EDGARTOWN — There have been less-frequent visits to a pair of nine-hole courses open to the public, but when President Barack Obama wants to get serious about his golf while he’s vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, he heads to Edgartown.
It’s easy to miss the Vineyard Golf Club, which sits inland by roughly two miles, counts a wildlife sanctuary and state forest among its closest neighbors, and is minutes away from the heart of Edgartown, with its boutique hotels, children’s clothing stores, and ice creameries. If you catch the right summer night, an antique car, windows down, will be slowly owning the road.
But there are no markings for the Vineyard Golf Club on the street, no sign greeting one’s arrival. Just a plain wooden gate that’s almost always open.
Plenty of people know how to find it, though, and many travel a great distance to get here: The membership of slightly more than 300 comes from more than half the 50 states, and international members consider Tokyo, Singapore, and Taiwan — among others — their primary home. Avid readers of Forbes magazine will probably recognize some members’ names; those loyal to Sports Illustrated, probably not, although Cam Neely is the reigning club champion.
What draws them — and Obama, no doubt — to the Vineyard Golf Club is that it is one of the only organic golf courses in the country, which means no synthetic pesticides. It’s also halfway through a major renovation by noted golf course architect Gil Hanse, who found enough time to change the look and feel of the front nine while juggling his responsibilities as the designer for the 2016 Olympic course in Brazil.
The club sits well off the street, away from view, and with one exception, doesn’t have any residences straddling the golf course. It affords the kind of privacy and strong golf challenge that has enticed Obama to play there as the club’s guest on a number of occasions. Although he also has played the daily-fee Mink Meadows Golf Course in Vineyard Haven and Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs, Obama appears to prefer the Vineyard Golf Club. He made his first visit when he was a senator from Illinois, and has played here multiple times during three previous vacations as president. The club is expecting Obama again later this month, when he and his family have another Martha’s Vineyard vacation planned.
“Obviously he loves Martha’s Vineyard, and he feels comfortable here at the club,” said Gene Mulak, who has been the head professional since the club opened in 2002. “After a while, and I don’t mean to make it sound like the novelty wears off, but our staff, we know where to be when the president is here, we know what to do. We’re pretty good at it.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. When Obama decides to play at the Vineyard Golf Club, it’s a massive logistical undertaking. A phone call, usually from the White House communications team the night before, alerts the club of the impending visit. The president’s traveling party can be 25 cars, including two ambulances, which remain in the parking lot.
Even though the president is on vacation, security for a relaxing round of golf is tight and always present. The club doesn’t shut down when Obama is on the property, but a buffer, typically one or two holes before and after his group, is maintained. Armed snipers use golf carts from the course maintenance staff, and position themselves accordingly. Anyone who might come in contact with Obama — club staff, members, their guests — will get the metal-detecting wand treatment. And not just once.
“They try to be as nice as they can about it, but if you’re playing out there, and say you don’t see him for four or five holes, they’ll wand you again,” said Jeff Carlson, the greens superintendent who, like Mulak, has been at the Vineyard Golf Club since it opened.
The sports-loving Obama, based on the number of rounds he has played since being inaugurated, has an obvious passion for golf, maybe trailing only basketball.
He plays lefthanded, and according to someone who joins Obama for most of the rounds he logs at the Vineyard Golf Club, loves to needle the others in the group, finding himself on the receiving end just as often. It’s a regular round of golf — or as regular as a round of golf can be, factoring in the agents, staff, and security. No mulligans, save for the occasional do-over off the first tee. Putts routinely conceded, because a team match is always being played.
“It’s a bit of a carnival. It’s hard to imagine someone dealing with that every day of their life,” said Bob Garrison, who has caddied in Obama’s group for the president’s last five rounds at the club. “There is a reflective prestige about it. I feel honored to do it. He couldn’t be nicer, and takes golf in a perfectly appropriate way. He knows his talent level, and what he can and can’t do with his game.”
Garrison also provided an answer to a myth that has long followed Obama: “No, I haven’t seen him sneak off and smoke a cigarette.”
The course Obama plays on his next visit won’t be anything like the one he’s previously encountered. Hanse has created a new front nine, and was at the club last week finalizing plans for the back nine, work that will probably begin in the coming year or so. Gone are most of the sod-faced, revetted bunkers from Donald Steele’s original design, replaced by enormous waste bunker areas that feature a more natural, rugged look. The total size of the front-nine bunkers, Carlson said, has gone from 12,000 square feet to 120,000 square feet; the greens are also larger, and many have walk-off chipping areas that become the next tee.
Gone, too, are four holes from the old front, Hanse’s routing redone in a way that has eliminated three lengthy walks from a green to the next tee, including one that required a cart ride. Because of those changes, and the removal of some of the tall, thick fescue that had been hugging the fairways, pace of play on the front nine has improved dramatically.
The changes have been well received by the membership, with nine-hole rounds on the front this year outpacing those on the back. Don’t be surprised if a similar effort on the back nine lands the club on national magazine top-course lists.
It’s the kind of place you don’t want to be in a hurry to leave, but Obama, except for one time when he sat down with former “60 Minutes” legend Mike Wallace for an interview in an upstairs meeting room, never stays long once his round is over. The numerous Suburbans that make up the presidential motorcade, Carlson said, are lined up and idling in front of the clubhouse by the time Obama’s group reaches the 18th green.
It would be incorrect, though, to say that attempts haven’t been made to extend Obama’s stay.
“The last time he came here, two years ago, he walks off the 18th green and there’s a couple of members on the back deck and they say, ‘Hey, Mr. President, come up and have a drink with us,’ ” said Mulak, who also plays lefthanded and who gave Obama a bunker lesson years ago before one of his rounds, then fist-bumped the president after hearing he got up-and-down from a deep bunker. “And he says, ‘I’m already late. Michelle’s going to kill me, I’ve got to go.’ You don’t expect the president of the United States to say that.”