At this unpretentious golf gem, you just might run into a U.S. President
Courtesy Cape Arundel
One of the best things about golf in Scotland is how unpretentious it is. It’s simple and fast. You want to pull your trolley? Knock yourself out. You want your dog to join you? Fido’s in. You can play in running shoes, in yard-work pants, with or without headcovers, without or without a scorecard. Almost every course — even high-cotton Muirfield, home course of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers — is open to visitor play.
Golf-wise and otherwise, our version of Scotland is Maine. Both are vast and coastal and rugged, with a million pine trees for every man in a flannel shirt with two breast pockets. My wife and I were driving north on I-95 on Wednesday afternoon, heading for Portland, when Christine noted the sign for Kennebunkport. She said, Let’s take a look. She said, Why don’t you call the course?
After four years of 41 and eight years of 43, everybody knows about Kennebunkport, and the sporty course there, Cape Arundel (ah-RUN-dul). From the home page of its website: “Our private club, which welcomes public play, is known for its beauty along the shores of Kennebunkport, Maine.”
I called the shop at 3 p.m. I paid my green fee at 3:20 p.m. (Public, in season, weekday, walking: $125.) I was on the first tee at 3:30. The rest of the group, to which I had been assigned, were no-shows. The singleton: sandals, with socks; nine clubs in a slender sack; 4-iron in hand, looking down the short (350ish) and blind opener. You know how the first law of medicine is do no harm? The equivalent, for playing your first shot on a strange course: Find it.
Permit me to put her in reverse for a hundred yards and a few minutes: the clubhouse, if that’s the correct word, is called 41 House, in honor of our 41st president, the man Charles Barkley calls “old Bush.” George H.W. logged a lot of fast rounds there with Davis Love, Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson. Others. Jim Nantz. Forty-one’s oldest son was a famously fast golfer, too. As president, 43 stopped playing after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In 41 House, you’ll see a photo of a Fred posing with a scorecard, from a day he shot 62. (It’s a par 69.) There’s a collection of golf books by all your favorite writers. (DL3, Dylan Dethier, John Feinstein, et al.) The young lady and gent in the shop, behind the counter, were welcoming. When I tried to slide my Marriott Visa card through a nonexistent opening at the bottom of a clear-plastic shield, the fella said, “More people do that than not.”
I made a par on the first and the second and pull-hooked my tee shot on the short par-3 third into a murky river. The groan heard ‘round the links. It wouldn’t take much. The course is tight — it occupies less than 90 acres — but not cramped. All stretched out doesn’t cross golf’s Mendoza Line. That is, the 6,000-yard threshold. It’s 5,355, from the back tees, on the card.
The course was laid out, a thousand summers ago, by Walter Travis. Writer, publisher, architect, Aussie, noted amateur golfer. (T2, ‘02 Open at Garden City.) The Cape Arundel greens are elephant graveyards. They are spectacular, for approaching, for chipping, for putting. Ben Crenshaw once laid himself out on one of them, as if making a snow angel, just to be closer to their genius. The sprinkler heads are on the rough lines and don’t tell you a thing. The 150-yard markers are birdhouses. That’s so Kennebunkport.
I’m drawn to this kind of golf. To Bellport, to Pacific Grove, to Elie in Scotland. You could say, but maybe shouldn’t, to N.G.L., to Cypress Point, to Royal Cinque Ports in England. You know how eight at Augusta National used to have all those weird teardrop mounds by the green? Cape Arundel has scores of them, and they work. The whole place — it works.
If you have ever been to North Berwick (the course in Scotland, not the town in Maine) in the height of summer, you may have had this experience: Upon arrival, bedlam reigns. Golfers and spouses all over the pro shop and carpark. But once you’re on the course, things settle down quickly. You can breathe.
Upon arrival at Cape Arundel, I predicted a four-hour round. In other words, painfully slow. There were golfers everywhere. Yet I played first seven holes in under an hour, nobody in front of me.
There was a foursome on nine when I got to eight. The eighth is a par-4, 380 yards. The ninth runs beside it, Cape Arundel’s lone par-5, 475 yards from the back tee. A yellow ball and a white ball settled in the fluffy rough near the eighth tee. (You could lose a ball in the Cape Arundel rough, but only with really bad luck.) Most golfers at Cape Arundel walk, but now there was a cart coming in my direction, with two men in it. I pointed to the two balls. The yellow one was away.
W. got beside his yellow ball, wedge in hand, shot the distance with a rangefinder and said something like, “Watch this.” You remember the voice.
The hint of a waggle. No practice swing. He hit a lofted shot, likely his third, from about 80 yards, hole-high and about 15 feet from the pin, if that. His playing partner, from a tougher lie, played a keeper, too. I complimented both shots. A singleton on a course, you know, has no standing, but you can always say good shot.
I mentioned a mutual friend, Fay Vincent, the former baseball commissioner. George W. and I talked for a minute or two about Fay and the pastime. President Bush recalled the summer of ’56, when his uncle Bucky Bush and Fay spent the summer with his family, in Midland, Texas. Two XXL large teenagers, with a summer job before starting college, working dirty in West Texas oil fields.
“Mr. President,” I asked, “is it OK to play here with your shirttails out?”
His were out and mine were, too. A sky-blue golf shirt hanging over the belt loops of his shorts.
“It is if you’re fat!” he said.
One of the best things about golf in Maine is how unpretentious it is.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com