by Sean Melia
A week after watching Matt Parziale
and Michael Thornbjornsen
in the Massachusetts Amateur Championship in July, I booked a room on Nantucket for the United States Mid-Amateur Championship in Nantucket.
Parziale was the 2017 US Mid-Am champion in Atlanta and Thorbjornsen won the US Junior Am in 2018. Watching great golf will stick to your soul, and what Parziale and Thorbjornsen did at Brae Burn in Newton, Mass. certainly was great golf. Thorbjorsen -- who is a sophomore at Stanford -- shot 62 and the guy termed "Parz" by his friends shot 67 in the opening 18 holes of their 36 hole match. The lure of seeing golf like that again was too strong, so I decided to go to Nantucket.
There was no plan beyond booking a hotel room and ferry tickets to Nantucket. I would roam the grounds at Sankaty Head Golf Club and Miacomet Golf Course, snap some pictures, write a few pieces about the experience, meet some people, and soak in the pure golf environment of a USGA event. Between rounds my wife and I would enjoy the island, visit a beach, have a few beers at Cisco Brewery, and eat ice cream in the evening. A nice getaway in early fall when Nantucket is just a little quieter, the summer crowd having packed up their Nantucket reds and hopped on a ferry back to the mainland.
However, as the event neared, a few little connections started to coalesce and the trip to Nantucket was taking on a different hue. First, I spoke to two Ohio golfers from the Miami Valley area who had qualified for the event. I was going to write a piece about them for their local golf association website.
was one of those players, and he was looking for a caddie. I put a few feelers out, thinking my Massachusetts golf network might dig up someone with some course knowledge. When my caddie "call to action" was met with silence, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and offered Brandon my shoulders for his bag. He took me up on the offer.
Brandon is playing in his second Mid-Am; he competed in 2017, too. And he’s an accomplished player, having won the Veteran Golf Association National Championship in 2016 and 2018. My job as a looper will be to simply stay out of his way, help look for balls, rake the bunkers, and offer some distracting conversations between shots.
Qualifying is one thing, getting there is another -- more so for this edition of the Mid-Am than any other in recent history.
Nantucket can be a tough place to get to, but it’s finding a place stay on the island that’s the real challenge. From Boston it’s a two hour drive to the ferry in Hyannis and then a one hour ferry ride (if you’re bringing a car, the slow ferry takes 2+ hours). Folks with money and a strong constitution can also fly to the island. But for most people, a commercial flight to Logan or Providence is the most likely destination.
When I spoke to Brandon Johnson and Jake North, the other Miami Valley golfer who will be playing, they were nonplussed by needing to book a flight. If a player is qualifying for the Mid-Am, a flight to somewhere is likely anyway. They didn’t seem bothered by the post-flight drive and ferry ride, either. Again, these are golfers that know there’s going to be a bit of travel to reach a USGA venue.. Once a player qualifies, it's a given that they will find the time and money to make the trip happen.
Where Nantucket gets challenging is once you’re there. It’s a rather expensive place, as most islands are. Food is a bit pricier and there are no high rise hotels to host a field of over 200 players for low prices. Instead, the “downtown” is dotted with inns and bed and breakfasts that cater to smaller crowds. House rentals aren’t cheap either.
Thankfully, players did have the opportunity to take advantage of some free housing from hosts on the island and the USGA did their best to lock in some affordable rates at local inns. Nonetheless, there is quite the contrast between getting to Nantucket when compared to the 45 minutes drive from Denver to Colorado Golf Club for the 2019 Mid-Am, or next year’s 45 minute drive from Milwaukee to Erin Hills.
The dichotomy of the island and the courses
Take a stroll down to the water in Nantucket and the money that exists on the island is immediately obvious. Yachts and sailboats fill the slips. Beautiful people wander the piers in their preppy attire popping into trendy restaurants and expensive art galleries. However, the island’s past as a fishing hub and whaling capital of the world makes itself known. Fisherman with coolers of ice heading out for the day or coming in from an early morning haul. If you’ve ever wondered how to filet a fish, spend 30 minutes on the pier, you’ll get a front row seat to a masterclass.
That dichotomy also exists within the golfing in Nantucket, and the US Mid-Am will recognize both sides of the coin: public and private golf.
