Edgartown Golf Club

With nine holes and 12 greens, historic Edgartown GC blends quirk and quality in equal measure
Edgartown

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The following story is part of a larger feature, Glories of the Island, which attempts to better understand Martha’s Vineyard through its five courses. View the full feature here.

EGC, the island’s oldest course, rests on the edge of—you guessed it—Edgartown, a waterfront village settled in 1642 that boomed as a 19th-century whaling port. (Some of the fictional crewmen hunting Moby Dick hailed from Martha’s Vineyard.) EGC is an exceptionally fun nine-holer, ranked by the glossy golf mags as one of America’s best, and plays with real variation the second time around thanks to its 12 greens.

In recent years, the club has cleared the corridors so that on any given hole there’s serious sweep to the view of the property, with four or five holes in the frame and a good look over at the summer friends with whom you clink G&Ts in the evenings (afternoons), out to the houses on the waterfront that you like to fantasize about scooping when your ship comes in (so to speak) and to the white clapboard clubhouse and cart shack Hess maintains with his own hammer and nails. (He was a carpenter before beginning his 30-plus years at the helm.) The course tips out at fewer than 6,000 yards, and feels scaled to about 90%—the ideal kind of layout on which to grow up or slow down. The fairways and greens are small and wild, modeled, at least spiritually, off St. Andrews. The ninth/18th is a long (by EGC standards) uphill par 4 with a valley of sin fronting what Hess describes as a green the shape of “the perfect potato chip.”

Edgartown

Hess, who runs the place like a popular six-term prime minister, is given wide latitude. While the club is in many ways the island’s oldest school, it is also a place where you can seemingly walk out and do whatever, just as I did during my first visit, a lifetime ago. Hess makes a point of inviting anyone to at least call over to his office during the shoulder seasons so he can try to get you out. This is an important lesson: It is very Martha’s Vineyard to seem exclusive until you’re actually there. It’s like a castle with no windows or doors and a literal moat of seawater, but once you get inside, everyone’s offering you a drink and wondering why you didn’t get there sooner.

There are 170 members at EGC, about 80% seasonal and 20% full-time. The latter comprises the local members, a unique class that is prevalent at all three private courses on island. These year-round residents—the carpenters, the selectmen, the leader of the local wedding band—these are Hess’ people. On a standard weekday afternoon, one staffer told me, the parking lot fills up with work trucks as the island members jump out for their pre-dinner nine. A longtime island member added, “After five, guys play in cutoffs and T-shirts.” I mentioned to him that I’d not seen a course like this one before, simultaneously this old guard, but also this open—as impossible to join as they come, but also the private course you’re likeliest to sneak out on if you ask nicely. He agreed: “EGC is a total enigma, which is all Mark.”

Edgartown

It’s a unique balance to accommodate both the island’s wealthiest and its working class, and Hess seemingly lives on the seesaw between them. He even built his house on site at EGC—as well as the housing for several of his staffers—as one solution to the untenable real-estate prices on the island. (Hess is also Edgartown’s Affordable Housing Committee chairman.) Living that balance, respecting that balance, is essential to the survival of a club like EGC and to the island at large. What makes Martha’s Vineyard work, what keeps it from sucking itself down into an irrevocable whirlpool of disparity and resentment, are these overt efforts toward equitable use of the island’s glories among those who come to both live and visit. Hess may joke about the challenges of the seasonal crowd—“All winter, we wait for the summer, and all summer, we wait for the fucking winter”—but he knows each component needs the other. And so here is this course, this asset, finite in space but rich in time, that a club can be generous with. It’s a nice model for how to deploy golf as an equalizer and olive branch.