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Home is the Sailor

Look hard enough and one of America’s greatest lost links can still be found at Gibson Island, where nine holes and a grand idea remain
Home Is the Sailor

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Listen to a reading of this feature by Tom Coyne

The windows were dark, the driveway empty. I followed my new friend, Kevin, past the garage, ducking my way around the hedges and stepping into a backyard Eden at the water’s edge. 

Branches shaded a wooden bench along the riverbank, close enough to sit and dip your toes. A Maryland state banner hung slack on a flagpole; to my right, glass doors opened to a patio that led to a dock beside another dock, and then a long line of backyard piers poking into a quiet November current. 

Kevin assured me we weren’t trespassing—the house was owned by friends, neighbors of his who visited only on the weekends—and that was good, because we were lousy trespassers. The sun shone brightly on our skullduggery, and as our ankles waded through noisy brown leaves, Kevin shouted from the other side of the yard, “It’s hard to tell from the map! Some people think it was there, by the flagpole.”  

Home Is the Sailor

He was a retired D.C. attorney with a crisp white mustache that suited our Holmesian endeavor, and as he unfurled his map of the island, I decided that X should mark this spot: At my feet, the yard had turned curiously level, forming a landing about the size of a parking spot. It was too flat to be some sort of accidental patch, and as my eyes followed Kevin’s pointed finger toward another parcel jutting into the harbor, I felt the warm buzz of discovery. The backyards receded and the homes disappeared and, for a moment, I felt what prospectors must feel when they find yellow in the mud, that soul-fixing joy of a guess proved right. It wasn’t a grail or a diamond, and we weren’t the first to find it, but for guys in golf shoes, it felt no less miraculous: We had located a lost Redan par 3 by Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Jagger Raynor. And, judging by its shape and scope and setting, it might have been the greatest they ever devised.

“It’s a big reverse Redan, around and over the water,” Kevin explained, noting the hole’s left-to-right bend versus the right-to-left pitch of North Berwick’s archetype in Scotland. “But there was plenty of room for short hitters to bail out,” he continued, directing my attention to the bay-front homes that lined the left edge of the cove. “None of those homes, none of those trees were there. So you could hit it 150 and play the hole from that side, or the carry from tee to green would have been 190 over the water, to that sliver of grass you see there.”

That sliver was hard to see past all the boat slips, and the Redan’s signature sideboard kicker had been softened over the years as sunrooms and Adirondack chairs encroached. Not long after the course opened for play, in 1924, the stock market crash of ’29 sunk the Redan: The club needed cash, and it had waterfront to sell. Home lots replaced the par 3, and an alternative hole was built 50 yards inland, set in front yards now instead of out back. 

I loved what I was playing, yet mourned for what I wasn’t.

Tom Coyne

The stand-in hole was a fun one—150 over a pond to a petite punchbowl green—but it was nothing like that former test wrapped around a cove of the Magothy River, a one-shotter that posed a dozen different questions: Play for 4? Trust the kicker? Bunt it around the cove, hoist it to the meaty half of the green or knock the flag out of the hole? I’ve bogied my fair share of Redan holes, a favored template of Macdonald—perhaps the patriarch of American golf, and its first “architect,” per his own designation—but I’d never encountered one that incorporated Cape and Road hole touches as well (two more Macdonald/Raynor signature holes), or that seemed so vociferously, so undeniably awesome. And this one didn’t even have a pin—or a green, for that matter. There was a birdhouse atop a post where the hole might have been cut that day, had this been a day in 1924. 

The quandary I felt as I eyed the best par 3 that wasn’t followed me around the course that afternoon. I loved what I was playing, yet mourned for what I wasn’t. I was giddy about visiting a Mac/Raynor nine-holer that precious few design pundits knew existed, but my eyes wandered to the woods where nine other holes were grown over, wondering what was in them that compelled Macdonald to once declare that this was “the finest course in the United States.”  