Walk into the Sankaty Head clubhouse and the likelihood of rubbing elbows with someone who has been on the cover of a major magazine is pretty high. The membership includes former General Motors CEO Jack Welch, NBC executive Bob Wright, media mogul Amos Hostetter (Continental Cablevision), and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. To add to the financial clout of the club, the clubhouse and the 280 acres the course sits on were donated by David Grey, a partner of Henry Ford.
Sankaty is an Native American word meaning “highland.” The course sits on the eastern edge of Nantucket just underneath the famous Sankaty Lighthouse. The course does not sit on the water, but was designed in the style of courses in Ireland and Great Britain that sat on links land.
According to Jim Urbina in a Links Magazine article Sankaty Head’s location away from the water shouldn’t deter anyone from calling it a links course, “It’s ocean-influenced and the ocean is visible from much of the course,” he explains. “It has a sandy, gravel base. Plus, there are no trees, it’s windswept ground and proper turf, and it plays really firm and fast.”
The original designer, Emerson Armstrong, was a Nantucket local and club champion at the nine-hole Sconset course, which was established in the late 19th century. When Urbina restored the course in 2017, he had the help of C.J. Penrose, Sankaty Head’s superintendent.
In the same Links Magazine article, Urbina said he wanted to “remove the modernism” that had crept in over the years, and that the original 1923 Armstrong routing was “genius” and a “seamless” walk. With no trees, rolling hills, and wispy fescue, the par 70 design is sure to challenge players this week.
Sankaty's caddy camp is a last of its kind
Sankaty Head GC is also known for its caddie camp which is funded by the Sankaty Head Foundation. It’s the last remaining camp of its kind in the United States. Every summer 60 caddies, selected through an application process, live on the Sankaty Head grounds. They caddie and live the summer camp life: Playing ping-pong, volleyball, football, all while living in three “huts” that house 20 campers each. However, they also learn to manage their caddie earnings, tracking their tips over the summer with the help of staff members.
The Sankaty Head Caddie Camp, operated since 1930, is one of the last remaining caddie camps in the world
The program also provides opportunities to apply for academic scholarships that the Sankaty Head Foundation awards each year. The camp isn’t just for kids who are financially capable, the $5 nightly fee is paid-off for campers that don’t have the money to afford that fee for 10 weeks. The camp is so popular that many caddies return for consecutive summers, leaving only about 10-15 slots available each year. There are even graduates that return to caddie at Sankaty Head as adults, as they feel part of the community and enjoy the summers on the island.
“One of the best public courses in the world.”
On the southeastern section of the island lies Miacomet Golf Course. The public gem sits on land that Ralph Marble bought in 1956 with the intention of turning it into a dairy farm. But by 1960, he decided the land would be more profitable as a golf course. He designed the original nine holes himself.
The public rallied a few times to keep this public course alive. First, a 1970s fire destroyed the clubhouse, but with free lumber and labor from community members it was rebuilt without spending a dime. Second, Marble put the land up for sale in 1983 and it looked like it was going to turn into a housing development, however, the Nantucket Island Land Bank bought the land for $4.5 million.
It expanded to 18 holes in 2003 when Howard Maurer designed nine more holes on the property. In 2008 he returned to renovate the original nine holes designed by Marble 45 years earlier.
In a Golfweek article, Sophia Popov, the 2019 British Women’s Open Champion, said Miacomet is “One of the best public courses in the world.”
While the course is in the shadow of two exclusive, private courses on the island, Miacomet General Manager Alan Costa, told Top100GolfCourses that members from those clubs love Miacomet and frequent the public course because they enjoy it and believe it “has the best greens not only on the island but in the country.”
But Miacomet knows it’s place on the island is to provide golf to everyone that wants to enjoy a walk through the rolling land. The Wampanoag word Miacomet translates to “the meeting place.” For golf lovers, either local or visiting, Miacomet is certainly a meeting place with excellent golf that will be showcased this week.
Both golf courses are well-suited to provide a proper challenge to the field of 264 golfers who will be vying for the Robert T. Jones Jr. trophy and a trip to The 2022 Masters and US Open. For one player, those extra miles in the car and on the ferry will be a bit sweeter. However, every player will leave with some stories about an island off the coast of Cape Cod that has two excellent golf courses.
I’m looking forward to bringing some "inside the ropes" stories to AmateurGolf.com this week!