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Golf in Vermont

John Huet Drop five bucks in Ralph Chase's farmhouse mailbox and you can excellent nine-holer that opens with this intimidating 42-yard par three

Photo: John Huet

Chase is not actually a farmer, but his grandfather ran a dairy farm that he visited often as a boy. Not long after Chase took over the farm in 1981, his daughters gave him some specialized grass seed for Father's Day with which to build a practice green out back. By 1991 he had cultivated nine excellent greens and some fairways to go with them, and opened his little pleasure dome to anyone who could find it.

Thompson had warned me that the first hole, all of forty-two yards, is the most difficult opener in golf. "Ernie Els's knees would be shaking," he said, and rightly so, because the tiny green sits directly behind a large goldfish pond and directly in front of a thicket. Forty-two yards is not an easy distance. I hit two balls—one wet, one in the trees—before I found the putting surface. The next seven holes are easier and delightful, ranging from 76 to 213 yards, a couple featuring sand, but the pond again comes into play on the sixty-three-yard home hole. I advise playing it as a two-shotter.

Base camp for any visit to the northeast kingdom should be in or around St. Johnsbury. The town's two landmarks, both worth seeing, are the 1871 Athenaeum, which boasts of having the oldest unaltered art gallery in the United States, and the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, where cases of biological marvels and Indian artifacts seem not to have changed since Teddy Roosevelt's day.

But St. Johnsbury is slowly spiffing itself up. It has several excellent restaurants, a number of superior small inns and bed-and-breakfasts, and even a well-equipped spa. Postcard-pretty Peacham, southwest of St. Johnsbury, is one of Vermont's most scenic villages and a noted antique center, as is Craftsbury, forty-five minutes northwest. Farther north is Newport Country Club, a scenic semiprivate course with a handful of terrific holes and great views across a lake into Canada.

Closer to St. Johnsbury, however, is Orleans Country Club. The facility, open to the public (there seem to be only five completely private courses in all of Vermont), is probably the most popular spot in Orleans for three or four months of the year. The white clapboard clubhouse serves a fine lunch and dinner, and you won't stay a stranger there for long.

The course itself, though not as challenging as St. Johnsbury's, is easy to walk, fun to play and not without its highlights. The back nine, built in 1928 on the town's old carnival grounds, has a par three whose green is completely encircled by mounds with bunkers on the other side—a common feature of courses from that era but rarely maintained into modern times. The club has quite a few good players, including one native son now playing on the Nationwide Tour and another member whose twelve-year-old son has—yes, it must be contagious—designed and built his own backyard course west of town. It's called Duffy's Golf and you can play it, too, by dropping five dollars in the mailbox.

Vermonters by reputation are cussed, laconic folk who do things their own way. In my experience, when it comes to golf only the last of those characterizations applies. And in several ways, even though the terrain could hardly be more different, golf in the Northeast Kingdom reminded me of golf as it is played in out-of-the-way places in Scotland. The game flows up from the ground rather than being imposed on it by the received convention of what courses are supposed to be. People love golf for the most basic of reasons: being outdoors with friends, hitting a ball around with a stick. And they don't care a lick for making it fancy.

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