Almost twenty years ago, on a gray Sunday in June, my wife and I left East Hampton early in the afternoon for our apartment in New York, but not early enough: Route 27 was a sluggish parade of cars from the Poxabogue driving range west. Mired in traffic, we resorted to one of the many secret back-roads routes we weekend commuters had learned over the years — which are now known to everyone, including drivers of 18-wheelers. We were north of the highway. It was the first time in a year we’d had to outwit other motorists, and we had to look for familiar landmarks: the winery, the barn, the yellow mailbox. . . .
One unfamiliar landmark was the new golf course under construction on Scuttle Hole Road. I had never seen it, but it had been a topic of much conversation among East End golfers. There were and are a lot of us, and playing space for the general public is limited to Poxybogue’s nine-hole course and the splendid Montauk Downs, both of them crowded enough on weekends to discourage all but the most fanatical of sportsmen. Private clubs, on the other hand, abounded: South Fork and Maidstone and Noyac and National and Southampton and the legendary Shinnecock Hills, where they sometimes hold the U.S. Open. But apparently there was room for one more. Several, actually, but this was the first of the new breed.
So when the first rumors that a new club was to be built had surfaced a few years earlier, borne aloft on a predictable wave of environmentalist objections, it created more than a little ripple of interest among the people I play golf with — until reality forcibly intruded. It’s not for nothing that golf, at least in this country, has traditionally been a rich man’s game. To join the new club, which is called Atlantic, would have cost me more than a year’s salary, and the annual dues would have paid my daughter’s college tuition. I was neither surprised nor bitter. It takes money to design and build a first-rate course and a clubhouse to go with it, to grow all that grass and keep it trimmed just so, and of course it’s the members who have to shell out.
But a cat may look at a king, may he not? So it was with growing anticipation that I scanned, from the shoulder of the road just before the entrance, what I could see of the course: a little lake, rimmed by lush hillocks on which small fruit trees were growing. One of the greens was visible; otherwise, to the innocent eye, the place might not have appeared to be a golf course at all, but a particularly bucolic piece of countryside. On impulse, I drove through the gates. “Maybe they’ll let us look around,” I said to Nancy. “Maybe there’s some kind of tour.” “Yeah, for hot prospects,” she said. “You left your checkered pants at home.” She gestured at my jeans and sweatshirt, on which was emblazoned BROOKLYN COLLEGE, my employer at the time.
We drove slowly along a rutted dirt road past a building on the left where some workmen were loading sand into a truck. I couldn’t see anybody who appeared to be in charge, or even a clubhouse. “Go a little farther,” said Nancy. We passed a driving range, not just the usual flat field with yardage signs but a whole series of greens, on different levels and at graduated distances. Though the course was obviously nowhere near ready for play, the range appeared to be open: there were metal stands designed to support golf bags at each station, and little pyramids of range balls neatly laid out. But none of the new members was using it. What a waste, I thought.
The dirt road we were on obviously traversed the whole perimeter of the course. On closer inspection, there was evidence of considerable earth sculpture in its construction; little mounds and kettle-drum-shaped depressions not native to the area were everywhere. There was little water but lots of sand bunkers and traps, and enough trees to make playing eighteen holes without losing a dozen balls a challenge. The fairways rolled gently, and the greens, though they had a slightly raw look, were smooth and uniform. Generally, the course harmonized nicely with the surrounding landscape — perhaps not an improvement on the native terrain, but not a crime against nature, either.
By now, it was clear that our trespass, if that was what it was, was not going to be questioned; groups of workmen just nodded to us or ignored us as we passed them. I felt a little uncomfortable about being there nonetheless. Not that we intended any harm, but golf is a game of clearly-defined rules and prescribed etiquette. Well, I hadn’t been invited, but I was determined not to do anything that a proper guest wouldn’t do.
“Do you think you’ll ever play here?” asked Nancy. “Do we know anyone who could afford to be a member?” I thought for a few seconds and came up empty. “I guess not,” I said. “This is probably the only time I’ll ever see the place.” As I said it, I felt a little pang of sadness, and the keen sense of propriety with which I had been conducting my little expedition vanished. Here we were, all alone on hundreds of acres of land dedicated to the purpose of playing golf. And my clubs were in the car, where they lived. I pulled to the side of the dirt road and got out. There was a cool breeze from the east; low clouds were scudding across the sky, and the wind was whipping the flag on the green ahead of me, about, I estimated, a hundred and thirty yards away. I opened the trunk and took from my golf bag a brand-new ball and my eight iron.
“What are you doing?” said Nancy. “Playing Atlantic,” I replied. I dropped the ball in the grass beside the road, took my stance, and made a practice swing. I felt just the way you’re supposed to feel, calm and centered. I swung for real, and both heard and felt the “click” that means you’ve hit a good shot. The ball receded in that rare, classic parabola that addicts you instantly to the game, drawing just slightly from right to left as the wind pushed it, and landing not quite on the front of the green. I had misjudged the distance by ten yards; I should have used a seven iron. No matter. I felt great. I got back in the car and drove past the green.
“Want me to pick up the ball?” Nancy asked me. “Nah,” I said. I liked the idea that someone would find it, would guess that the lure of the course, lying fallow on this June afternoon, had overwhelmed the patience and scruples of some anonymous golfer. I was marking territory, like a dog who urinates on the boundaries of his turf as a sign to other dogs. Of course, this was not, and never would be, my turf, but just for a moment, by virtue of the circumstances, I had found myself in sole possession of it. I peered down at the green to make sure the ball hadn’t made a mark; I had a tool in my golf bag for repairing dents. I couldn’t see one. We moved on.
A little later, as we had all but circumnavigated the course, I spied another ball lying in the road ahead of me. I stopped, opened the door, and picked it up. It was a range ball. A member, tired of practicing and itching for the real thing? An interloper like myself? At least I’d used my own ball, and at least my shot had stayed on the course. But someone else was marking his territory, so I put the ball back where I’d found it, and Nancy and I drove to New York.