Sankaty Head Golf Club commemorates its centennial this September.
Sankaty Head Golf Club sits in the shadow of the 171-year-old Sankaty Head Lighthouse on the eastern end of Nantucket, the last visible evidence of the Laurentide ice sheet that extended down from Canada twenty-five thousand years ago. The course twists and turns through what nature left behind in a sea of scrub oak. From every vantage point, a player feels a connection to the place and its rolling terrain. The course can both delight the novice and challenge the scratch player. With the island being thirty miles out to sea, the wind at Sankaty is constant and ever-changing. A short par 4 might command the player to use an iron one day and a driver the next. The course plays firm and fast in true linksland fashion.
One hundred years ago, Sankaty began as one man’s gift and another man’s vision of what a championship course should be. The course came to be as a result of a team of friends who, having found an ideal setting, enlisted members and transformed a dream into reality. David Gray, a Detroit businessman, became serious about the prospect of developing a suitable golf course and clubhouse in ‘Sconset in 1919. Gray had recently become the primary beneficiary of an investment made by his father at the founding of the Ford Motor Company. With the windfall in hand, Gray assembled his good friends at his Milestone Cottage in ’Sconset on July 5, 1921, and proposed that he would acquire the land surrounding what was known as Mayflower Hill and fund the building of a clubhouse and the construction of a golf course. The Sankaty Head Golf Club was incorporated that day and his friends became the first board members. Almost immediately thereafter, options at $20 per acre were exercised on twenty-nine parcels of land, totaling 276 acres, and the footprint for the golf course and the clubhouse was established.
Gray and the new club board appointed the then two-year reigning champion golfer on Nantucket, H. Emerson Armstrong, to lay out the course and oversee its construction. Armstrong came from good golf stock. His father, George, was both a championship golfer (one of twenty-eight players who took part in the first “unofficial” U.S. Amateur championship in 1894) and had spent many years nurturing his son’s love of the game and golf course design. Gray understood that while not formally trained as a golf course architect, Armstrong had developed almost a symbiotic relationship with the Sankaty land on account of his extensive excursions hacking his way through the scrub oak that covered much of the island.
Armstrong wanted Sankaty to be a “championship” course equal to the great Scottish courses of his time. “Every lover of the Royal and Ancient Game of Golf, who has ever driven over the island of Nantucket, is impressed with wonderful possibilities from a golfing standpoint,” he told a Cape Cod tourism magazine in early 1922. “Its moors remind one of Scotland…The [Sankaty] course will be of championship nature, being built upon the most up to date lines of golf course construction…People who have played the celebrated British Courses say there is nothing finer on the other side of the water, so far as the possibilities of this Golf Course are concerned.”
Construction moved quickly from July 1921, and on September 2, 1922, Gray and his fellow Sankaty members were able to play their first round of golf on the front nine. The membership had swelled to more than 150 by that time, a healthy beginning for a new club. Today, 545 members, seasonal visitors and national and international golf champions enjoy Sankaty and all its challenges. “Oh, just look at it,” Gray said of his course a year after that first round. “It’s beautiful. Restful. That’s it, restful. Why, you could sit out here all day and look down across that stretch of country and never tire of it…I have traveled a great deal, and I have seen nothing more beautiful, more restful than this wonder country here at ’Sconset.”
For one hundred years, Sankaty has benefited from the ingenious design choices made by its course architect and the careful stewardship of the club leaders who have followed. To celebrate this milestone this September, Sankaty is hosting 264 talented mid-amateurs who have qualified for the 40th U.S. Golf Association Mid-Amateur Championship. There are golf courses and then there are golf courses, but with a stunning perch on the Atlantic in the shadow of one of the country’s most iconic lighthouses, Sankaty stands alone.