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Summer in Rhode Island

Rob Howard Summer in Rhode Island

Photo: Rob Howard

By modern standards, Rhode Island’s old-line clubs are anything but opulent, their prestige inherent in their pedigree and aura, not in external flourishes. “You know,” says Andrade, “growing up I was totally clueless of how special courses like these were. I thought courses everywhere were like RICC, Newport, Wannamoisett and Metacomet. I didn’t realize how beautiful my state was until I left to go to college.” Andrade, who now lives for most of the year outside Atlanta, returns every summer, just like the straw-hatted vacationers who established the game here.

Gilded Age Playground

Until the interior of Whitney Warren’s dormered clubhouse at Newport Country Club was gutted and refurbished in anticipation of the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open, one of the best sea views in town could be had while standing at an old urinal in the men’s locker room. The view remains, but the locker room is now antiseptically contemporary. Traditionalists need not shudder, though. If the clubhouse plumbing is finally up to twenty-first-century code, there are still no irrigation lines beneath the fairways, making them play hard and fast come summer. And through a restoration begun in the late nineties by Ron Forse, the layout regained old character that had been eroded by time and encroaching tree lines (including a set of evergreens—now mercifully gone—planted between the first and ninth fairways in 1929 to deter fancy folk from plowing their personal aircraft into unsuspecting foursomes).

But at Newport, the past constantly finds ways to seep into the present. The Redan par-three fourteenth behind the clubhouse is essentially the same as it was when C. B. Macdonald began his march to victory in the 1895 U.S. Amateur (back then it was the first hole). Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy played here, too, though JFK’s entrée was through marriage as well as office: Jackie grew up at Hammersmith Farm behind the tenth green, and insiders know that the ideal line off the ninth tee is to aim for her childhood window.

Still, the club is no musty museum piece. Its seeds may have been sown by Gilded Age swells (some of whose scions still fill the rolls), but the club has branched out over the years. When membership flagged in the forties and again in the sixties, the old guard invited in some of the new. What carries on to this day is a sense of two separate memberships under one roof: Whereas the new gang tends to get out early in the morning, the old-money people typically play in the afternoon after lunch at Bailey’s Beach down Ocean Drive. New or old—and these are, of course, relative terms—once groups finish playing and perhaps have a drink, they soon depart; the club is not a hang-around-all-day kind of place. But that doesn’t mean it’s unsociable. Newport maintains a ritual diminished by neither time nor the construction of a new bar: the traditional beverage break between the thirteenth and fourteenth holes, the pair of par threes that flank the clubhouse. More than a few rounds have been known to end there.

280 Harrison Avenue, Newport. Architects: Willie Davis, 1894; Donald Ross, 1915; A. W. Tillinghast, 1923. Yardage: 6,831. Par: 70. Slope: 132.

Ross’s Summer Home

A quick flip through Where Stone Walls Meet the Sea, the 614-page centennial history of Sakonnet Golf Club, reveals the secret to the club’s success: The members are absolutely devoted to it. Time seems to turn back at the entrance. Situated at the southern tip of Little Compton, Sakonnet has retained its early twentieth-century charms, perhaps because of its remoteness from just about everywhere but this quiet seaside town. Locker room?Think shoe cubbies. Cart barn?Think trolley shed. The ambience of the club, whose members are from across New England and the Mid-Atlantic, is relaxed, unmanicured and breezy. And then there’s Donald Ross himself: The architect lived so close by that not only did he keep tweaking the course, he also played it as often as he could.

To be sure, Sakonnet was well established before Ross arrived in 1922 and expanded the existing nine holes into eighteen. He modernized what he found and added many new features, but he wisely left intact several of the defining stone walls that border fairways on the front side. The routing begins with a two-hole journey to the banks of the Sakonnet River—with fabulous views across the water to Newport—and then reverses direction. One more hole plays back to the river, at which point the course had made a permanent turn inland. But in 2004, on recently acquired land, architect Gil Hanse conceived a new ninth hole, a Ross-like par three with a tortoise-shell green, that leads golfers to the water’s edge once more. (Hanse also lengthened the course by more than four hundred yards to a sporty 6,300-plus.) The crescendo comes at the drivable, dogleg-right par-four seventeenth, with its remarkable vista from the elevated tee, reached by a stone staircase.

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