Over the hills and fore away

Everyone can have a ball at the Royal and Ancient Chappaquiddick Links.

It can be tough for folks who first visit Martha’s Vineyard to visualize another smaller and even more rustic Island just a stone’s throw away (maybe literally, if you’ve got a good arm).

Even tougher still for people to imagine that the tiny Island of Chappaquiddick is home to one of America’s oldest golf courses — the Royal and Ancient Chappaquiddick Links. Founded in 1887 by adventurer and outdoorsman Frank Marshall, the course started out as a place for a small group of golf enthusiasts to kick off their shoes — sometimes literally — and play 24 holes with no stuffy rules or stringent dress codes.

To this day, the links maintain the whimsy and historical significance that the Marshall family instilled in the naturally picturesque stretch of North Neck almost 135 years ago. The process of hopping on the On Time ferry, which bounces back and forth between Memorial Wharf in Edgartown and the Chappy beach parking lot, is the start of a sort of initiation into this fascinating and unique golf culture.

“I always tell people who are first playing here ‘this is going to be totally unlike any golf experience you’ve ever had.’ More often than not, they’re well aware of that before they even arrive at the course,” Chris Kennedy, general manager at the links, told Vineyard Visitor during a sunny Saturday visit.

He giggled as he explained that getting to the course is all part of the experience, particularly for golfers who are seeking a departure from the conventional. For the links, the word “conventional” simply isn’t in the vocabulary. “This place is so absolutely unique — you’re driving down this winding dirt road, and after a couple minutes you start asking yourself ‘Am I really driving to a golf course?’” Kennedy laughed.

According to Kennedy, who has been working at the course for three years, Brad Woodger is the man who keeps the whole operation running smoothly. Woodger is Frank Marshall’s great-grandson, and he decided that he would continue the legacy of the Chappy Links and attempt to make the game of golf accessible to everyone who wanted to pick up a club.

“I started out helping Brad around the clubhouse, but before that I initially connected with him when I first decided to try golf three or four years ago. I became a member, started playing here pretty much every day,” Kennedy said. “We chatted all the time, became friends and then became coworkers.”

The Bennett family eventually purchased the course with the mission of keeping the experience alive for as long as possible. Kennedy said Mimi Bennett and George Bennett can be seen out on the links almost every day, enjoying the natural beauty of the place and keeping up on their game. “They love the course just as much as we do, just as much as anyone could love it, and they have done so much to keep this special place going,” Kennedy said.

For Kennedy, his favorite thing about the links is how welcoming and inclusive it is. Many people (Kennedy included) before coming to the Chappy course tend to see golf as haughty and only for the societal elite. But at the Chappy Links, financial barriers are greatly diminished, there’s no dress code — although pants are required — and golfers of all ages and skill levels can be seen out on the course on any given day. “We really try to keep the prices down so anyone can come here and play. It’s a great place for people to learn how to play golf, kids included,” Kennedy said. “That’s one big part of the charm of this place; it’s welcoming to everyone, it’s natural, it’s rustic, it’s fun, but you also get a genuine golf experience at the same time.”

On a clear weekend day, the course is often filled with players of all experience levels — some with single-digit handicaps who have been golfing their whole lives, and others who are just starting out. You can get gussied up in your finest golf attire, throw on some sandals and a T-shirt, or ditch the shoes altogether.

Generally, Kennedy said, two people can get through the entire nine holes in about an hour, but greens fees enable golfers to go around as many times as they please. Want to pack some sandwiches and spend a full day out on the course? No problem. Looking to play a quick nine holes and get back before lunch? Kennedy said the links offer a uniquely flexible opportunity for each desired golf experience. “The experience is whatever you want it to be,” Kennedy said.

For Kennedy, Woodger, and the rest of the small Chappy Links team, the priority is always customer satisfaction. They’re constantly checking the condition of the greens and maintaining them, and when a golfer walks off the course after a day of play with a smile stretched ear-to-ear, that’s the satisfaction they seek.

And that’s what Kennedy fell in love with immediately when he started working at the links — being out on the greens, interacting with golfers on a daily basis, and making sure that each guest’s experience is as distinctive and top-hole as possible. “My favorite part of my job is when I see people coming off the course after playing,” Kennedy said, “and I ask them what they thought, and their immediate reaction is ‘so much fun, I had a blast, it was awesome.’ That’s what we’re all about.”

Visit royalchappy.com for tee times, membership rates, or for more information. Other affordable golf-related activities on-Island include The Cove Golf & Grill: covemv.com, and the Riverhead Field frisbee golf course: bit.ly/Frisgolf.