5,859 yards, 123 slope from the Black tees
In Kennebunkport, Maine, Cape Arundel was established in 1896. A golf course was built at that time but was fairly nondescript. Alas, the club commissioned Walter Travis to re-design their golf course, which opened in 1920. The re-design included an expansion across Bass Creek, where the Fourteenth through Seventeenth and Eighteenth tee reside. Travis convinced the club to purchase the land as part of the project. Residing about half an hour south of Portland, Maine and a couple miles from the Atlantic, the course jostles about the hills and banks of Grist Mill Pond (it’s a river), with its various inlets impacting the terrain in random ways that the course takes advantage of. A note about Grist Mill Pond. This is the name Google Maps provides of the river that envelopes the course, but after looking into it more closely, I’m pretty sure this is not the case. The main waterway appears to be the Kennebunk River while the water separating the Second and Third from the member’s practice area is the Golf Mill Brook.
The course as it is today is essentially as Travis intended. This was not always, the case, however, and like most things worthy of note, was the result of lots of meticulous work. Bruce Hepner was brought in to develop a Master Plan in 1997. At that point, the greens had shrunk, the course was overgrown with trees and there was no fairway irrigation. Hepner started with tree work, then went to work in restoring the greens back to their original size and contours. The lack of an irrigation system, however, stifled these efforts to fully unlock the potential of the design so in 2009, an extensive project included fairway drainage and irrigation, as well as updating the bunkers. With the fairways now in great shape, the course could start to bring back original mowing lines that rely on firm and fast conditions as well as width for strategic angles into the greens. The one thing Hepner didn’t do was lengthen. The undulating fairways, leading to the various chipping areas tilting in assorted directions into the all world beautifully complex greens meant the course was engaging enough without additional distance. And so it is today.
The Bush family are longtime members, with the clubhouse named for President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush also a member. In fact, several Presidents have played here and the Bushes have hosted a number of tour players and celebrities. Among them was Phil Mickelson, who broke the course record in 2006 with a 60.
As I noted in my 2021 year in review, “[t]here’s a friendly Americana charm that set in as I drove down the Main Street a few miles away and my car seemed to turn into a Dolorean and travel back several decades as I pulled into the parking lot and walked to the unassuming clubhouse sitting at a crook of the Grist Mill Pond (that’s more of a river). The First laughs at you teasingly with the large swale in the fairway that leaves the approach completely blind. And so it goes the entire round. A set of brilliant greens that use their contours and bumps superbly, where putting is still a game of skill instead of nerves. The course crashes and careens into itself a couple times, abuts by an ancient cemetery and even what I believe were some apple trees in play while the Grist Mill Pond (river) greets us on this shot and that. It’s an elegant classic romp of quirk and course knowledge in a sublime setting. It’s the kind of place I tell myself I need to return and spend some real time at and wish it so, during those long days or sleepless nights, seeing myself among the regulars, walking the course endlessly while happily growing old.”
There was certainly a transformation as I moved towards the coast and out of the evergreen. I immediately wished I had my family with me and a few more days to properly visit. The sense of place was rich with comfortable appeal and as I walked on to the porch of the clubhouse that overlooked the river, I was glad to have time to mill about before teeing off. There are moments we all take, more often on vacation, where we’re able to simply just be. No talking or thinking of once was or what was about to be or even what should be right then. No, it’s simply becoming part of the surroundings and existing with everything else. There’s a deep calm to that. Sitting in front of the clubhouse and looking out to the river as it moved over the rocky creeks and nooks below, it was one of those moments.
Another sunny, clear, vibrant day that happened to be hot hot hot. I was paired up with a couple members and another gentleman who was on a similar quest as mine in trying to play all fifty states. He was older and had visited more of the states. It was pleasant company and as one of the members acting as tour guide, we set off.
The First is a 367 yard par 4 (from the Black tees). The river is with us along the left and a large swale is out in the distance from the tee, which blocks the view of the rest of the hole. The tee shot is whether you can get past the swale. Once past it, the fairway starts to gently descend to the green, which does not fully reveal itself until you’re almost right on top of it. Its contours within general sweeping pushes and pulls is our indoctrination into one of the best set of greens out there. Mind the downhill to the green, which seems to pull to the left, towards the river. It’s a great opening in how it eases the golfer into the journey, yet includes just enough quirk and varied movement to start showing glimpses of fascination early on.
The Second is a 309 yard par 4. Another waterway is with us on the left, a little more assertive with its presence than on the First, as the fairway moves uphill. In fact, the tee is on a crook where water is behind and to the left of the golfer. The tee shot must carry some wetlands before the fairway and then is some what blind, with the right center looking like the ideal line. Indeed, the green is set to the right a bit, a small entry way just short of the green leading to it between a bunker on either side. The mounding near the green shows us that those who managed to stay on the left off the tee have a better view and angle in while those further to the right will have to deal with trees along that side, which really only interfere if you’re trying to draw the approach.
