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Sankaty Head Golf Club: Nantucket’s Natural Links

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Sankaty Head Golf Club was founded in the 1920s on a sandy seaside site along the Atlantic coastline on Nantucket, designed as a classic links-style course. The course is characterized by rolling, windswept terrain, scenic ocean views, fescue grasses framing the fairways, and strategically placed pot bunkers.

Sankaty Head was initially designed in 1921 as a 9-hole layout by H. Emerson Armstrong, who aimed to design a championship layout akin to the great Scottish links courses of the era. The course opened in 1922 and was expanded to 18 holes soon after. It was updated by Eugene “Skip” Wogan and A.W. Tillinhaust in the late 1920s and Jim Urbina and CJ Penrose in 2016.

In this post, we’ll travel to Nantucket to learn the story of Sankaty Head Golf Club. We’ll learn the island’s origins and history, discover the last remaining “caddy camp” in the United States, and walk through the golf course. Finally, I suggest further reading and videos to bring the course to life.

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Sankaty Head Golf Club - Intro

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Origins and History

Sankaty Head Golf Club was founded in 1921 in Siasconset on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. The land and funding for the course and clubhouse were provided by David Gray, a wealthy businessman from Detroit. Gray appointed H. Emerson Armstrong, a two-time defending Nantucket golf champion, to design and oversee course construction. Armstrong came from a golfing family – his father, George, was a championship golfer and helped nurture Emerson’s talents.

Sankaty Head was Armstrong’s only credited work, and though not formally trained, he had an intimate understanding of the site. His routing for Sankaty Head has been described as “genius,” seamlessly moving through the rolling terrain in a figure-8 pattern. Armstrong made very strategic use of the natural contours and wind patterns of the land, with his work drawing praise from the architects who would work to enhance his layout over the years.

The first nine opened for play in September 1922, and the 18-hole course was completed soon after. In 1925, golf architect Eugene “Skip” Wogan enhanced the bunkering, while A.W. Tillinghast made minor modifications to the course in 1927.

The front nine plays in the shadow of the iconic Sankaty Head Lighthouse, which looms over the 5th hole, aptly named “Light A’Port,” and serves as a target for blind shots throughout the front nine. Some holes pay tribute to the island’s history with “Light Ahoy,” “Round the Horn,” “Long Journey,” and “Thar She Blows,” making up the closing stretch. Sankaty Head also contains nods to great holes and features of classic courses and templates with names such as “Pine Valley,” “Westward Ho,” and “Coffins Corner.”

Sankaty Head Golf Club - Origin

Nantucket Island

Nantucket Island is located 30 miles south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It sits in Nantucket Sound, with the Atlantic Ocean bordering its eastern, southern, and western shores. The main town of Nantucket is located at the western end of Nantucket Harbor, which opens into Nantucket Sound. The island is approximately 14 miles long by 3-5 miles wide, with a total land area of 47.8 square miles. The island is only accessible by air or passenger ferry, with no road or bridge connections to mainland Massachusetts.

Nantucket Island had been inhabited by Native American Wampanoag people for thousands of years before European contact. In 1602, English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold sailed past the island, charting its location. The name “Nantucket” comes from the Wampanoag language, meaning “faraway land” or “sandy, sterile soil.”

In 1641, Thomas Mayhew purchased Nantucket and neighboring islands from the Earl of Sterling but sold his rights in 1659 to a group of English settlers who became the first European inhabitants. They focused on farming, fishing, and later whaling to support themselves.

In the early 18th century, Nantucket had developed a substantial whaling industry, becoming the leading whaling port in the American colonies. The Revolutionary War and War of 1812 devastated its fleets and economy. Still, Nantucket recovered and reclaimed its status until the industry rapidly declined due to a decline in the whale population and the emergence of new fuel sources. The resulting economic depression caused more than half of the island’s inhabitants to leave.

Nantucket ultimately revived its fortunes by growing into a popular summer resort destination starting in the late 1800s. Tourism continues to drive Nantucket’s economy today while it retains its historical charm. In addition to Sankaty Head, Nantucket is also home to Nantucket Golf Club, a private Rees Jones design, Miacomet Golf Club, a public 18-hole layout, and the laid-back 9-hole Sconset Golf Club, a public course that dates back to the 1890s.

Nantucket sankaty lighthouse - Sankaty Head Golf Club

Did You Know?

Sankaty Head is home to “Camp Sankaty Head,” the last remaining residential caddie camp in the United States. Many other historic caddie camps closed in the 1960s-1970s due to rising costs and liability issues. Sankaty Head members strongly support maintaining the camp to preserve its special culture and ambiance.

Established in 1930 between the 11th and 13th fairways, its founding was spearheaded by Sankaty Head members, who saw the need for a steady supply of caddies at the club. Donald M. Smith, a physical education director from Massachusetts, was appointed as the first camp director.

The camp employs approximately 60 male caddies ages 13-18 each summer, with the experience focusing on preparing them for college and life beyond golf. The caddies live in tents and small bunkhouses at the camp and caddy at the golf club six days a week. They are also granted access to play the course.

The camp also provides college counseling and awards over $100,000 in academic scholarships yearly to caddies who have attended for multiple summers. Over its 90+ year history, the camp has impacted hundreds of young caddies. It is the last of its kind and is a fundamental part of the Sankaty’s tradition.

