Old Siasconset Golf Course -September/October 2007

A step back in time

by: Allison Goldsmith

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Pulling in to the unfinished parking lot and walking up the hill to the old farmhouse, you immediately sense there is something special about this golf course. It becomes even more clear when you throw your golf bag into the cart and pause to take in the panoramic vistas of Sconset and the island’s east end spreading out before you.

The course itself may not have the most challenging holes or the lushest greens on the island, but the Old Siasconset Golf Course definitely has its charms.

“It is a lot more relaxed. It is very informal. People have all kinds of attire. We make them wear shirts and shoes. We don’t want them barefoot,” course superintendent and co-owner Henry “Hank” Coffin III said.

Developed in 1894, the Old Siasconset Golf Course – usually shortened to the Sconset Golf Course or “Skinner’s,” after co-owner Robert “Skinner” Coffin – was among the first 100 courses in the country and is believed to be the oldest privately-owned golf course still being played.

While the land has been in the Coffin family for generations, the Sconset Golf Course had been under lease by the Nantucket Golf Club for 10 years until two years ago when Hank Coffin reclaimed control of the family property.

“I think that Hank Coffin has done a Herculean task of bringing it to where it is today, given the neglect it suffered in its time the last year of the lease with Nantucket Golf Club. They let it go to hell in a hand basket. They didn’t water the greens. There were dandelions on the green,” regular golfer John Sperry said.

“Over the last two years, (Hank) has put in more work than that course has seen in the last 20 years.” Sperry and island artist John Lochtefeld have been playing the course together once a week from late May through October for 20 years.

“The thing we like about the course is, it’s an interesting little course with a variety of holes in it. So far it has avoided the golf course tee-time modern approach of most golf courses today. It is sort of like stepping back into the past. You get to walk, which we love to do. I hope it stays there forever,” Lochtefeld said.

The course has had a number of facelifts over the course of its 113-year history. Square greens have been changed to more typical round greens and relatively flat holes have been converted to holes with more rolling topography. The course went from nine holes to 18 holes and back to nine before World War II, and was even at seven holes for a time in the last decade.

In comparison to the two private golf clubs on the east end of the island, the public Sconset Golf Course stands on its own.

“You really can’t compare it. There is not much that’s modern at all. It’s old-fashioned. There is no watered fairways. We only water tees and greens. Even the roughs are watered on these other courses. We rely a lot on nature,” Coffin said.

The Old Siasconset Golf Course has been in the Coffin family from the beginning. In 1894 John Grout leased property outside of Sconset village, owned by Levi Coffin, to develop the course on land which had been used as the old Bloomingdale Farm. The current Sconset Golf Course clubhouse is the old farmhouse, and the old barn still sits next to the greens, a constant reminder of the history of the land.

The course flourished until 1922, when multimillionaire David Gray bought land to the northeast of the Coffin property and developed Sankaty Head Golf Club. Sconset Golf Course champion Emerson Armstrong was the architect of the course, which appealed to the more affluent golfers on the island.

“(Sconset Golf Course) went downhill ever since.

All the wealthy people moved to Sankaty. It was a more modern course and they wanted their own golf course,” Coffin said.

The historic course lost its appeal to visitors, and was abandoned by the Coffin family for a time. But in 1930, at the age of 16, Henry Coffin Jr. took over and ran it as a public course. He shortened the course from 18 holes to nine during economic hard times before World War II. After the war, he changed it again to use some of the original holes, adding some hills into the terrain and eliminating three holes in the flats, Coffin said.

“It was harder to maintain, but people like hillier courses better than flat,” he said.

Henry Coffin Jr. ran the course until he died in 1994.

Following his death, the Coffin estate, which was comprised of 460 acres just west of Sconset on the north side of Milestone Road, was passed down to his four children, Stephanie, Mitchell, Henry III and Robert “Skinner” Coffin.

The four children were forced to sell off 250 acres in 1995 to pay inheritance taxes on the property. The land, which was situated just west of Sconset Village, was purchased by Nantucket Golf Club, Inc. for $8.25 million. The 18-hole private course opened in 1998.

“We wanted a golf course. We wanted to see a good golf course. Nantucket needed another good golf course. We would rather see that than houses,” Coffin said. “I worked at Sankaty for 22 years (as course superintendent) and I knew they had people backed up about 20 years for memberships. They weren’t getting any new members, there wasn’t room for them, so we needed another golf course on the island.”

The parcel of land purchased by the Nantucket Golf Club included the second and third holes of the original Sconset Golf Course.

“They had to come up with a new second and third hole, which while they weren’t as nice as the original two and three, they put in some interesting and challenging ones,” Sperry said.

The second hole is now a challenging 480 yards with a dog-leg to the right, while the third hole is a very tight 217-yard par three with a sloping fairway, Sperry said.

In the same year as the sale to Nantucket Golf, the Coffin family leased the 66-acre Sconset Golf Course to Nantucket Golf Club, Inc. for 10 years. Skinner Coffin ran the course as superintendent over that time, but it fell into disrepair toward the end of the lease, causing the Coffins not to renew the lease with the club.

“I was tired of the course going downhill and downhill for the last 12 years,” said Hank Coffin, who in 2005 came out of retirement to take over the superintendent duties at the course.

“Skinner Coffin, his brother, was running it before that. He was a one-man show – mowing, watering and everything. Since Hank has come on, they have hired a couple people. Hank’s renewed efforts, the equipment – Hank brought his own to the course – have made just a dramatic difference,” Sperry said.

“All the machinery is in rough shape. It hasn’t been worked on for years. We haven’t bought new machinery. We haven’t had the money to buy new machinery,” Coffin said.

Skinner remains involved as the bookkeeper of the club.

With help from the staff, Coffin has been able to put more time into the course, cleared a lot of brush, cut the grass a little lower and watered more often. And it has paid off.

“Right now, it is in the most beautiful shape I have seen it in years. The greens have come to the point where they are just beautiful. I think I like the fact that – and I hate to say old-fashioned quality – it has avoided the modern syndromes of golf, where you call up and they announce you are going to tee off at 2:07 and there is a man standing there and he makes sure that you do because he has someone that is going to tee off at 2:13. It is unrushed. It is unhurried. It’s graceful,” Lochtefeld said.

The fees to play a round of golf are also music to a recreational golfer’s ears – at least on Nantucket. It costs only $30 to play nine holes, $50 for a round of 18, while memberships for the season cost $500. Despite being increased this year in an attempt to bring in more money to help with improvement efforts, the cost to play at Sconset is comparable to public, off-island courses, but on-island, it is the best bargain in town.

"It’s fast playing here. You don’t have to spend a whole day. It’s not too crowded, so you can play pretty fast,” Coffin said.

The course averages 35 to 70 people on any given day. It is also a lot shorter than most courses, coming in at under 2,500 yards compared to a typical nine-hole course which averages about 3,200 yards, Coffin said. “It is unique. It is a good learning course for people who are learning to play golf. It has wide fairways, it’s very short, and has small greens and not too many bunkers,” Coffin said.

The future of the Coffin land is up for debate. While Hank and Skinner Coffin have been squabbling with their siblings over the use of the land, Hank is continuing to move forward with the improvement of the course. At age 70 he isn’t sure he can work at this level next summer, but he hopes to find someone who can.

“(I would like it to) keep improving. I don’t want to see it go downhill. I would like to see it improve 20 or 30 percent each year. The greens, the tees, the fairways, everything,” Coffin said. “I don’t like to live in the past. That’s what they have been doing. This is an old course, but the people like a little more modern course.”

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