[Ed. This integrated piece appeared as a course feature and Walker Cup sidebar in LINKS Magazine during the summer of 2006. With the U.S. Senior Amateur visiting Butler Point this week, it seemed a fine time to place this story “above the fold”.]
Rolling down Point Road toward The Kittansett Club, past Sippican Harbor and passing before an ever more stately line of summer “cottages” (all in gray shingle), the ancient course comes into view through the driver’s side window — initially a hole or two bounded by Cape-style miniature pine, but then a striking, open expanse punctuated by golden fescues, lines of bracken hedgerows and chocolate-drop mounding. From this vantage, at this introductory stage, it’s perhaps too easy to lump Kittansett in with the dozens of quirky, antique but ultimately docile, wind-dependent tracks that dot the Northeastern coastline.
But Kittansett is seldom what it appears to be, especially at first glance.
Members here bleed the right color and the course itself, perched on Butler Point and surrounded on three sides by Buzzards Bay, is surely transformed by a stiff wind. But the layout is so much more: a steely, uncommon test on the calmest of days. When I visited in late June, a wind-killing fog (thick enough to cancel the first day of the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open down the coast at Newport) had settled over the place. Yet Kittansett’s length (6,814 yards, par 70), its smallish, steeply pitched greens, its overall strategic mettle were undiminished. They are, in fact, enough to humble and beguile just about anyone in any sort of weather.
“I’m not sure people realize just how difficult this golf course really is,” says Steve Demmer, the head pro here since 1994 [departed in 2014]. “Not even the members, who are used to the carries, the obstacles and the speed of the greens. When the rough and wind are up [and they usually are], this is a lot of golf course.”
Opened for play in 1923, Kittansett and its various attributes should surprise visitors. It’s a seaside course — peninsular for heaven’s sake; the Aboriginal American name means near (sett) the sea (kittan) — but there isn’t a proper dune in sight. By all geographical rights the course should be links-like, but trees line two thirds of the routing and the soil isn’t sandy at all, meaning it seldom plays hard and fast outside the dog days of summer.
The course feels quite natural but was in fact designed to within an inch of its life by one Frederic Hood, who had consulted with Donald Ross and worked from some drawings provided by William Flynn. But he built the course himself with local crews of similarly inexperienced folk. Kittansett is the only golf course on Hood’s resume; he never designed nor built another.
Indeed, on a largely tree-lined golf course, it’s hard to imagine a seasoned architect would have placed such a proliferation of fairway-impeding obstacles. Thirteen holes at Kittansett feature some sort of deep cross bunker or bank of mounding perpendicular to play. The corridors are naturally ample. Yet hardy stands of white pine, oak, cedar and tupelo frame the inland holes, creating a extremely stout test when it comes to driving the ball — between the trees, over and around these myriad crossing features, and amid a random collection of chocolate drops.
Here and there these oversized Kisses (more like chocolate-covered cherries really) reside on a hole’s periphery, seemingly without purposes. Other times they come off quite strategically. The two that stand sentinel on either side of the somewhat lunar 16th fairway appear to frame the target but are actually 50 yards short of the green, seriously messing with a visiting’s depth perception. “They had to put the rocks somewhere,” Demmer says with a smile and a shrug.
Because of the ever-present winds perhaps, Hood’s design rarely calls for forced carries into the greens themselves. The oft-photographed 3rd, a pitch across an ocean inlet to a green surrounded by beach sand, is the notable exception. More often the cross hazards come earlier in the golf hole. At 16, for example. On the 424-yard 6th, three staggered lines of cross-mounding jut in from the left (the last sits 220 yards from the back tee). A similar trio is reprised at the wonderful, short par-4 10th, where the hazards are reasonably cleared with a long-iron or fairway wood — mind games notwithstanding.
The 11th with its massive cross bunker gaping in from the left is perhaps the most brutish poser on a course replete with them. The eye-catching hazard sits well short of a flamboyant green cleaved by a deep swale — but all this is obscured by the bunker’s 7 foot lip. From the back tee, 241 yards away, the tiny exposed portion of the putting surface appears to sit precariously (and inaccessibly) at the edge of the world, 15 feet above a bunker bounded by ball-sucking bogs. The prudent play is left of center, directly over the bunker’s highest point; this allows the contour to shape the ball onto the green. But it’s a leap of faith even for members familiar with the gambit, and a thrilling leap at that.