The Third is a 153 yard par 3. The water still at the left, this is a full carry to the green, which pulls strongly towards the front and left. Bunkers are front short and to the right. If the first two greens were passively engaging, this one decides to make sure the point is not missed; the greens are the soul of the game. A mid to short iron carry par 3 becomes endlessly interesting with its green, which befuddles the golfer as to a proper landing area, all of which changes with the pin position. It’s a great par 3.
The Fourth is a 398 yard par 4. Now moving along River Road on the left, it should be noted any golfer who hooks his ball will not fare well on the first five holes. The tee shot is blind once again but the trees on either side frame the corridor in which we set out. The fairway tilts a little from left to right as well. Moving over the hill and getting a full view of the fairway and green, we see that it is a good width with a couple small bunkers on either side. The width fully feeds into the green, where that left to right movement is a little more pronounced. This green is much more subtle than the last, the interior movement not as immediately apparent. Indeed, standing over my four foot par putt, I could have written an entire thesis paper on what I was seeing with the movement.
The Fifth is a 340 yard par 4. While the green is off to the left, the majority of golfers will be teeing off to the wide right fairway, which is partially blind. A gully separates this fairway from the green and is deep enough that the approach must carry it to the green on the other side. An aiming pin is set up so the tee shot can be properly adjusted and it will be less than driver. Note that the fairway starts to move downhill and to the left towards the gully as you get closer to it, with really cool mounding set up on that side. While I was inwardly beaming with pride on my well hit 3 wood, I realized my work was mostly still ahead of me. The green is wide and moves towards the gully in general. The width is actually confounding in trying to line up the approach and those who end up on the opposite side of the pin will be maneuvering around assorted contours. It’s short only in length. The challenge is substantial.
The Sixth is a 118 yard par 3. A short forced carry over water where the green is set on a more severe hillside that moves from back to front, devilishly.
The Seventh is a 389 yard par 4. Now moving to the interior of the course, the tee shot is straight out and although there are trees here and there, the width is inviting even if the mounds and contouring hide a lot of the ground from the tee here. A few bunkers are on the right while some trees are on the left. The green is ahead, at grade. In fact, both our fairway and the fairway of the next hole feed into it, creating a cool, breezy feel as we negotiate the breaks with the flat stick.
The Eighth is a 378 yard par 4. Still heading in the same direction, while ultimately will be right next to the Second green, we have yet another wide fairway to hit to from the tee. With the smaller acreage upon which the course is set, this is no small feat. The fairway is mostly content to let the golfer find a satisfactory approach position without too much fuss, knowing that the green complex will challenge the golfer as much as he can handle. Bunkers short of the green essentially bisect the fairway and green and create a false front before it. Those who are able to move past those bunkers and the false front are faced with a green with a good amount of contours, all of it moving to the left in general. There’s not a whole lot of room to miss off of it; bunkers are at the rear, the Second green is off to the immediate left and a bunker is at the front right, while the right side is no good for the most part based on the movement and speed of the green. I actually lucked out with a fat approach shot that left me with a wedge into the green, allowing a little more control to the hole.
The Ninth is a 476 yard par 5. Remarkable routing. We have looped around and reached the Second at an angle, which leaves a wedge between the holes for the tee shot, once again utilizing every inch of the property efficiently. A dog leg left where the tee shot is open yet blind. The turn comes early but we must search for the green amidst the hills and mounds. Specifically, mounds with bunkers rise up and impede our progress to the green, which are a little over a hundred yards from the green. The green, and the short grass around it, is immense, moving left to right. The blind shots add to the strife of the first and only par 5 on the course, where prior experience is a premium.
The front nine is a lovely parade of short par 4’s and 3’s with some of my favorite greens played on. Varied strategy at just about every shot as well. I would rank them 1, 7, 5, 2, 9, 3, 4, 8, 6.
The back nine starts with the 333 yard par 4 Tenth. Still moving in the same direction as the Ninth, this is a dog leg right that gets us to the other side of the property where four parts of the river converge. The land seems to open up here as we go slightly downhill and across the entrance road to the green, where mounding follows us on the right and the green falls off rather suddenly at the rear. My approach ended up back there but did not go in the water and my recovery shot was a memorable one, getting close to the hole for a little scrambling. The approach is much more precarious than it seems, as I discovered firsthand, so respect the movement that is not readily apparent at first glance.
The Eleventh is a 339 yard par 4. We rotate towards River Road where it meets the entrance road and the tee shot must carry all the water and wetlands below to reach the fairway on the other side, which by the way runs perpendicular to us. I lined up wrong and ended up almost on River Road at the next hole. That’s part of the equation here; committing to an angle off the tee that is attainable in carry while leaving a favorable approach into the green, which is on the other side of the road, right next to the Fifth green. The green is a marvelous one, a punchbowl yet with a raised mound island in the middle, where the pin happened to be placed the day of my round. There’s lots of room before the green to use while not so much on any of the other sides. It’s a great par 4 with a charming and confounding diagonal to deal with off the tee.
The Twelfth is a 399 yard par 4. The economy; the tee shot snugly between the green and road, setting out to the river on the opposite side of the property from the front nine. The fairway dog legs slightly right on the other side of the road and then fattens, so those in the know will blast their tee shot over or near the tree to the right to take advantage. Like the Tenth, the fairway starts to bounce downhill to the green, a single bunker on the right defending.
