Barbarian at the Tee

The author at the Maidstone Club.Photo: Thomas Dworzak/Magnum

The next day, I’ll see the headline—SKI-MASK SEX FIEND IN MAIDSTONE CLUB ATTACK— on the cover of the Post and will understand, but at nine in the morning when I drive by for my last recon mission, all I know is Maidstone is crawling with cops. A quarter of a mile east of the club, at the bucolic intersection of Windmill and Further Lanes, a female member of the East Hampton Village Police Department stands in the middle of the road and stares into every passing car; across from Old Beach Lane, which runs straight up to the imposing twenties clubhouse, Suffolk County cruisers are parked on the grass. When I slow to a crawl, I spot the K-9 unit working the fence along Highway Behind the Pond, and unless I’m losing my mind, I hear a police chopper overhead. It’s just random bad luck, I tell myself. Maybe a raccoon tripped an alarm at Seinfeld’s place. But it’s hard to dispel the notion that all these cops are here for me. If I had an iota of discipline, I’d walk away, but I’ve told too many friends I was going to do this to back down now. So when I return to my place, I fish the card for Montauk Taxi out of the drawer. Due to the lack of convenient public parking, I need a lift, and at noon, a yellow minivan pulls up to my cottage. The driver helps me load my gear and invites me in front; my stomach turns as he broadcasts the pickup and destination on his two-way radio. He takes 27 to Bluff, then turns onto Further, where the houses and lawns loom bigger and bigger, then disappear behind tall, thick hedges. The driver, who wears a sleeveless button-down shirt and tells me he moved back in with his father twenty years ago, points out celebrity mailboxes, and we shake our heads at the incomprehensible price tags.

There are still more cops than usual, but the officer has stepped out of the road, and only one cruiser guards Maidstone. I can see that the first hole is empty. So is the second, and as soon as we pass it, I point to a shingled mansion on the right.

“Here on the shoulder is fine,” I say. I remove my rattling bag and orange cart, clumsily strap one to the other, and step lively back down the road. Across from the second green, a sandy path leads through a break in the trees. I walk along it and step onto the third fairway of the Maidstone Club the same way I entered the world half a century before, alone and uninvited.

Why I’m taking this risk when I could’ve groveled onto this course with a couple of phone calls can’t be easily explained. A month after the fact, I’m not sure if it was primarily a prank or a test, a political statement or a sociological experiment, a last gasp of adolescent righteousness or the latest symptom of a midlife crisis. And even if my outrage at Maidstone’s archaic membership policies is a bit forced, there’s something gratifying about mocking an institution that derives such satisfaction from its exclusivity and whose labyrinthine admissions process is designed to exclude bad eggs like me.

Maidstone, the original name of East Hampton and the part of Kent where the town’s first English settlers were from, isn’t the only gated realm I might have encroached upon. There is only one eighteen-hole public course in the Hamptons, Montauk Downs, but plenty of country clubs, and Maidstone is by no means at the top of the food chain. Maidstone members, many of whom are second and third generation, are descended from the oldest and finest East Hampton families, but by now their influence barely reaches to the edge of town. Meanwhile, the members of Shinnecock and National, both in Southampton, run corporate America and Wall Street, and the new Jewish money at Atlantic in Bridgehampton is far more impressive.

Still, there’s a historic smugness about Maidstone (African-American members: reputed to be zero and holding) that cries out for Caddyshack-style treatment. In the eighties, the club made Diana Ross feel so unwelcome after she married a Maidstone member that he promptly resigned, and during the summer of Monica, Bill Clinton was denied a tee time. In Philistines at the Hedgerow, which contains an index listing “Maidstone Club (East Hampton): bigotry of,” author Steven Gaines reports that after Jewish senator Jacob Javits played there, members claimed the grass he stepped on turned brown, and describes how members threw a fit after a nearly drowned South American housekeeper had the gall to drag herself ashore on their beach.

That self-satisfaction is given voice in Robert S. Macdonald’s introduction to The Maidstone Links, a history of the course published by the club in 1997. “We who are privileged to play the Maidstone Golf Course,” writes Macdonald, “ … have the ocean and the sandy dunes, the salt-sea air … the best kind of golf, the way the game was first played… . We play with the people we choose to play with, friends, family. We are not ‘put with’ anyone.”

Because the first tee is in the shadow of the clubhouse, and the second tee exposed, I’ve taken the liberty of beginning my round on hole number three. And because I assumed it would be the least in demand, I assigned myself a 12:30 tee time. An early-morning downpour, however, must have delayed several groups; as I struggle to get my bearings, there are golfers all around: a twosome a few hundred yards in front of me on the third green, and on an adjacent fairway, a pair of sixtysomething couples. A thick mist has blown in off the ocean, so they all waft in and out of focus. I feel like I have just been dropped behind enemy lines.

