Most famous as the summer retreat of the Bush family, this charming resort town in Southern Maine delivers golden age golf
Golf has long been a popular activity in Kennebunkport. In the mid-1920s, Walter Travis designed the area’s premier eighteen, the links-style Cape Arundel Golf Club, with both holiday and skilled players in mind. The club has enjoyed outsized fame ever since it became known as President George H.W. Bush’s summer playing field. Several times a week, the elder Bush, often in the company of sons George W. and Jeb and the club’s head pro, Ken Raynor, zipped around the course. For the preternaturally restless 41st President, the object wasn’t so much to shoot a good score as to play as quickly as possible—“cart polo,” he wryly called it.
We spoke to some locals who told us that when “41” was playing, the Bushes would buzz up to groups at breakneck speed and immediately play through. They regularly finished their rounds in well under three hours, often in under two. Bush 41, who won the club championship at age 23 in 1947, was ever courteous and polite, chatting amiably while dispensing souvenir golf balls and posing for pictures with those he passed. In the 1990s he could still shoot in the high 70s when he concentrated, though he was shaky around the devilish greens and prone to frequent three-putts before being saved by the long putter.
Cape Arundel Golf Club (Rating: B+) rambles through a compact, 90-acre site alongside the Kennebunk River and Bass Creek. It’s a picturesque, links-style, Golden Age design from Walter Travis, famed designer of Garden City Golf Club and Westchester Country Club, among others. Topping out at just 5,859 yards, this par-69 (four par threes and one par five) may seem easy, but it is well defended by the creek, bunkers, and wonderful green complexes with tricky undulations. Over the decades, Cape Arundel has hosted a parade of presidents, dignitaries, sporting legends, and PGA Tour stars. Phil Mickelson holds the course record of 60. Conditions have improved markedly following a restoration a few years back by Bruce Hepner, formerly Tom Doak’s associate at Renaissance Golf Design. Hepner’s efforts included installing a new drainage and irrigation system, repairing eroded areas along the river, rebuilding tees, recapturing Travis’ bunkers, and enlarging the greens back to their original size.
The par-four 1st hole, in which the fairway dramatically dips and rises en route to a green perched near the riverbank, provides an apt introduction. The river, a creek, and a pair of ponds pose a threat on at least eight holes. The natural roll of the fairways yields numerous uneven stances and a few blind shots. Since the playing field is open and exposed to the elements, wind presents a ubiquitous challenge to club selection.
Travis considered the greens the charm of Cape Arundel. He planned “three fairly flat, two or three gently sloping, one or two on the punch bowl order, two or three of the plateau type, and the rest more or less undulating.” He proclaimed them “real beauties” that “will delight the soul of any real golfer.” Their false fronts, side falloffs, and riotous undulations will also befuddle him or her. Our best advice is to aim for the center of the greens and pray.
Throughout the routing, tees and greens practically bump up against each other. The teeing areas are small and minimally (if at all) elevated. Since the terrain is moderately hilly but not severe, Cape Arundel makes for a joyous walk.
Cape Arundel is not without quirks and distractions, but those elements only seem to add to its unique charm and character. Although the public is welcome to play, only members are allowed to use the driving range. The entrance drive crosses several holes and you must hit over it a few times, so be on your guard for cars and proceed slowly in your own vehicle when entering and exiting the club. Finally, the holes converge in spots, so stay alert for stray shots. We were nearly grazed by a tee shot while putting on the 4th green. When we asked the attendant in the golf shop if players get hit often, he replied that no one has been seriously hurt in the 20 years he’d been there. That streak is on the line every day.
Though George W. Bush still plays here almost every day when he’s in town, he makes a tee time like other members and his presence causes almost no inconvenience. He typically goes out early with Ken Raynor (still the club’s head professional) and is accompanied by his retinue of Secret Service agents. In case you were wondering, “43” plays at a brisk but civilized pace.
Cape Arundel’s clubhouse, dubbed “41 House,” is a vintage Craftsman Bungalow-style building with some neat memorabilia in the golf shop and a porch overlooking the Kennebunk River. However, there’s no dining service—just a couple of vending machines. During the summer you can get a hot dog and snacks at a stand by the 11th hole.