The dichotomy of Cape Cod

It doesn’t take long to understand that Cape Cod has two very distinct personalities. You’ll find vast stretches of unspoiled beaches along the 70-mile spit of land in eastern Massachusetts, but the region also is thick with scrubby pines and oaks. There are quaint New England villages with neat rows of shingled cottages, as well as unseemly mini-malls teeming with every kind of retail and restaurant chain. As for fine dining, the Cape boasts plenty of upscale offerings. But you can just as easily feast on lobster rolls and clam “chowdah” at any of the dozens of drive-in joints that line the main drags.

The contrasts on the claw-shaped peninsula that was founded in 1602 by English captain Bartholomew Gosnold – and physically separated from the mainland 300 years later with the construction of the Cape Cod canal – appear to be never-ending. This is a place where blue-blood preppies who eschew socks in the summer and talk as if their jawbones need oiling happily coexist with drag queens who like to parade around the burg of Provincetown with Elton John-style glasses and feather boas. The Cape is where some of the richest families in America reside at least part of the time, including the Kennedys, who have long had roots in Hyannisport. But it also has one of the highest homeless populations in the state. And the weather has more characters than a Pirandello play. It is not at all unusual, for example, to put on sun block and rain slickers several times in the same day.

It is that way even with golf. All told, there are 43 courses on the Cape, some of which are so private you need a genealogy that goes back to the Mayflower to get onto them. Others are municipal tracks where tank tops and cutoffs are the attire of choice. You can pay more than $100,000 to join one of the ultra-exclusive spots, or fork over a mere $500 or so per season on a local links. Some layouts run along the water, while others wind through trees whose leaves turn lovely yellows, oranges and reds in the fall. And the conditioning can vary, from country-club perfect to goat-track gnarly. But no matter the venue, golf on the Cape can be big fun, especially when the salty breeze comes hard off the Atlantic and the sun rises high in the summer sky.

A good day might start with a late afternoon jaunt to the Highland Links in North Truro, almost at the tip of the Cape. Founded in 1892, this nine-hole track is the oldest on the peninsula and may have the most personality as well. The original nine-hole course, which resembles a true Scottish links and has no fairway irrigation, was built on bluffs that rise 100 feet or so above the Atlantic and has views of the famed Cape Cod lighthouse. For a spell, the course was part of a hotel and resort run by a local family, and 1913 U.S. Open winner Francis Ouimet – a Massachusetts native – played an exhibition match there nearly a century ago.

Around that same time, it was determined that Highland needed a clubhouse. And with the sort of flintiness only a New Englander can fully appreciate, it got one by hauling to the course a scuttled barge that had washed up on the beach below, then converting it into a place golfers can hang out before and after their rounds. No reason to build something of your own, it seems, when cheaper options are available.

Highland Links did fairly well as a resort through the early part of the 20th century, and by the mid-1950s, it had been purchased by Hal Conklin, a former major league catcher. But with the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore during President Kennedy’s administration, the property became part of the National Park Service. Today, the old hotel is the Truro Historical Museum, and the course is managed by the town.

The Colerain is long gone as well, and the working lighthouse that used to sit by the seventh green has been moved closer to that tee because of erosion. But the stunning Atlantic views remain the same, and there still is a very homey, old-time feel about the spot, especially when you play in the off-season and have to slide your $10 green fee through a slot in the door of the ramshackle pro shop, which is closed from mid-fall to mid-spring. At Highland Links, honor actually extends beyond following the rules on the course.

And what an interesting course it is. The first hole is a straightforward - and drivable - par 4, and the second is a par 5 that doglegs to the left. You start that one from an elevated tee, and your ball disappears into a valley. Off in the distance on a wooded hill are several flight service domes, which were part of an old World War II Air Force surveillance station, and a granite Norman tower that came from the Boston train station. Legend has it that famed 19th century singer Jenny Lind, better known as the Swedish Nightingale, once sang from that spire, and a local resident was so enamored of her that he bought that section of the building and had it moved out to the Cape.