I’m particularly concerned about the golfers in front. If they spot me and wave me through, my lack of breeding might be detectable; if they invite me to join them, it would be obvious. Too agitated to think straight, I drop a ball and hit an easy seven-iron. It rolls just short of the golf cart parked on the left, and as I walk toward the ball, the twosome, maybe a father and son, walk back from the green and scoot off on their cart.

Finally, I have the presence of mind to stall. I chip on and spend ten minutes acclimating myself to a green twice as fast and true as one at a public course. By the time I leave the green, the twosome has vanished—and my strategy has crystallized. Since I know that the two holes behind me are empty, all I have to do to avoid trouble is stay off the heels of the pair in front.

But other difficulties present themselves. Until a few minutes ago, I’d never set foot on Maidstone or so much as glanced at a scorecard. Except for a rough sketch of the first three holes, rendered on a bar napkin by an acquaintance, I’m counting on logic and signage. But when I reach the next tee, there’s a complete absence of information crucial to an interloper. Lesser golf courses post wooden placards bearing the number of each hole and the yardage, but evidently the golfing committee at Maidstone doesn’t abide such crass displays. There are only red, white, and blue tees (noting the starting points for women, men, and championship players), and since it’s a double tee, they point toward two different holes. Although I’m quite sure my target is the green on the far side of the pond, the yardage is a guess.

The lack of numbers aside, the difference between this tee and one on a public course is comical. The dirt on a public tee is hard and baked, and what little grass still clings to it is sprinkled with busted tees and cigarette butts. A Maidstone tee looks like a just-vacuumed Persian carpet; the spongy turf is so moist that inserting a tee is a tender, consensual act. Discreetly tucked in one corner is an ice-filled Styrofoam chest in which dozens of Poland Spring bottles are chilling. I could happily hang here all day, but after estimating my distance at 165 yards and adding ten yards for the headwind, I hit a crisp four-iron out over the pond.

I pull my golf cart across a narrow bridge, and when I reach the fourth green I’m delighted to find my ball twenty feet right of the pin. I roll my first putt ten feet past, miss the comeback, and jot a bogey four on the back of my Montauk Taxi card.

As I walk to the next hole, I’ve got company again. Beside the fifth tee is another green, where a quartet of Brahmins and their caddies has just arrived, and as I tee up my three-wood, I flash a tense smile. One question posed by my visit is how the membership will react to a stranger in their midst. Will they sense anything amiss in my bearing or comportment or body odor? Will they find it suspicious that I’m towing a cheap plastic golf cart?

From my pink seersucker shorts to the black Tucker’s Point cap on my head, my attire has been carefully selected. But maybe they’ll see right through the camouflage. Maybe a white Polo shirt is no match for the chip on my shoulder the size of a cantaloupe. Last night, I tossed in bed, anticipating a variety of anxious interrogations— “Forgive me, but I don’t seem to recognize you,” “Out here all alone? Most unusual,” “You wouldn’t mind terribly sharing the name of your host, by any chance?”—and although I prepared responses, at this point none are needed.

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.

The sea grass whipping all around me, I hit what I think/hope is a decent drive. But the fairway, I discover too late, bends right before it bends left, so I’ve lost my third ball in five holes. Suddenly, the accumulated tension of the last hour and a half catches up with me, and my head goes on tilt. It’s not knowing the distances or carries. It’s not knowing which way the fairways turn, or even if I’m standing on the right tee and firing toward the correct green. On top of everything, I’m still expecting a John Cleese look-alike in a brass-buttoned blazer to windmill up the fairway and yank me from the premises by my ear.

Unlike other bits of juvenile malfeasance, like, for example, hurling a snowball at a greaser’s muscle car, guerrilla golf is more a marathon than strike-and-sprint-for-your-life. And that gives your mind plenty of time to turn on itself. But there’s no easy way out now. Like a Wal-Mart cleaning crew, I’m locked in for the full shift.

Suddenly nostalgic for the carefree vacation I left behind just hours ago, I stagger through the next couple of holes, as lost to myself as Lear on the windswept heath. As I stare anxiously out from the eleventh tee, a member of the crew parks his mower on the right side of the fairway; assisted by a clear target, I hit a solid three-wood.

As in so many other rounds, that’s all it takes—one good shot—and suddenly things don’t seem so dire. In fact, it occurs to me that except for a few bad shots, I’ve been inordinately fortunate, not just today but my entire life. When I reach my ball and find a seagull feather beside it, I interpret it as another good omen.

On the thirteenth hole, another worker approaches on his tractor. He’s in his early twenties with a fade haircut and baggy shorts. As he rattles by, he raises his index finger and pinkie in the international sign of rock-and-roll solidarity. Would he risk such a greeting to a bona fide Maidstoner? I doubt it. The thought that he might have deduced I’m an interloper and, better yet, that he approves—it almost brings a tear to my eye. I considered many scenarios for this day but never imagined my uninvited visit to Maidstone could make me feel less lonely.

