Par for the Course -July 2014

by: Dean Geddes

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

It wasn’t too long ago when golf at MIACOMET consisted of nothing more than nine flat and uninteresting holes. But in the span of just 13 years the course has been transformed into one of the premier public courses in the Northeast. In February,
Miacomet was honored as the New England Golf Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Association New England chapter, and is being considered as a future stop on the national LPGA tour, pending a sponsorship agreement.

So how has a nine-hole course built by a dairy farmer been able to morph so rapidly into a
world-class golf destination?

“We want it to be accessible to everyone and that’s a real challenge because golf courses are expensive to maintain.” Eric Savetsky, executive director of the Land Bank
The story begins in 1956 when Ralph P. Marble, a farmer who had intended to raise dairy cows on the property, purchased the land that would become Miacomet Golf Course. Four years after the purchase, Marble began building a modest nine-hole course. It opened in 1963 and over the years built a loyal following of islanders and visitors alike.

In 1983, Marble put the property up for sale and the golf course was slated to be bulldozed and subsequently developed into a 216-lot subdivision. But a budding new entity on the island, the Nantucket maintain,” said Eric Savetsky, executive director of the Islands Lank Bank, stepped in. Working with the developers, the Land Bank was able to negotiate a deal to purchase the property for well below market value if it remained a golf course.

It was a crucial point in the history of Miacomet, for not only was the nine-hole course saved from demolition, it was purchased by an organization whose core mission wasn’t to maximize profits, but rather to keep it open and affordable for the public. The result is what you see today.

“We want it to be accessible to everyone and that’s a real challenge because golf courses are expensive to maintain,” said Eric Savetsky, executive director of the Land Bank. “We could charge more – our greens fee is $125 and you see comparable courses with fees in the $180 range – and here we are on Nantucket, a firstclass destination resort where everything is expensive. To some extent you could say we’re subsidizing golf, because we’re not looking to make any money from Miacomet. We’re merely looking for it to pay for itself and keep it as affordable as we can,” Savetsky said.

The course, run by Nantucket Golf Management Incorporated, currently earns enough to cover the dayto-day operations and maintenance and turn a profit at the end of the year, Savetsky added, and at the current rate it would take about 50 years to pay off the major purchases and expansions.

The Nantucket Land Bank is governed by an elected commission that uses a 2 percent real-estate transfer fee to buy open space on the island for both active and passive recreational uses.

“Town-owned golf courses aren’t able to have the budget we have because of the Lank Bank revenue stream,” Savetsky said.

“Some people might think it’s not a good idea for a conservation organization to be operating a golf course but I think it works really well on Nantucket, because the Nantucket Conservation Foundation owns 28 percent or more of the island which is in conservation. So the Land Bank covers a slightly different niche, we have 2,900 acres, and a small percentage of that is used for recreation and the rest is open space. We’re kind of bridging a gap, providing outdoor opportunities, and that’s kind of unique.”

But things were much different in the years after the Land Bank first purchased the property. Alan Costa, president of NGM, the company the Land Bank hired to run the day-to-day operations of the course in 2008, remembers how different and crowded Miacomet was as a nine-hole course. Back then Costa was working as the general manager.

“When I came on in 1998, the club itself, Miacomet Golf Club Inc., was private but you could get a daily pass by paying a greens fee to come out and play because the Lank Bank actually owned the golf course. But the club activities were all private at the time. Dining and all that stuff was strictly for membership,” he said. “But there was a big demand for golf on the island. A lot of the members played 18 holes, and looped around twice, so it was tough to get a teetime for the general public. On Saturday morning in the summer you had no chance. So that was the driving force to make it an 18-hole course.”

The original plan was to demolish the old nine, and build a new 18-hole course that expanded east into an adjacent 67-acre lot. But the land was home to a number of protected species of plants including Eastern silvery aster, sandplain blue-eyed grass, bushy rockrose and New England blazing star, and the state Department of Environmental Protection would not sign off on the expansion.

The Lank Bank went back to the drawing board and drafted new expansion plans, which would keep the original nine holes in place, with seven holes added to the west of the original nine and two added to the north. As part of the deal, the Land Bank agreed to place a conservation restriction on the 67-acre lot to the east.

The new plans were submitted in 2002 to the Massachusetts Office of Environmental Affairs, and after they were approved by the state, the process that had taken nearly a decade to this point started moving at breakneck speed.

NMP Golf Construction Corp. was hired to build the new nine holes and crews broke ground in early September 2002. Nantucket’s first public 18-hole golf course was unveiled to the public just over a year later, in late October 2003. The project cost the Lank Bank roughly $2.5 million.

It was a clearly a success. The new holes spread out the course, allowing twice as many people to play at once and helped to loosen up the bottleneck at the first hole when it was just a nine-hole course. The new holes were picturesque. It was a stark contrast to the original nine, and that was an issue.