He made his proclamation to a dining room full of golfers in 1924, a full 16 years after he’d completed his opus, the National Golf Links of America, a course meant to possess no Earthly peer—but now its own architect contended that it did. The finest course in the United States, however, would have one of the shortest title reigns in sports history: Within months of its official opening, Macdonald’s holes were altered, and his routing was eventually unwound. As I uncovered the events that so shifted the club’s trajectory, its logo took on an unintended significance: The letters “GIC” formed the sails and mast of a schooner perched atop the waves. The Gibson Island Club had weathered the tempest; it had been tested and tossed, but its bow still rose above the water.

It all started with a few cocktails. At least that was how Dr. Hugh Young described it in his 1940 autobiography, recounting how he invited Judge W. Stuart Symington Jr. to his Chesapeake property for a summertime party: 

He expressed amazement at the beauty of the spot and asked who owned Gibson Island adjacent. After his fourth mint julep he said he was going to buy it and make it a haven for yachtsmen and golfers. And so he did, in a grand and glorious way, without regard to expense, so much so that he went broke and dragged along with him his sympathetic brothers. But in the meantime he had organized the Gibson Island Club with splendid golf links. 

According to the archives at the island’s historical society, Symington was a less capricious buyer than Dr. Young suggested; the judge had actually been searching for a golf site for some time. He and his brother Thomas played their golf at Baltimore Country Club, and in those days, before BCC moved to its roomier Five Farms campus, the course was jammed on the weekends. Playing golf in the summertime meant staying behind while your family left the city for the beach. Symington imagined a getaway for Baltimore families that would offer boating and tennis and golf—and not just mediocre resort golf, but a layout capable of hosting America’s best in a national championship. After a year’s search, he found the sandy loam he was looking for in the soil of Gibson Island. He had no experience in real estate or golf development, but he got one thing entirely right: He knew the best golf happened on sandy soil, and Gibson Island would be the only course in the region to have it. 

Symington and a small financial syndicate paid $165,000 for the island in 1920, just a few years after it nearly became a boardwalk and amusement park summer town. That 1916 proposal faded when America entered World War I, and Symington now had 950 acres to fulfill his vision for a “well-equipped, well-run golf, tennis and yachting club within the reach of attractive people of moderate means.”  Such was the ambition he reported to his partners, who quickly got to planning the island’s layout. In choosing the designers who would transform its farmland into a sporting community, there was a genius in Symington’s real-estate naïveté: He went out and hired heavyweights.

Macdonald and Raynor were commissioned for the golf course—or golf courses, rather, as they were charged with designing two 18-hole routings. (Gibson Island would have been the only 36-hole project in Macdonald’s portfolio, had the build followed its blueprints.) As for the designer who would draw the island’s master plan, Symington hired none other than the Olmsted Brothers, a firm whose golf-community credits included Fishers Island, Yeamans Hall, and Mountain Lake. The Olmsteds’ father, Frederick Sr., cut his design teeth on little projects like New York City’s Central Park, and their last name was synonymous with landscape architecture in America. They were no strangers to commissions from the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, and I had to wonder if Symington felt like one of those barons as he watched America’s most exalted architects map out his island ideal. His ambitions were tycoon-size for sure—if only they were backed by tycoon-size resources. It was a discrepancy looming on the island’s horizon, but first there was golf to be played. 

Home Is the Sailor

Those initial years at Gibson Island must have bubbled with all the fox-trotting enthusiasm of the 1920s: A clubhouse was under construction, new homes were filling sold lots and Raynor was engineering the most dramatic golf holes on the Eastern Seaboard. But, like the Jazz Age itself, the party ended abruptly; after the course opened with a three-day tournament in 1924, the reviews came in fast and they were unkind. Newspaper accounts deemed the holes too difficult—the slopes were too severe, the angles too exacting, the carries too stout. Within months of its debut, the finest course in the United States went back under the knife, its features softened in a “campaign of thorough renovation and radical alteration,” according to a Baltimore columnist who applauded the changes. 

