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Glories of the Island

With its complex blend of plumbers and presidents, the best way to understand Martha's Vineyard is to grab a tee time

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Listen to a reading of this feature by the author.

I figured my first trip to Martha’s Vineyard was going to be my one and only, which is why I felt obligated to poke around. I was playing with a map on my phone, killing time at a Mobil station while waiting for the ferry back off island, when I noticed that I was snooping distance away from a private golf course. And so, as any golf tragic might, I took the opportunity to blow past the “No Trespassing” sign and sneak into the members’ parking lot at Edgartown Golf Club, where I got my first eyeful of the three colors I’d come to associate most vividly with the island: the deciduous greens of East-Coast-in-August foliage; the toasted golds of fescue and native scrub; and the electric-blue band of the Atlantic Ocean humming like a marquee on the horizon. That afternoon, I watched some old folks in Tom Brokaw tortoiseshells knock a pair of iron shots onto the green near the entrance road, waited to get kicked out (but shockingly wasn’t), then bid farewell to the island for what I thought would be for good.

When I returned to EGC recently, a decade later, it was with a strange new relationship to the island, where I’d unexpectedly gone native and was living full-time. Short version: I met a lovely woman with ties to Martha’s Vineyard, got married there, had a baby, then spent the better part of 2020 with our newborn at my wife’s family’s house in the woods of MVY. Over the course of that year, I gained a new understanding of this place, mostly through its five courses. I learned how each represents different strains of life on the island and how they all somehow coexist, and I got a better sense of why I wasn’t escorted off the property of EGC all those years ago.

When most people imagine the Vineyard, they see one endless summer of sailboats and lobster rolls, Cape Cods and Black Dogs, private planes and private beaches, former presidents and sons of former presidents. These people are right and they are wrong. Located off the southern coast of Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard has about 20,000 year-round residents, but its population swells to north of 150,000 in the summer, a number that fluctuates depending on weather and weddings and weekend rentals and the status of a pandemic. The island is 96 square miles—which puts it, in size, right between the Hawaiian islands of Lanai and Niihau (or the European microstates of Malta and Liechtenstein)—but the cultural imprint is outsized, given some of the Vineyard’s long-standing residents. There are movie stars and musicians, newspaper magnates and bestselling authors, secretaries of state and nightly news anchors (seemingly all of whom can be found eating dinner at the homey Chilmark Tavern some nights). But there are also fishermen, farmers, plumbers and postal workers, and they far outnumber the seasonal crowd. It is their island more than anyone’s, but outsiders wouldn’t always know it.

Every last person comes to the island for their own reason, but also for more or less the same one: to be on Martha’s Vineyard, one of the most curious puzzle pieces of our country, an island of six towns and varied landscapes that bleed into one another. Driving end to end from the old gingerbread Victorians of Oak Bluffs to the briny seafood shacks of Menemsha, the stone-walled farmlands of Chilmark and the end-of-the-world clay cliffs of Aquinnah (which would make a world-class site for a golf course if it weren’t so obviously conservationally forbidden), it can feel as if you’re slowly turning the radio dial, catching bits of one frequency as you transition over into the other.

Those different frequencies attract all kinds of ears belonging to all types of people;  it can feel like the full spectrum of American living. That gamut is expressed by the range of the five golf courses, and often, more than most places I’ve been, the spectrum is present as a whole within each of them. Building an understanding of the dynamics of each course unlocked for me the delicate balance of the greater place. “Five battlefields in all grace the gentle slopes and flatlands of the island,” Mark Hess, the longtime general manager of EGC, read to me recently from a book he’s planning to publish. “Each club has its own special ambience…and each equally plays a part in making Martha’s Vineyard what it is today.”

This is the balance of Martha’s Vineyard writ large: People make an effort to get there, and they want to feel rewarded for that effort. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of first-time day-tripper to born-and-raised year-rounder, there is a proprietary sense that imbues almost every feeling and interaction on island. People come for that feeling of the playground belonging to them. They want a piece of it, and they believe that they, as much as anyone else above or below them, are entitled to that feeling of belonging.

In their own ways, each of the five courses has an inherent sense of how to manage the balance. It is an animating feature of how they structure access to their golf. Everyone in the ecosystem on the island needs one another. And the island—all of its courses, with their greens and golds and blues—is at its best, perhaps as great as anywhere there is, when everyone recognizes that they each benefit in ways large and small from the existence of the other.