Thanks in large part to Donald Ross, who had a vacation home here, the smallest state in the nation has one of the finest collections of private clubs
Rob Howard Summer in Rhode Island
| Credit: Rob Howard

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.

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.

Brad Faxon so enjoyed the first and only round he played at Sakonnet years back—he shot a ten-under-par sixty—that he vows never to tee it up here again. He doesn’t want to jeopardize his stroke average.

79 Sakonnet Point Road, Little Compton. Architects: Donald Ross, 1922; Gil Hanse, 2004. Yardage: 6,337. Par: 70. Slope: 124.

A Family Club by the Bay

They have a saying at Rhode Island Country Club: “It’s a three-bridge day.” And on a perfect late-August afternoon, John Andrade, Billy’s father, is quick to point out what it means. The often fog-enshrouded spans that connect Aquidneck Island to the mainland—the Mount Hope, Claiborne Pell and Jamestown bridges—can all be seen clearly. It’s a saying that’s uttered on the last four holes, a linksy stretch that lies across the road from the rest of the course, near the picturesque shores of Narragansett Bay. On three-bridge days, there is no lovelier view on any Rhode Island course than the one that greets you on a stroll up the short seventeenth, a 145-yard par three that has a two-tiered green protected by a necklace of sand bunkers. (Although it’s the first par-three green that Brad Faxon ever hit as a boy, a marker at the tee commemorates the consecutive aces scored there by Lee Janzen and Scott McCarron in 1999 at the CVS Charity Classic, an annual event hosted by Faxon and Billy Andrade.)

Ross designed the course as a battle of wits, beginning with a remarkable quirk at the first hole: a rare inverted bunker, or sand mound, just left of the fairway. The course teases a player with its benign appearance, no more so than at the sixth, the finest of several short par fours. Measuring just 311 yards from the tips, the hole demands a drive over an inlet, and its tiny, heavily fortified green is sharply angled to the fairway, making it all too easy to miss. “You can’t steal birdies anywhere,” says Dana Quigley of the entire course.

But Rhode Island Country Club is far more than just a golf course. It’s a lively neighborhood club with a white wooden clubhouse and a full menu of activities for every member of the family—including squash, tennis and paddle tennis, swimming, and Ping-Pong—in a gorgeous setting by the bay. “All in all, the location’s not too bad,” says Faxon in typical New England understatement.

150 Nayatt Road, Barrington. Architect: Donald Ross, 1911. Yardage: 6,734. Par: 71. Slope: 127.

The Splendid Greensward

If the entry drive at Point Judith Country Club seems especially lengthy, it should: The road parallels the longest finishing hole in the state, an almost six-hundred-yard par five with cross bunkers placed right where mere mortals would want to land their layup shots. It’s a classic example of how Donald Ross liked to lure golfers out of their comfort zones.

Yet Ross was just an apprentice in Scotland in 1894 when Willie Davis sailed over from Newport to give Point Judith’s twenty-five founding families—summer gentry mainly from Philadelphia—a place to play the new ball-and-stick game. They established the club on a fine piece of open farmland near but not right on the water, alongside a shingled homestead ideal for conversion into a clubhouse.

By the time Ross arrived in 1927, Point Judith was flourishing. Tennis had been introduced twelve years earlier on grass courts laid with sod shipped from England. The addition of a ballroom turned clubhouse dances into regular events. To bring the golf course up to speed, the club hired Ross to remodel the existing nine and design a second.

The club’s most noted golfer was Glenna Collett Vare, who was known to bring famous friends such as Gene Sarazen by for a social game. In a remarkable streak, Collett Vare, who grew up in Providence and won six national championships, played in sixty-one consecutive Point Judith Invitationals before hanging it up in 1984 at the age of eighty-one.

Both course and club have evolved through the years, but Point Judith remains a relaxed summer retreat. The membership consists mostly of Rhode Islanders, a mix of year-round Narragansett-area residents and second-home owners from Providence and points north. The club is as vibrant as ever, maintaining an active social schedule, fourteen grass tennis courts and two paddle-tennis courts. And though more than a few sets of hands have tinkered with the course since Ross, Ron Prichard’s late-1990s restoration has returned a unity to it that had been missing for some time.

150 Windemere Road, Narragansett. Architects: Willie Davis, 1894; Donald Ross, 1927; Ron Prichard, 1997. Yardage: 6,691. Par: 71. Slope: 133.

Ross’s Finest—and Toughest

Few first tees anywhere are more intimidating than this one. Wannamoisett Country Club has no driving range, just a spare fairway in which to hit a few irons before the round, so golfers must step up cold and tee off from a launching pad that is just paces from the pro shop and practically an extension of the clubhouse patio. Knowing that everyone is watching, you must find the wherewithal to launch a drive over a pond to a distant-seeming uphill fairway on the 428-yard par four.