Five minutes later, I roll in an eight-footer for my first par in six holes and head to the halfway shack, which, according to a plaque, was bequeathed to the club in 1953 by its former beloved president Dudley Roberts Jr. and a few of his good friends. Country clubs are besotted with their own eccentricities, and one of Maidstone’s is that the halfway shack falls after the thirteenth hole, not the ninth. I’d spotted it from the ninth fairway and dreaded the possible run-ins with members and employees. But now, in yet another piece of good fortune, the snack bar is closed and I have the place to myself. The structure is so ramshackle it’s a parody of genteel understatement. But the bathroom is lovely, and while replaying the round in my mind and gratefully acknowledging the contribution of Dudley and his anonymous pals, I enjoy a salutary seaside respite on the can.

Feeling that much better, I step back into the sun; the next few holes are a joyous travelogue of rugged coastline, water, and sky. I bogey the oft-photographed par-three fourteenth, its green carved into a seaside dune, and by the time I walk back over the bridge to the double tee near where my round began, I feel so at ease in my new environs, I’d be an asset to the welcoming committee. When I wrap a Band-Aid around a blister and one of the tiny pieces of wax paper flutters off in the breeze, I scurry after it, anxious, as any member, not to despoil the semi-natural beauty.

I don’t think I’m beating myself up when I say I’m not Maidstone material, and even had I tapped some tenuous link to a member to get on for a day, it would have entailed four tedious hours of “Nice shot,” “Tough break,” and “How are the kids?” And that’s not what I had in mind.

Like Macdonald, I don’t appreciate being “put with” anyone, and, if my friends couldn’t be budged, I prefer to enrich myself with the perils and pleasures of my own company. In Frankfurt in 1938, well after ARYAN ONLY signs went up at the Opera House, my fair-haired Jewish father, then 12, kept attending performances on his own. It wasn’t a protest. He did it because he felt like it and thought he could get away with it, and I’m playing Maidstone for about the same reason.

I manage another par on sixteen, and after hitting a nice tee shot on seventeen that sails safely over the last bit of Hook Pond, I find myself thinking of George Plimpton, who frequently played at Maidstone and who made a career of athletic trespassing. But even though he was rejected for membership, I can’t claim kinship. Plimpton was a person of bottomless social ease, comfortable in any room and so connected he could get Hemingway to blurb his books. A man with little to prove and much to share, he was a born host. I’m hardly cut out to be a guest.

An hour ago, I was ready to slink back through the trees. Now it’s all ending much too fast, and after another par on seventeen and a solid drive, I’m taking that majestic hike up eighteen, smiling inanely at the huge clubhouse at the top of the hill. I’ve got 175 yards to the flag and would love to hit one last good shot and finish with four pars. But I’m an excitable boy, and I push my four-iron into the bushes on the right. Instead of a Woodsian finish, I end on a Plimptonian note after all.

All that’s left is one last perp walk past the members lingering in front of the clubhouse. I consider giving them a wide berth, but instead take the braver, shorter route. On the way past the putting green, I offer a few parting smiles to the members and they pleasantly beam back.

It’s been like this all day. At every encounter, I braced myself for the worst, and all I ever got were waves and respectful nods. It’s like I crawled through a window into a house, found the residents at home, and then was treated as if I had every right to be there. Perhaps the private enclaves at the top of the world are more accessible than I imagined. As long you’re willing and able to keep your bilious thoughts to yourself and arrive in the right clothes, just about any white person can pass as a member of the privileged class. Maybe that willingness and ability to pass is all wealth is.

Reaching the parking lot, I am hustling toward safety when a young employee zips out from the back of the caddy shack on a golf cart and comes racing toward me. I’m a hundred yards from the head of the driveway and could probably beat him to the property line if I had to. But it doesn’t come to that. The cart races past, swerving toward the back of the clubhouse.

On my way out, I pass the MEMBERS ONLY sign and step back into the world. I call Montauk Taxi for a pickup, but the dispatcher’s got bad news—he can’t send a cab for at least an hour. As I cool my heels, two more squad cars roll down Old Beach Lane looking for the sex fiend they’ll arrest the next day. My paranoia is slackening, but I’m hungry and tired and fewer than 100 yards from the scene of my crime. No sense lingering. Just then, a kid with shoulder-length hair and tattoos offers to give me a lift into town in his beat-up Chevy. Five minutes later, I’m pulling my cart up Newtown Lane past the Calypso and Scoop boutiques.

I clomp into the Golden Pear, where I buy a very expensive turkey sandwich and freshly brewed iced tea, then drag my stuff to a shady bench in front of the hardware store. At Maidstone no one looked at me askance in four hours, but here people self-consciously avert their eyes as if they’ve stumbled on a homeless man rummaging through the trash. What kind of person hauls his clubs through town?

No matter. I devour my sandwich, then head down the street and buy myself a nice cigar. I know I’m not homeless, just country-club-less. At least until I waltz into yours.

Barbarian at the Tee