Wedged between Connecticut and Massachusetts and deeply indented by Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island barely seems large enough to contain one of Tiger Woods’s drives. It’s so small, in fact, that it doesn’t even register in most golfers’ minds. Rhode Islanders, however, know what they have. “We may not be very big,” says PGA Tour veteran Billy Andrade, who grew up in Bristol, an old shipbuilding town between Newport and Providence, “but, boy, do we have some wonderful, wonderful golf courses.”
Such as the one Andrade honed his game on: Rhode Island Country Club in nearby Barrington, the oldest of twelve Donald Ross designs in the Ocean State. The Andrades joined the club the summer Billy turned sixteen. The family of Brad Faxon, a Barrington native who’s played on Tour since 1983, has been a fixture there even longer. Champions Tour player Dana Quigley grew up in the RICC caddie yard, and JoAnn Gunderson Carner won two of her five U.S. Amateur titles with the club as her home base.
There’s more. Glenna Collett Vare dominated women’s golf in the first half of the twentieth century while playing out of two other Ross clubs in the state, Metacomet Country Club in East Providence and Point Judith Country Club in Narragansett. Wannamoisett Country Club, a jigsaw puzzle that Ross managed to fit onto a parcel of land that’s tiny even by Rhode Island standards, has its own claim to fame. The club, which is located in Rumford, northeast of Providence, puts on one of golf’s premier rites of passage every June: the invitation-only Northeast Amateur. And Newport Country Club, officially founded in 1895, has a pedigree that stands alone.
As in the Hamptons on Long Island and other elite seasonal havens, Rhode Island’s finest courses originated as private clubs, and they remain so today. But by and large they aren’t nearly as exclusive as the Pine Valleys of the world. Indeed, a round or two at one of the state’s holiday clubs—those whose members frequent them primarily while on vacation—is for many houseguests a cherished summer ritual.
Rhode Island’s geography, beginning with its nearly four hundred miles of coastline, is ideal for golf. The terrain just off the ocean and the bay rolls with an easy grace, and the views—of both land and sea—are stirring. In the pre-air-conditioning era of the late nineteenth century, the state’s cool onshore breezes attracted patrician summer folk seeking to escape the heat and humidity of cities like New York, Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Golf soon followed. Theodore Havemeyer, a sultan of the nineteenth-century sugar trade and one of the nation’s wealthiest men, made sure of that.
With his mansion in Manhattan and his cottage in Newport, Havemeyer epitomized the Gilded Age embrace of sport. An accomplished yachtsman and polo player, he discovered golf during a sojourn in the south of France in the winter of 1889. He returned home with plenty of clubs, balls and enthusiasm—only to find no place to employ them. So he built a course of his own in Newport.
It was a rudimentary nine holes on a patch of farmland at Brenton Point, overlooking the Atlantic. Then in 1893 Havemeyer engaged a professional, a transplanted Scotsman named Willie Davis, to create nine stouter holes on the same land. One golf season hence, Havemeyer and friends—think Vanderbilts, Astors and Belmonts—abandoned that course altogether for greener pastures across the road. Davis designed a new nine-hole course over the gentle hills and hollows, and Newport Country Club was born. Its now iconic Beaux-Arts clubhouse opened in 1895, and that fall the club held the inaugural U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open under the auspices of the fledgling United States Golf Association, of which Newport was one of five founding clubs.
By the turn of the century, several more holiday clubs had opened, including Point Judith, the Misquamicut Club in Watch Hill and Sakonnet Golf Club in Little Compton. At the same time, golf began to reach beyond the summer colonists to the state’s year-round residents, leading to the formation of Wannamoisett, Metacomet and other clubs in the Providence area.
That Rhode Island golf has such an enduring appeal is largely a testament to Ross. “Around this area,” says Faxon, “Donald Ross is a household name, at least in golfers’ houses.” Over a decade and a half, beginning with his work at Rhode Island Country Club in 1911, Ross would leave a remarkable set of fingerprints across the state, from its finest private clubs to one of its top-ranked public courses, Triggs Memorial in Providence. With his strategic design sense and beguiling greens, Ross changed the face of golf in Rhode Island—and Rhode Island left its mark on him. His second marriage, in 1924, turned him into a part-time state resident. Until his death in 1948, Ross and his wife, Florence, summered in Little Compton—just up the road from Sakonnet, a course he reconceived—at her family farm on Rhode Island Sound. One of its shingled cottages became his seasonal office. And just as he kept refining Pinehurst No. 2 every winter, he could never stop tinkering with his work at Sakonnet.