From there, this Donald Ross layout—a par sixty-nine whose course rating is 72.1—hardly lets up. The second hole is almost a reverse image of the first but nearly fifty yards longer and requiring a heroic blind second shot over a creek to reach the green. At 138 yards, the third is the shortest hole on the course, but its small push-up green is guarded by bunkers short and left and an embankment on the right. The fourth is a 445-yard two-shotter that bends left, demanding a draw off the tee. “Get through the first four holes at Wannamoisett at even par,” says Dana Quigley, “and you may well have a round of golf working.”

Ranked perennially as the best course in the state, Wanna-​moisett is one of Ross’s most resourceful designs, with eighteen strong and distinctive holes squeezed into just over a hundred acres. Solve its tricky doglegs and crowned greens and you’ve accomplished a great deal. Just ask anyone who’s tried to hold his game together in the Northeast Amateur (whose past champions include Ben Crenshaw, Hal Sutton, David Duval, Luke Donald and local boy Brett Quigley, Dana’s nephew).

Wannamoisett is a suburban country club, its members drawn from the Providence area and the corridor stretching toward Boston, an hour away. But golf remains its heart: Of the club’s 420 golf members, some 130 play off a single digit.

96 Hoyt Avenue, Rumford. Architect: Donald Ross, 1914, 1926. Yardage: 6,688. Par: 69. Slope: 133.

The Hills of East Providence

As the home of yet another fine Ross design, Metacomet Country Club is located rather incongruously in industrial East Providence. Lest you forget the gritty surroundings, trash occasionally washes ashore in the tidal inlet of the Providence River, which borders the par-five second hole. Metacomet traditionally has been more of a men’s club than a family-oriented one. Several of its members have had well-publicized trouble with the law: One, a chief of staff to former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci, was video​taped accepting a cash bribe and convicted in 2002 on federal corruption charges; another, since resigned, a former president of Roger Williams Medical Center, has been charged with paying a state senator to advocate for the hospital’s interests.

As a golf course, Metacomet is atypical for Rhode Island: a fun house of rising and plunging hills. Two ridges run through the property, creating an assortment of blind shots and forced carries that come together with dazzling effect on the long par-four fourteenth. The club is also admired for its greens—fast, well groomed and full of slope. Brad Faxon, one of the Tour’s best putters, has been known to sharpen his stroke here.

But what distinguishes Metacomet most is that it’s an unpretentious place where members can show up and find a competitive game and afterward have a drink in heavily male company. Which is not to say Metacomet discriminates, at least not anymore. The club is recruiting women members in an attempt to break down old barriers. But there is history to overcome. After the death of Glenna Collett Vare, club officials in the early 1990s asked her family for a memento. When her son and daughter arrived with a trophy, her son was invited into what was at the time the men-only grill; her daughter wasn’t. The family later wrote to the club seeking a change in policy or return of the cup. The trophy was sent back by registered mail.

500 Veterans Memorial Parkway, East Providence. Architect: Donald Ross, 1925. Yardage: 6,464. Par: 70. Slope: 125.

The two newest private golf clubs in Rhode Island, Carnegie Abbey and Shelter Harbor, are at a cultural disadvantage to their older counterparts. Prestige can’t be imposed; it arrives at its own pace.

But that hasn’t stopped The Carnegie Abbey Club, founded in 2000, from trying to accelerate the process. This private “sporting club” on the shores of Narragansett Bay in Portsmouth is impeccably manicured and self-reverential. Part playground, part high-end real estate development—with cottages bearing names such as Royal Dornach [sic] and condominium apartments in a twenty-two-story luxury tower now under construction—its members share a privileged, Scottish-themed enclave.

The golf course at Carnegie Abbey is an open, links-style design by Englishman Donald Steel that wanders over rolling farm fields, some of them marked by original stone walls. The back nine offers spectacular views of the water, culminating at the drivable par-four eighteenth, where after hitting their drives players must walk along a beach to reach the fairway.

By comparison, four-year-old Shelter Harbor Golf Club, located in Charlestown a few wedges from Long Island Sound, is just a golf club. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry crafted a challenging parkland eighteen (as well as a fine nine-hole par-three layout) that looks like its been nestled in place between huge rock outcroppings for ages. With nearly a hundred feet of elevation change, the main course makes for a vigorous walk. But its fairways are generous and its putting surfaces large. Local rules charitably allow for a free drop when errant approaches die in the eighteenth-century cemetery to the right of the second green. Except for a pair of visitors’ cottages, the club’s four hundred acres are barred from sprouting houses. There’s no lack of luxury enticements, though: Inside the clubhouse, a neo-traditional Rhode Island shingle manor, members can eat stylishly or casually, work out in the fitness center, relax with a massage, and store their own wine. Tradition, though, they’ll have to wait for.

The Carnegie Abbey Club

125 Cory’s Lane, Portsmouth. Architect: Donald Steel, 2000. Yardage: 6,675. Par: 71. Slope: 134.

Shelter Harbor Golf Club

One Golf Club Drive, Charlestown. Architects: Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, 2004. Yardage: 7,006. Par: 71. Slope: 131.