The Highland track has nine greens and 18 tees, and there’s a rugged, muni feel about it all. This is accentuated by the wind that blows across the fairways as well as the shaggy greens that roll a bit slow and the bunkers that are marred with tufts of grass growing through the sand. The course has plenty of variety and lets you hit several different clubs and shots. The ragged cart paths are lined with crushed clam and oyster shells, and every now and again golfers can watch whales and dolphins swim off the coast. Then, of course, there is the lighthouse, which makes it all feel a bit like Turnberry, and the blueberry bushes that become flush with fruit every summer. Pheasants call from their covers, while the gulls and terns soar overhead as the cerulean sea slides all the way to the horizon.

“This course is really a sightseers course,” says Sheldon Caldwell, 71, the Highland Links ranger and a longtime Cape Cod denizen. “It is steeped in history, and it has these great views, so lots of people come just to ogle. And then they go away thoroughly satisfied. The folks who come just to play golf, however, are not usually quite so happy.”

Perhaps they would be happier if they went down the road to the neighboring town of Wellfleet to dine at a seafood spot called Moby Dick’s. Opened by the Barry family in 1982, it is the sort of down-home eatery that brings people back again and again, with buoys, maps and fishing nets hanging from the walls and red-checked, plastic tablecloths lining the tabletops. Lobster and steamers, littlenecks and scallops, swordfish and clam bellies are all fresh and good and come from fishermen who go in and out of the nearby harbors of Chatham and Provincetown. If you want to bring your own beer or wine, so much the better.

It is possible, of course, to enjoy a more stylish golf experience on the Cape, and the best way to do that entails a night or two at the Wequassett Inn just outside Chatham. There is plenty to recommend at this excellent retreat, which comprises a series of cozy, well-appointed Cape Cod-type cottages overlooking Round Cove and includes a heated pool, tennis courts, fitness center and two restaurants. But the thing that closes the deal for golfers is the exclusive relationship it has with the nearby Cape Cod National Golf Club. This otherwise private course, which was designed by Brian Silva and opened in 1998, provides a limited number of tee times for Wequassett guests, who have a five-minute drive from their quarters to the first tee.

Cape Cod National is a first-rate track with a very appealing atmosphere. Let’s start with the amount of play it gets, which is minimal, and nowhere is that more apparent than the parking lot, which appears to be as empty as the course, even on Sunday mornings. There are no bustling bag drops or overly efficacious workers barking into headsets as they direct you to the pro shop or range. Rather, it has the very pleasant feel of the private club that it is, with terrific caddies to boot.

Then there is the course, a beautifully conditioned, 6,954-yard gem that runs across wooded ridges, down into hollows and past stretches of field grass and cranberry bogs. Even from the back tees, the course does not feel overly long, and the fairways are for the most part spacious, which means it is not too difficult a track for newcomers to handle. But don’t think for a moment there is anything easy about Cape Cod National; it puts a premium on steady play and good shotmaking, which means most of us are in trouble from the beginning.

Silva is a native of the Bay State and an admirer of Seth Raynor, among other Jazz Age architects. So he pays homage to that era with some wonderful work. The sixth hole is a classic Redan, measuring 203 yards, and the seventh is a short, uphill par 4 of only 311 yards that plays into a punchbowl green. There are monsters as well, such as the 467-yard second, the 471-yard 11th and the 459-yard 17th, all of which make you feel as if you should receive some sort of reward just for reaching them in two.

There are times at Cape Cod National when it is easy for golfers to get lost in their games and forget where they actually are. The pace is so relaxed, and the track so empty that it does not seem possible it is located on one of the most popular - and populated - vacation destinations in the country. And one, it is fair to add, that has more than its fair share of kitsch.

“That’s one of the things we like so much,” says a Cape Cod National member, asking that his name not be used. “It is a very simple and subdued place.

“But look over there,” he says, pointing to the sculpture of a seal that adorns one of the course’s water hazards. “The owner’s wife put that in. All we need now are a couple windmills and whales. But I don’t mind too much. It reminds me how nearby the miniature golf courses are.

“We have it all here in Cape Cod.”

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