Whether they’ve pegged me as an unfortunate example of that lowest country-club caste, “the unaccompanied guest,” or are simply preoccupied with their own rounds, no one says boo. Still, their scrutiny weighs heavily; there’s a tremor in my legs as I address the ball. But representing the well-off against the exceedingly well-off must be what I was plopped on this Earth to do, because I strike the ball perfectly with my three-wood, driving the ball 230 yards down the center. Without looking back, I pluck my tee and walk after it.
In subsequent research, I’ll learn that when I crossed that little bridge, I’d abandoned the mainland for the Gardiner Peninsula, an 80-acre triangle between Hook Pond and the Atlantic Ocean, on which in the early twenties Willie Park Jr., one of the first artistic golf architects, laid out twelve of these holes. As I walk to my ball, 60 yards from the green, all I hear are breaking waves and rustling reeds.
It’s so picturesque, I skull my wedge over the green into the pond, and on the sixth lose another ball in the marsh on the right. Twenty minutes ago, all I felt was the bittersweet adrenaline of being where I’m not allowed and the fear of being found out. Now, as I walk off the sixth green, I am as bummed as any golfer who has lost balls on consecutive holes.
The seventh hole looks too short for a par four and too long for a par three, and the green, which should be empty, is bustling with women golfers and caddies. My best theory is that the twosome in front of me was waved through, and now I’ve caught up with them, too. I also assume the hole is farther than it looks, and after stalling as long as I can, I hit an iron that lands about 100 yards short of it.
When I get to the ball, the women have vacated, their place taken by a half dozen Hispanic groundskeepers who scramble onto the green like a NASCAR pit crew. As I prepare to drop a wedge between them, not one looks up. Is it part of Maidstone’s feudal protocol for workers to keep their backs bowed and eyes cast downward even as members hit at them? It must be, because the guy with the straw hat doesn’t flinch when my shot rolls ten feet from where he is weeding. It isn’t until I get close enough to the green to see that the black number on the yellow flag is a 10 and not a 7 that I realize the workers didn’t look up because I was hitting to the wrong green.
This is precisely the kind of faux pas I dreaded. I spin around and see that the hole isn’t straight but rather a sharp dogleg; the seventh green is way off to the right at the edge of the pond. I grab my ball and race down the hill, and, sure that I’ve outed myself, play out the hole in a cold sweat. When I get to the eighth, a blind par three whose green is hidden behind a high dune, I discover to my mortification that it plays right back in the direction of the workers.
Confused, I stand on the tee trying to decide what to do. Just then, one of the workers I might have killed walks out from behind the dune and points to where I should aim. I hit a seven-iron and on the other side of the dune find my ball on the green, and I see that the workers aren’t laughing but smiling; rather than bust me, they seem to have taken me under their wing. As I stand over my putt, I feel a fervent need not to embarrass myself in front of my new friends, and to my relief I hit my first putt close enough to tap in for par.
I expect a John Cleese look-alike in a brass-buttoned blazer to yank me from the premises by my ear. Instead all I get are smiles and friendly nods.
With another nod from the crew, I find my way to the ninth tee. Laid out along the Atlantic, where mist clings to the beach, it’s perennially voted among the country’s 100 most spectacular holes you’ll never play. Eighty-five years ago, when Willie Jr. walked this land, flipping a fifteen-foot bamboo pole end over end to determine distances, he must have felt the affinity to his native Scotland. Sadly, Park, whose two British Open wins were half as many as his father won, and who turned full time to course design after a lopsided loss to the great Harry Vardon, broke down from overwork before he had a chance to play the completed course. So I like to think I’m playing in Willie’s stead.