Kirby, as I did, and enjoy a round that might make you want to don knickers and tee up a gutta-percha ball. A few of the holes are gems, especially the 355-yard eighth, with its pulpit green. It doesn't take long to forget about the usual accoutrements of golf courses, like distance markers and manicured lies, and to start engaging Kirby on its own fun terms. The greens, though not quick, putt surprisingly true. Last year Poulin added a second set of tees, which adds variety to a second go-round.
From Kirby, it's a thirty-minute drive to the second handmade course Thompson recommended, but along the way I happened upon yet another one in a pasture behind the Berry Tire Company in the hamlet of East Lyndon. When I stopped to inquire, Everett Berry explained that his son-in-law, a renowned Vermont skier who died in an auto accident five years ago, built this simple par-three course nine years ago as a place for his family and invited friends to practice and play. The longest hole is 145 yards, and Berry still mows the bent-grass greens every three days with the professional greens-mowing machine the family bought used—when it's working. "We've had a lot of fun on that course over the years," Berry said.
My destination, as it turned out, was another backyard course—perhaps the ultimate such course—called Grandad's Invitational, outside a tiny crossroads called Newark. To play it you place five dollars in a mailbox near the front porch of Ralph Chase's farmhouse and help yourself to a scorecard.