Golf and Community in Deer Isle Maine
By Stephen Hardy Goodwin
When golf's leaders meet to consider the future of the game, they often describe a mythical club where golf could only prosper and thrive, attracting new players and keeping older golfers happily in the fold. It wouldn't have to be a big club, but it would have to be affordable. The golf course wouldn't have to be a monster, but a track that would give pleasure and challenge to players of all ages and abilities. This mythical club itself wouldn't be an enclave reserved for a small handful of people, but a place whose doors were open and whose activities were woven into the fabric of the community, so that golf seemed as natural a pastime as riding a bike or throwing a ball.
That club isn't entirely mythical. Something very close to the ideal can be found at the Island Country Club in Deer Isle, Maine.
And while ICC could serve as a model for golf's future, a visitor to the place has the feeling of drifting back into the halcyon past. The short driveway provides glimpses of a pair of golf holes. The clubhouse stands in the shade of mature trees, a modest building painted cheerful red, with white trim and white rockers on the porch. Inside, there's a small shop, and two handsome, airy rooms that don't seem to have changed a bit since the ICC opened in 1926.
The first tee is only a few steps away from the clubhouse, and it is equipped with one of those old-fashioned wire spirals – drop your ball in, and when it twists to the bottom, it's your turn to play away. You tee your ball between the markers – miniature, brightly striped lighthouses – and face the first enticing shot of the round, a drive to a broad fairway that sweeps to the right. There’s plenty of room for the safe shot, but if you can carry the bunker in the corner of the dogleg, you can get close to the green. And if you block the drive, you're in a copse of trees...
That opening tee shot is a fair preview of what is to come. The golf course isn't long; it isn't a championship course, isn't even 18 holes. It's a 9-holer, par 34, 2400 yards in length, but don't let the length fool you -- this is real golf. The course demands a variety of shots and clear thinking. There will be temptation on many tees, and the small, lively greens demand precision with the wedge and the putter. The holes are threaded through a classic Maine landscape of birch, spruce, and pine, and the air carries the fresh smell of the sea. The ivory fescues are astir in the sea breezes.
No wonder the place stays busy. The golf calendar for season, running from mid-June to late September, lists 12 tournaments, four of them women's events. On top of that, there are regular weekly events for men, women, and couples. The Deer Isle high school team uses the ICC course and its members play for free; groups of youngsters roam the place with bags slung over their shoulders, and the look is their eyes is the bright, determined look of kids who are planning to play 36 or 54 holes in a day, and loving every minute of it.
ICC co-president Dick Roth told me that the half of the club’s members live year on Deer isle, and half are from away. The cross-section of golfers includes judges, artists, chefs, writers, educators, fishermen, carpenters, and a few of the 1%. We nurture an egalitarian spirit, Roth said. It's one of the traditions of the club to include all elements of the community. Categorically speaking, ICC is a semi-private club, a term that often carries a faint whiff of opprobrium, but for Roth and every other ICC member I spoke to, the hybrid, democratic nature of the club was a source of pride.
Deer Isle is actually a collection of small islands, about as remote as any community on the coast of Maine can possibly be. The year-round population is about 2,400, and the main street of the village is a block long. Though the area has attracted summer residents for over a century, the landscape is still dotted with old farmhouses, and the nearby town of Stonington, with its quarry and large fleet of lobster boats, is very much a working town.
In 1926, a group of summer residents joined together to bring golf to Deer Isle, and they engaged Wayne Stiles to draw up a plan for the course. Students of golf architecture know Stiles as a prolific architect who designed many courses now regarded as New England classics. For the ICC, Stiles completed a routing plan for a 9-hole course – but the original company was unable to acquire the land needed to implement the full plan.
Nevertheless, the club did build a clubhouse and five holes, and celebrated its opening in 1928. A year later, they had acquired more land and completed a 9-hole course that was much smaller than the one Stiles had drawn; it consisted of five short par 3's and four short par 4's.