A man accustomed to laying down verdicts now had to accept one from the golfing masses. It must have broken Symington’s heart to sign off on the changes. He had dreams of a course that could host the U.S. Open, and unfortunately, he got one. Should he have striven to capture the imagination of the golf world or kept his paying members’ balls out of the harbor? Symington might have been able to stand by his holes if lot sales were brisker, but they lagged behind the planners’ projections. The island was only 20 miles from Baltimore, but backwoods roads in 1924 made for a bumpy two-and-a-half-hour drive—not quite the breezy getaway Symington was selling. He had no choice but to water down Macdonald’s masterpiece by moving tees and shortening carries. (On the closing Alps hole, the green was moved forward 50 yards, robbing it of its signature blind, crest-the-summit approach.) The Baltimore Sun may never have printed truer words than those from an article praising the softer, gentler Gibson Island: “The rank and file of linksmen was then and probably always will be made up largely of duffers and near-duffers.” Punish the duffers at your peril, especially when you need them to buy houses on your golf island.

Symington passed away in 1926, and given what was in store for his course, the timing may have been compassionate. The market crash of 1929 brought the club to the brink of financial ruin, and nine holes of Macdonald’s layout—holes six through 14, the course’s most brilliant stretch, but also its most remote and thus expensive to maintain—had to be abandoned. The 36-hole dream was whittled to nine, and the best of those soon were surrendered as well, when the reverse-Redan third was moved in order to market more waterfront lots.

In the end, none of it would be enough to save the island from the effects of the Depression. The Gibson Island Land Company was in the hole $500,000, a second mortgage had failed and, in early 1936, all unsold lands were surrendered to the mortgage company. The island was certainly due for some good fortune, and it finally got some in March of that same year, when a collection of denizens successfully negotiated to buy the island property back. The homeowners organized themselves into the Gibson Island Corporation, meaning the entire island would now be owned and operated by its residents. It still is today. 

Gibson Island was saved, but it had come desperately close to becoming golf’s next Lido. Macdonald’s disappeared Lido Golf Club, on Long Island, has taken on mythological status since its closing in 1942, and Gibson Island nearly challenged its ranking as the best no-longer golf course in the world. But with so much of the course missing and changed, did Gibson already qualify to be counted among golf’s lost treasures? As I followed Kevin from the clubhouse to the island museum and out onto the course, the question came with us: Was Gibson Island a golden-age tragedy or a present-day triumph? 

I had a few holes left to figure it out. Meanwhile, I was having a damn good time.

The fifth was my favorite hole yet, a beefy par 4 hugging the waters of Red House Cove, where we putted against a backdrop of bare white masts. While golf had been through the gauntlet at Gibson Island, boating had always thrived, and yachting carried the island’s recreational reputation. (The clubhouse is packed with sailing trophies and memorabilia that even this land lover found impressive.) Folks from D.C. and Baltimore were more likely to know Gibson Island for its yacht club than its golf course, but as Kevin pointed me toward the forest behind the fifth green, I found a leaf-covered path leading me into the woods and the course that could have been.

The current-day design turns left after the fifth, toward a post-Macdonald par 3 built to chop the course in half and bring golfers west, over to Gibson Island’s closing trio. According to Kevin’s map, the original sixth continued north along the water—a big hole, likely a par 5—ending at the start of a tight peninsula of golf holes that played out to a cape called Goat Point. (After the holes were abandoned, goats were brought in to manage the overgrowth—and of course they ate everything else on the island too. Goat stories have only one ending.) 

As we stood at the edge of the water, my eyes went from the holes on the map to the banks of the peninsula across the harbor, and suddenly the abstract became clear. I could see them, the missing golf holes, and I was strangely certain I was looking at the best stretch ever hatched. My appraisal was surely bolstered by the thrill of our hunt, but it didn’t mean I was wrong. The water-hugging eighth was a classic Short template, and it appeared to me as Sleepy Hollow’s thumbprint 16th, ringed with sand, only this version was set snugly against the water. The par-4 ninth was so freakishly good that it looked like the golf hole from which all other golf holes descended: Its birdie line demanded a long water carry to a morsel of fairway before another carry over the harbor to a plateau green swaddled by a horseshoe bunker. (The green’s ledge was still right there, by the back door of the home that now occupied the peninsula.) I tried to recall another Mac/Raynor hole as ambitious as this double carry through Chesapeake winds, yet my memory failed me. Gibson Island’s 10th might have been a candidate—a waterside Biarritz that played along the opposite edge of the cape. Nos. 11 and 12 looked irresistible as well, a par 4 and par 3 with greens protected by bends of the Magothy River, plus more wraparound Macdonald bunkering. (Kevin’s original aerial had me siding with some of those early Gibson critics: Every green was at least partially wrapped by a trough of sand, and some of them looked bottomless.) 

