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Royal & Ancient Chappaquiddick Links

The course—known colloquially as Royal Chappy—is more like playing golf in your fun friend's backyard
Royal Chappy

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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.

On the last day of our year living on island, my wife, baby and I took a ferry 527 feet across Edgartown Harbor to another island—the island just off the island—in search of the Royal & Ancient Chappaquiddick Links. That name comes with tongue firmly planted in cheek, as the course is neither royal nor ancient, nor Royal and Ancient. It’s also not a links, and though it is certainly stitched right there into the soil of Chappaquiddick, it is in no way associated with history’s most infamous Chappaquiddick incident, and to my knowledge does not have regulars among the surviving Kennedy clan. The course—known colloquially as Royal Chappy—is more like playing golf behind the house of the friend of yours with the best backyard.

Royal Chappy

Royal Chappy is run these days by Brad Woodger, great-grandson of the property’s original owners, who came to Chappaquiddick from Boston 130 years ago to set up a little weekender hunting camp. People certainly lived in Edgartown back then, but Chappaquiddick was the wilds. The course began, just as it looks like it did, as a handful of holes crisscrossing a scrubby sand plain. It has evolved into something not much more than that, and is all the better for it.

There is, of course, a deep embrace in the greater game toward minimalist golf course architecture where the world’s most talented designers use extraordinary artistry to reflect back an engineered version of the natural landscape. It is, like modern art, a clean, expensive, aesthetically pleasing conjuring of simplicity, balance and harmony. Royal Chappy, in a different vein, is the art equivalent of the woodworker at the county fair selling handcrafted mailboxes. I love a handcrafted mailbox. I love how that unfussy, actually minimal minimalism can exist too.

Check-in takes place at a homey shack, next to which is parked the ’71 VW bus that can pick you up at the Chappy ferry (recommended, if you’re staying in Edgartown). The single in front of me on the first tee surveyed the foursome of beginners in front of him and audibled to starting on No. 4. The round was filled with pleasant jumping around. “Everyone finds a way to get in their holes,” Woodger said about the fluidity with which people move through his course.

Behind No. 1 tee is a little merch shed, where the famed Royal Chappy logo—a crow wearing a crown—adorns T-shirts, hats and bags. Retail has become a big part of making the place work as a financial proposition. During COVID Year One, the course broke even for the first time ever, inundated as it was with people, like my family, camping out temporarily on MVY. In COVID Year Two, they found a path into the black. But the balance is fragile.

Royal Chappy

“We’re still at a place where people show up and have the experience of feeling like they’ve discovered it themselves,” Woodger told me. “We want to preserve that.” They could juice the numbers, push out the edges of the season, rent the place for weddings more often. But the sparseness is a huge part of the appeal. You take a ferry to an island to a ferry to an island to a paved road to a dirt road to a stand of pines that opens onto a funky little oasis that will remind any golfer but one with the country-clubbiest of origins of their first days playing the game, hitting shots in a field to that tree over there or that far-left bush. This field has nice tees and greens, too. But the pure back-to-basics of the whole thing is invigorating. No lectures about architectural referents. No course ratings or handicap differentials. A handmade mailbox.

Or, better yet: the best kind of barbecue joint. “It really does feel like running a restaurant sometimes,” Woodger said. You’re preserving the specialness for each person who makes the pilgrimage, but your margins are thin, and anything you might do to make more money might destroy the very thing that makes you so special in the first place. “Right now I still drive people from the ferry. It’s my phone number on the site. It might be easier to get away from that, but then what if something goes wrong on someone else’s watch? It’s always been just me.”

Royal Chappy

Royal Chappy, like so much of Martha’s Vineyard, is a complex mix of inside-outside, public-private, elitist and egalitarian, freedom and impermissibility. It requires as much effort to get there as anywhere in the country, and by virtue of that fact, you will be greeted with open arms. “If someone turns up without a tee time who’s made the effort to get there, it’s not like I’m gonna turn them away,” Woodger says. “The way we do things is the way we do things for a reason: to try to keep everyone happy.”

Everyone you meet on Martha’s Vineyard, whether they are there for two days a summer or 365 days a year, feels that they own a stake of the island—and that they, in turn, are owed by the island. That this road, this beach, this field, this tree is theirs for the taking, or at least for the enjoying. Royal Chappy is a piece of private land, open and public as it feels, and it is being offered (for a price) at the pleasure of the owner. People hopping on during the off-season never used to be a problem. But the more prominent the course becomes, the more people have a memorable time playing there or attending a wedding or grilling out at a birthday party, the more they want to get back, even as the course is teetering on the precipice of inundation.