The Thirteenth is a 167 yard par 3. A forced carry over water to the green on the other side, which moves quick from back to front. The treacherous river bank used well, even more so than we saw at the Sixth. Moreover, there’s no where to miss off the green. This is one of those shots, every round should have a handful of them, where the golfer summons his resolve and skills and must focus. The green is generous for this purpose and you’re on a classic Travis masterpiece at the riveting Atlantic coast of Maine, so give it your best.
The Fourteenth is a 387 yard par 4. The course seems to mimic the randomness of the waterways in how they meander, cross and intersect. Perhaps Travis strived for this and felt this additional land on the other side of the river added to this theme. The tee shot is one of the longer carries and as we saw at the first five holes, left is no good at all. Once we hot the tee shot, we move across the bridge to reach the fairway, which arches and tilts toward the water that moves along that side through the green. I had to be the bearer of bad news when we were at the Seventeenth and I saw a tee shot here hit the fairway yet had too much side spin on it and headed straight for the water, darting in. I tried to soften the news by altering the golfer the drive was strong and hit the fairway, but he appeared inconsolable. A mound with rough is at the center of the fairway close to the green to complicate matters some what. The green and mounding really stood out for me here. The fascination really never ended.
The Fifteenth is a 341 yard par 4. Within the trees to the right of the tee is a small cemetery, the breeze wafting through the limbs and leaves in solemn, peaceful tones. The tee shot heads back out to a sea of mounds and hills, which blinds us to where the ball lands. More creative, lively mounding sprouts up in the rough and a couple times in the fairway while a tree, an apple tree I think, unabashedly guards the front right of the green. An unusual feature but I liked it, even when I had to hit my approach over it. The green is large, bold and subtle all at once some how.
The Sixteenth is a 210 yard par 3. A long par 3 with plenty of room to miss and like the hole prior, a large green that appears subtle but has areas of strong movement out of no where. It’s the only par 3 without a forced carry.
The Seventeenth is a 358 yard par 4. Heading back towards the water where we crossed at the Fourteenth, the tee shot is straightforward enough. It is the approach, however, that is not straightforward at all. Completely blind, the green is well below the fairway, out of sight, so the golfer must improvise and simply hit where he thinks it might be. Because of the slope leading to the green and those around it, center line shots are ideal while those coming in from the sides are subject to the whims of the contours. I had to come in from the right and even though my approach was strong, an unfortunate contour repelled my shot in disgust, where it ended up in some wicked lie off the rear of the green. It’s a great par 4 that certainly leaves the golfer wanting to play it again with their newfound knowledge from the last play.
The Eighteenth is a 397 yard par 4. The tee shot is our last and as we should expect, is a forced carry over the river. The fairway moves uphill then crosses the road then narrows as it climbs to the green. The short grass leading up to the green is a good one for a miss while it seems to drop off unceremoniously on the other sides. And as you look up as you’re getting the ball out of the hole, you realize you’re a few steps from the First tee, and the clubhouse a few more paces away. Mesmerized and enjoying the round, I finally came to. I started for the First tee again, out of instinct more than anything else, before realizing my travels were before me. It was a pure round with great company, fulfilling golf and a charming unassuming setting. Everyone was nice and pleasant. In all, it was a great day with the things I value and enjoy in the game.
The back nine seems to cover more land and certainly is set on more diverse terrain, along with a bit more challenge off the tee. I would rank them 17, 11, 15, 10, 13, 18, 14, 12, 16.
Generally, Cape Arundel is a pleasantly special place that is wonderfully designed, particularly with the greens. The design is of note for how it remains engaging even with its classic characteristics still intact. The greens excel in accomplishing this, as does the mounding, swales and angles into the greens, all of it using every ounce of the landscape. Set on a smaller parcel of property, the efficient design is along the lines of Merion East in how in maximizes space in the right way so nothing ever feels confined. In fact, it’s mostly the opposite as wider corridors and fairways feed into larger rumpled greens. It’s one of those places that is gospel on how short par 4’s and 3’s can be infinitely interesting, demonstrating length is only a single design trait not necessarily necessary for engaging golf. Beyond the design, the sense of place here is invaluable. Simplistic, relaxing yet with refined linings, it’s easy for the soul of the game to thrive at a place like this.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A room within the clubhouse with a nice selection of apparel and the like. The 41 room is like a very nice living room where it didn’t feel right to sit in with golf attire on although I doubt it would have been frowned upon. A more vintage locker room is next to it, where some may congregate from time to time.
This was likely the most ambitious days of the trip. After the round, in a sweaty pool of exhaustion, I drove off for Upstate New York. It would be the longest stretch of a drive at one time and the Friday afternoon traffic didn’t help. At one point I went into a drive through and wanted a milkshake but they told me the machine was broken. It was infuriating. I stumbled into my hotel and was advised the elevator was under maintenance and my room was on the fourth floor. Of course it was. I didn’t care. An early dinner and this time, went to bed early. I was getting up pretty early, along with the sun, for one last course before mercifully heading home.