[The monument] wasn’t celebrating a golf or real estate victory. It was celebrating guts.

Tom Coyne

Had this stretch of holes survived, and had Symington landed his national tournament, I imagined Goat Point joining Amen Corner in the American golf lexicon. (At a minimum, it would have made people forget the Bear Trap.) Pardon the grandiosity, but it’s a sentiment shared by Daniel Wexler as well, in his compendium Missing Links: “Having wended its way onto a narrow peninsula…Gibson Island’s next three holes represented a Hall-of-Fame run, the likes of which have seldom been seen concurrently or since.” It wasn’t hyperbole. It was just hard to see it through the trees.

We left the forest and found the next tee, and we played the holes as they’d been rearranged, and they were good. They were excellent, actually. The short seventh with its tiny volcano-top green was 295 yards of self-flagellating fun, and the par-5 eighth had kinks and angles aplenty. (It played as a par 4 on your second go-round; all the Gibson holes have two sets of tees for a fresh back nine.) The altered closing Alps hole wasn’t a complete loss; in fact, moving the green atop the hillock’s hump as opposed to behind it made for a foursome-bonding upward assault, and once the summit was reached, the vista poignantly capped a day at Gibson Island. Most of the island comes into view, from the tennis courts that had replaced this hole’s former green down to the cozy new clubhouse where yachting prizes crowded the walls and where I met Judge Symington’s framed gaze in the dining room. 

Beside the main clubhouse, a tidy guest cottage offered a dozen rooms overlooking the Chesapeake’s whitecaps. There was a large pool and bay-side fire pits to our right, and across the way, a white gabled pro shop was neighbors with the island post office. Just out of view was Otter Pond, its banks lined with canoes and kayaks, and I already wished it was next summer, so I could take Kevin up on his invitation to return here with my family. (Before you go searching for Gibson Island on TripAdvisor, please note: You need to be invited onto the island—the guard by the land bridge is no pushover—but should you meet a resident, they’re a hospitable bunch; snobbery does not thrive here.) 

The first hole was now below us, and I watched where a few golfers hit practice balls into its fairway. With no space for a driving range, the practice tee was beside the first tee; it seemed a clever fix for a space problem familiar to old courses, and as long as you didn’t play a yellow golf ball, the system worked well. 

I could see long water behind the first green, near the sandbar road that carried visitors onto the island, by the tall monument to W. Stuart Symington Jr. It was a stone post topped with a stone carving of a ship of many sails, floating on the breeze like Peter Pan’s nighttime clipper. Carved into the rock were lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem”: “Home is the sailor, home from the sea.” 

Home Is the Sailor

I had seen and heard of plenty of golf communities going bankrupt—some survived, plenty didn’t—but this was the first I’d encountered that had gone belly-up and built a monument to its developer. Typically they just took him or her to court, but as I passed the pillar on my way off the island, I was glad it was there. I wanted to thank something or someone who had anything to do with the moment a Baltimorean of unremarkable wealth turned his life over to an idea. Most golf developments are bankable builds in sure-thing markets vetted by careful financiers, so let us not forget the Symingtons of golf, who truly rolled the bones. Golf’s first 50 years in this country were full of them, and that monument on Gibson Island might as well have been to them all. It wasn’t celebrating a golf or real estate victory. It was celebrating guts.

I called my wife on the drive home to tell her about what I had found, and I didn’t mention lost holes or Charles Blair Macdonald. I told her about the tennis courts where she could get a game on weekday afternoons, and a pool setup where the kids would happily ignore us for hours. I told her about the cottages, and the homes for rent, and the canoes and the beach, and the meticulous little island museum. I described the course—short and sporty, great for all of us to play together, or for me to go around in the morning before anyone was awake. It would be nice to not have to decide between playing golf and taking the kids somewhere on a July weekend. There was an island, I explained, that was our family summer ideal, and it was just two and a half hours from home. She listened, and then she said the place sounded like a brilliant idea