That's where matters stood for decades. Though club members were fond of their layout, they recognized its limitations. A long-term planning committee led by Bill Whitman, a member whose family could trace its island roots back to the early 19th century, patiently set about acquiring adjacent parcels of land that would allow for a significant expansion of the course.
In 2009, Ross Forbes, a golf architect who has built notable courses on several continents but happens to be based in New England and who has a particular affinity for the work of Wayne Stiles, heard about ICC's plans. He was intrigued by the history of the course, and the prospect of revamping a venerable 9-holer spoke to him in a special way; his first exposure to golf came as a caddy at a 9-holer at a grand old New England resort, the Mountain View Hotel.
Forbes won over the committee with a plan for a more substantial 9-holer, one that would be sensitive to the character of the property, require the use of just about every club in the bag, and Remain faithful to the spirit of Wayne Stiles. "There may, or may not, have been some Wayne Stiles fingerprints, but it was impossible to be sure, Forbes said. There were a few green sites that looked as though they might be his -- they were placed in a way that showed a real sense of design, something that a local group wouldn't necessarily have had. Where I found features like that, I tried to keep them. But for the most part, I was building holes and trying to make them look like something Stiles would have built."
Forbes used the features of the rugged property – the hilly terrain, the stands of trees, the marshy areas – to give each hole individuality and character. The 6th hole is probably the prettiest on the course, a 140 yard par 3 with the green sitting sweetly in bowl fringed with fescue; the 7th is a scary downhill par 4 of 268 yards that cries out to be driven, though the fairway twists and tumbles and OB stakes crowd the left side of the green; the 8th is a par 5 of 488 yards that curls around a marsh.
And so it goes, with each hole its own arena. Only once was Forbes hemmed in; the 3rd and 4th holes are back-to-back short par 3's, side by side in a rectangular piece at the front of the property. Even here Forbes succeeded in giving each of them distinguishing characteristics. The shortest of them, the 4th hole, is only 113 yards -- but the green is tripartite, with a swale in the middle and raised plateaus on either side. Forbes describes it as a "sideways Biarritz green," and says that "when the hole is cut in the swale, there will be lots of birdies and some holes in one. But when it's cut on either wing, especially on the left, it's not an easy shot. You might have a wedge in your hand, but you have to hit a tiny area, and if you miss on the short side, you'll have to earn your 3."
During my stay on Deer Isle, I played only two rounds at ICC -- one with a full bag of clubs, once in the annual Howdy Thompson Tournament, carrying only a wood, a 6-iron, and a putter. Those were the clubs preferred by Howdy himself, a lobsterman who liked to go out of an evening in his rubber boots and bib overalls. He seems to have been the Steve Ballesteros of the place, able to improvise any shot necessary with those three clubs. When the tournament was over, I gracelessly suggested that they might want to add a fourth club, a wedge. The idea was batted down instantly and decisively. ICC is staunch in its traditions.
Maybe it's just nostalgia, but I was smitten with place. It reminded me a little of the 9-holer where I learned the game, playing from dawn to dusk on long summer days, and it reminded me too of those small, out-the-way clubs in Scotland that I visited way back in the 1960's, the places where there was an honor box for guests to pay green fees, and where the whole population of the town seemed to arrive in the evening after, when they changed into spikes, shouldered their bags, and headed out onto the course.
The Island Country Club might be a throwback, but I hope that clubs exactly like it are a part of golf's future. More selfishly, I hope that the club is a part of MY future. I’m pretty sure I can scrape together the money for a season membership, and I want another crack at driving that 7th green. I’d like to be part of a club where the course is imbued with charm and the game is played in a rare spirit of uncomplicated fun.
About the Author: Stephen Hardy Goodwin, the author of "Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes," was a contributing editor at Golf Magazine. His articles and essays on golf have appeared in Golf, Links, The Met Golfer, Golf Connoisseur, The Washington Post, The United States Open Program, and The Masters Annual.