SIASCONSET, MASSACHUSETTS | When Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick in 1851, the novelist had never been to the island of Nantucket where much of his famous story takes place. When he finally did visit the former center of the whaling universe a year after publication, he started at the Sankaty Head Lighthouse and stood on the property where the 40th U.S. Mid-Amateur was contested this week.
“In a strange and beautiful contrast, we have the innocence of the land eyeing the malignity of the sea,” Melville wrote in a letter of appreciation.
Those words would be poignant for the 256 competitors who came to unanimously admire Sankaty Head Golf Club in pursuit of their white whale – a Masters and U.S. Open invite to the last remaining survivor of these common men who squeeze competitive golf into their mostly normal lives.
By USGA championship standards, Sankaty Head is every bit as innocent as Melville described some 71 years before Emerson Armstrong designed the layout. It tips out at about 6,640 yards, which is considerably shorter than recent Mid-Am host venues like Colorado Golf Club (7,508 yards) or the Crabapple Course at Capital City Club (7,232 yards). It’s not narrow, either. There are no trees on the course outside of dense shrubbery that lines the outside of the property, and the gentle rolling fairways are gaping. Many holes are bereft of fairway bunkers. The course is framed by clumpy waves of fescue, but it’s the wispy and crispy variety that rarely hands out any grand punishment.
The first hole is, on most days, an iron or fairway wood to set up a blind flip wedge approach. It’s one of seven par-4s under 402 yards on the scorecard. As you might expect, the scores came in lower than any other Mid-Am in history as the 36-hole stroke play portion of the proceedings had a match-play cut of 2-over par. The previous record had been set at 5 over back in 2017. Even when the tournament reached the semifinals and pressure mounted, the four players combined to play Sankaty in 5 under with match play concessions. Had Hayes Brown not struggled in a 4-and-3 loss to Stewart Hagestad, the scores would have been even better.
So why then was this simple, innocent course on the easternmost edge of Nantucket drawing such rave reviews in its first time hosting a USGA championship?
To be sure, the firm turf of the land creates one of truest links style of play that a U.S. venue can have as competitors had to consider the roll out of their approach shots. But it wasn’t the innocence of the land that had everyone talking. It was the malignity of the thrashing Atlantic Ocean shimmering in the distance, the signal of relentless wind.
Rogue hats scampered down fairways with their owner chasing from behind. Conversations normally held at a respectable volume turned into exchanged shouts. The reading of any putt started and finished with the influence of the constant noise in everyone’s ears.
The first tee, which neatly connects to both the 16th tee and the practice green, was not so much witness to the sound of applause as it was to the sound of three flags whipping against a sail-shaped pole.
And with that ever-present wind gusting to 35 mph, the course really came alive. The most basic of shots required attention to detail and no launch monitor could have helped with the improvising needed. The greens were softer than hoped for because of early fog and rain that dampened the proceedings, but the course still held its ground.
“You can’t take one second off in this wind,” said Drew Kittleson, an entrant into the round of 16. “Whoever is the last man standing will have a really nice night’s sleep that night.”
That made it a sensational venue for match play. Three-putts from 15 feet were a realistic possibility and the course included a lot of “half-par” situations where birdies were expected on the easier holes and pars could win on the harder holes. Very few matches saw more holes that were tied than won.
“It’s easy to see why it’s renowned around the country,” said Stewart Hagestad. “I think when the wind blows and it makes you think a little bit more and it adds that extra variable, dries out the greens a little, makes it play a little more linksey, which is I think the way the members want it to play and the designer intended it to play. I think it’s a far better test as is but also for match play.
“I’d be really surprised if anyone said that they wanted it to be calm,” Hagestad added prior to the semifinals. “I think everyone wants it to blow.”
The wind is what makes Sankaty a classic. Armstrong, the son of a golf pro, is similar to other designers like George Crump (Pine Valley) or Henry Fownes (Oakmont) who created one inspirational layout and stopped. The routing in his one and only design is a true work of art.
With the understated clubhouse sitting on a high point, Armstrong made a figure eight. The front nine is played in the shadow of the 171-year-old lighthouse, its spinning spotlight returning to face players every seven seconds. The par-4 fifth hole runs right next to the beloved landmark and is emblematic of the course – the drive is a blind tee shot to a large ridge and everything rolls downhill from there to a green surrounded brilliantly by fescue and bunkers.
The back nine has a sandy mound in the middle that affects several holes. The tee to the par-4 11th, par-4 15th and par-4 18th originates from the mound, while the greens of the par-4 10th, par-3 14th and par-5 17th come back to that area as well.
The 15th hole returns players to the clubhouse and makes for a wonderful match play setting given that spectators could watch a greater percentage of matches coming up the 15th than they could the 18th, which runs parallel and plays quite similarly.
Designer Jim Urbina came in to do a restoration prior to the championship, changing the mowing lines to expand the rumpled greens, converting the short par-5 11th into a meaty par-4 that avoided congestion, reshaping bunkers and removing patches of scrub oak to better expose land movement.
His work only further highlighted Armstrong’s routing, which puts players in a different wind nearly every hole. The personality of the course shifts dramatically on any given day.
“The first hole, I was hitting 5-irons on that hole throughout the week, and then today stepped up there and I said, yep, I’m hitting driver,” said finalist Mark Costanza after the quarterfinals. “It’s really cool to be able to play this course in a couple different winds because I think it does justice to the golf course.”
This is the first time Sankaty Head has opened its doors for a championship like this, and much of the country doesn’t know much about the course.
That requires a lot of thought, and a lot of shots that don’t necessarily look pretty. Even the medalist, Yaroslav Merkulov sounded nearly apologetic when he came off the golf course last Sunday after breaking the U.S. Mid-Amateur stroke play scoring record by one stroke.
“I would say, this was not a pretty 9-under,” Merkulov said. “I did not hit a lot of shots that look appealing … a lot of low hooks, low cuts. If it was downwind, I tried to sky it in the air. As I said, not a single shot I hit today was stock. That’s what happens when you play in the wind.”
It’s hard to beat that kind of combination.
This is the first time Sankaty Head has opened its doors for a championship like this, and much of the country doesn’t know much about the course. Maybe they know that the late Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, was a member and had a residence just off the fourth tee. They may know it for being an exclusive course on an island that is exclusive in and of itself.
But now a lot more lovers of amateur golf know it for being a tremendous golf course with just the right amount of bite.
Top: The third and fourth hole at Sankaty Head Golf Club in Siasconset, Massachusetts. Photo: Evan Schiller, USGA
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