Sankaty Head Golf Club - caddie

The Course

The course plays to a par of 71 at 6,730 yards from the back tees, perched on bluffs overlooking Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. While a private members-only club, Sankaty Head allows public play from Columbus Day (mid-October) through Memorial Day (late May) and hosts about 20,000 rounds annually. The course features wide fairways and large greens, firm, fast playing conditions, and shifting winds that provide a different challenge every day.

The round begins with “Outward Bound,” a welcoming short, downhill par-4 with strategically placed cross bunkers. “Pocomo” follows, featuring a canted fairway and a green with significant elevation changes, making for a daunting approach. The 3rd, “Quidnitt,” is the first one-shot hole and demands precision to navigate its undulating green.

The first par-5 is “Sesachacha,” notable for its stunning backdrop of the Sankaty Lighthouse and a treacherous large trench bunker guarding the green. The 5th, “Light A’Port,” features a blind approach, where strategic play down the hill is essential for a favorable stance. “Pine Valley,” another par-3, challenges with a downhill approach to a green completely surrounded by bunkers.

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The par-4 7th, “Cross Rip,” requires careful club selection to avoid the penalizing back trench bunker, while the 8th, “Come About,” is the course’s longest par-5, featuring a severely up-sloped fairway that can obscure the second shot, forcing a strategic decision off the tee. The front nine concludes with “Gray Lady,” a short par-4 played back towards the clubhouse, where wind conditions and a well-guarded, elevated green provide a test on the approach.

Second Nine

The back nine features a large sandy mound in the middle, which affects play on several holes. It begins with “Carry On,” a par-4 with the wind affecting the approach to a perched green. The 11th, “High Knoll,” has been transformed from a par-5 to a challenging par-4, where strategic play around fairway bunkers is key.

At “Westward Ho,” a one-shot hole with a quartering wind, distance control is crucial, while the 13th, “Coffin’s Corner,” is a straightforward par-4 that provides a birdie opportunity. The 14th, “Wee One,” is a classic short par-3 “postage-stamp,” well protected and full of danger around the green, set among Nantucket’s scrub oak. “Light Ahoy” tests players with a severely sloping green, demanding skillful short-game play.

The final holes, “Round the Horn,” “Long Journey,” and “Thar She Blows,” continue to offer a mix of defenses and strategic choices, from crosswinds and fairway bunkers to undulating greens. The course emphasizes the importance of creative shot-making, inviting players to engage with each hole’s unique challenges, risks, and rewards.

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Sankaty Head Today

Sankaty Head membership draws from both Nantucket seasonal residents as well as year-round locals, priding itself on diversity among its 550 members and maintaining an informal, relaxed culture in contrast to many other elite clubs. There are few strict rules and regulations, aligning with the island lifestyle. The club has some notable members, such as Bill Belichick and Jack Welsh, the latter maintaining a residence adjacent to the fourth tee box.

In 2011, a fire broke out at the caddie camp during a routine propane gas delivery to the camp’s mess hall. Fortunately, no injuries were reported; however, the mess hall, one of the dorms, and an adjacent kitchen were destroyed, causing $300,000 in damage. The camp was rebuilt, and normal operations continued for the summer.

In 2019, Sankaty Head was chosen to host the 2021 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, marking the first USGA championship held at the club. To prepare for the championship, restoration work was done from 2016 to 2019, led by architects Jim Urbina and CJ Penrose, to restore the classic playing conditions and Armstrong’s original vision. Sankaty Head has changed little over its 100+ year history and maintains a reputation as one of the finest classic golf courses in New England.

Visit Sankaty Head Golf Club online at https://www.sankatyheadgc.com

Sankaty Head Golf Club

PuttView Golf Books

PuttView Books are detailed yardage and green maps designed to help golfers save strokes, especially under tournament conditions. They offer precise visual representations of courses, including topographic slope percentages, fairway arrows for slopes over 4%, and a dual view of greens accurate to the millimeter. The books are printed on high-quality waterproof paper, sized to fit traditional yardage book covers, and are USGA legal. 

Customers praise PuttView Books for their stunning detail, stylish presentation, and the confidence they instill in decision-making on the course. With 30,000 courses represented, your home course is bound to be available, as is Sankaty Head!

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Further Reading

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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A Course Called America
by  Tom Coyne

Summary: In the span of one unforgettable year, Coyne crisscrosses the country in search of its greatest golf experience, playing every course to ever host a US Open, along with more than two hundred hidden gems and heavyweights, visiting all fifty states to find a better understanding of his home country and countrymen.

Coyne’s journey begins where the US Open and US Amateur got their start, historic Newport Country Club in Rhode Island. As he travels from the oldest and most elite of links to the newest and most democratic, Coyne finagles his way onto coveted first tees (Shinnecock, Oakmont, Chicago GC) between rounds at off-the-map revelations, like ranch golf in Eastern Oregon and homemade golf in the Navajo Nation. He marvels at the golf miracle hidden in the sand hills of Nebraska and plays an unforgettable midnight game under bright sunshine on the summer solstice in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Sankaty Head – Centennial & Flyover
Sankaty Head Lighthouse
Caddy Camp

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