“We had it designed by Howard Maurer, a Massachusetts golf architect. The new holes were shaped and a lot more interesting and people really seemed to love the new nine. Then not too long after that it really showcased how inferior the original nine were. They were built by a farmer, you know, never really properly built as a golf course,” Savetsky said.
As attention was turned to the original nine holes, a challenge was presented. This time there wasn’t a blank canvas to work with, but the footprint of the original course, built and designed by Marble in the early 1960s.

“Because of environmental reasons they had to stay within that footprint,” Savetsky said. “It has been quite an evolution.”

There was also the issue of time. With nine holes under construction, that left only nine open for play. Construction began in September 2007 and the goal was to have all 18 holes open in time for the following summer rush. In order to speed up the renovation process, Miacomet had 17 acres of fairway sod with over a year’s worth of growth shipped in from Rhode Island and then used the old fairways that were removed from the course as the rough.

Sloping fairways, elevated, undulating greens and a plethora of sand traps were added to each hole, transforming them into world-class versions of the holes Marble had originally designed. Hills and valleys not only challenge golfers, but also at their apex, provide more panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, including Miacomet Pond and the Atlantic Ocean.

The new and improved 18-hole Miacomet Golf Course opened in time for the 2008 season. Although the course had improved exponentially, with all the rapid change it was far from a finished product.

“It took a year or two and there were growing pains with the new system. But once the grow-in was done around 2010, 2011, you could really tell we were on to something. This was actually going to be really special,” said course superintendent and NGM vice president Sean Oberly. “Now we’re just fine-tuning it.”

“It’s more than maintaining. Sean and his crew have changed the look of the golf course quite a bit over the last couple of years,” Costa said. “We had terrible stretches of high rough between holes 12 and two that were just unplayable. He’s been clearing and cutting, and over the years it has paid off. We want to get back to being an open-style links course and I think we’re real close. I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Now that the growing pains are over, the accolades have come pouring in. This year Miacomet was named the Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Association New England chapter. The NGCOA is a national organization that represents owners and management companies of golf companies.

“The PGA (Professional Golfers Association) is more aligned with the golf players and professionals, but this organization, when it comes to owners and managers, this is it,” Costa said.

Last fall, Nantucket’s only public 18-hole golf course was also on the radar of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. In late August, the commissioners of the Land Bank voted unanimously to explore the idea of holding a major golf event at Miacomet. During that time, representatives from the LPGA, including Ricki Lasky, its vice president of tournament business affairs, came to visit the island and Miacomet and were impressed by the course. The major hang-up has been securing a title sponsor.

“We would love to come to Nantucket. It’s a phenomenal area that we think would set up very well for our players,” Lasky said at the time. “It’s just a matter of securing that title (sponsor).”

The LPGA and the Land Bank are still exploring the idea of hosting a tournament at Miacomet in 2015, if such a sponsor is found.

It may not be a stop on the national circuit yet, but last year the Massachusetts Golf Association added Miacomet Golf Course to its schedule with the inaugural Miacomet Invitational, an annual pro-am tournament where regional professionals team up with amateur players.

History repeated itself in early 2012, when the Land Bank stepped in once again, this time to save Nantucket’s only other public golf course: Old Sconset. The historic nine-hole course was on the market, with the most likely outcome being its demise, at least to the public.

“That would have been bought by a developer and probably become some executive little course for six houses or something. Being such an old and historic golf course and also serving the east end of the island and being so scenic, we thought it important to preserve it,” Savetsky said.

So the Land Bank – with the help of the Sconset Trust – purchased the property in the spring of 2012.

Old Sconset Golf Course, often referred to as Skinner’s after Robert “Skinner” Coffin, a former coowner, was founded as the Siasconset Golf Club in 1898. It was one of the first 100 American golf courses built and until it was sold to the Land Bank was thought to be the oldest privately-owned course in the country. The course, which was expanded to 18 holes in the early part of the 20th century, was a major part of island life until 1922, when the Sankaty Head Golf Club opened and most of the golfers transferred their memberships to the new course. The course was abandoned shortly thereafter until 1930, when 16-year-old Henry Coffin Jr. shortened it to the nine holes it is today and re-opened it to the public.

But don’t expect another major renovation like at Miacomet. Old Sconset will remain a more low-key golfing getaway, the place to play a few holes after work or on a mid-summer morning with your kids without worrying too much about holding up play or waiting for a tee time.

“We’re making minor improvements to it. We’d like to keep it simple, old-school and affordable out there, making sure we don’t get too carried away. We want it be a different experience, a cheaper alternative for people,” Savetsky said. ///

Dean Geddes is a seasonal staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821.

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