From its earliest days, East Hampton’s Maidstone Club attracted New York’s oldest, most socially prominent families. Jacqueline Kennedy’s father, John Vernou “Black Jack” Bouvier III, who was a golfer, belonged to the club, along with other family members like “Little Edie” Beale, of Grey Gardens fame.

Because of its extraordinary assets and aura of exclusivity, the club has been the envy of the East End’s socially ambitious for decades. The members I spoke with were happy to talk about the golf course; none wished to discuss the club’s membership roster or admittance policies. Consider a line from Robert S. Macdonald’s essay in The Maidstone Links, published in 1997: “We... 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.”

To play, obviously you need to be a member or invited by one, but when charity tournaments are held at the club, they’re open to all players. For example, Ann Liguori, WFAN Radio’s golf correspondent and a Westhampton resident, has held her Charity Golf Classic, which raises funds for cancer prevention and care-related charities, at the Maidstone three of the past four years. “An exclusive venue like Maidstone has huge drawing power,” says Liguori, adding that the club hosts only a handful of outings per year. “Even at $5,000 per foursome, we’re usually sold out in advance.”

Many of the stories about Maidstone are apocryphal. In the 1950s, Groucho Marx played the course as the guest of a member. When he inquired about membership, he was reportedly informed that he wouldn’t be allowed to join because of his religion. Groucho’s comeback: “My kids are only half-Jewish—can they at least play nine holes?” In the 1980s, the club reportedly snubbed singer Diana Ross, who had married Arne Naess Jr., a billionaire Norwegian shipping magnate and Maidstone member (he promptly resigned). According to New York magazine, former President Bill Clinton was denied a tee time, but a member debunked that myth, stating that Clinton’s time frame was very narrow and the club could not accommodate him on short notice.

Over the years, even seemingly likely candidates for membership have been turned down, among them George Plimpton, the sportswriter and bon vivant from a noted New York family who played frequently at Maidstone. Plimpton wrote in 1995, “Some years ago, I was put up for membership at Maidstone but was turned down, mainly because the election committee (as I learned afterward) somehow got the impression that I was going to invite some of my more flamboyant friends out onto the golf course.”

Many of the club’s legacy members can trace their roots to the area’s 17th-century English settlers, when what is now East Hampton was called Maidstone, named after the lovely township in Kent, outside London. As a native told me in the 1970s, “Maidstone is strictly for local flora and fauna.” Nothing much has changed in the interim.

The club came into being in 1891, when a tight-knit group of well-to-do summer residents established a tennis and bathing club by the Atlantic Ocean. They christened it the Maidstone Club, its name to this day. To satisfy a newfound desire for golf, the club built a rudimentary three-hole course on a treeless, windswept meadow in 1894; two years later, Englishman William H. Tucker laid out a nine-hole course for Maidstone on the village side of Hook Pond.

By the turn of the century, the club’s founders, eager to define a vision of the “country life,” expanded the golf course to 18 holes. The design of this layout, debuted in 1899, is attributed to club member Adrian Larkin, but he was ably assisted by Willie Park Jr., a Scotsman regarded as the most influential golf architect of his era. Park was the first to “shape the land” when nature proved insufficient, “devising golf holes that looked natural and played well,” according to golf historian Herbert Warren Wind.

What elevated Maidstone to its current prominence as one of the nation’s premier courses—and one of the rare few with genuine links holes sculpted into sand-based terrain—was the club’s acquisition in 1922 of the Gardiner Peninsula, an 80-acre plot situated between Hook Pond and a long stretch of dunes. Park was once again called upon for the redesign. An accomplished player who won The Open Championship (aka the British Open) in 1887 and 1889, the enterprising Scotsman drew inspiration from classic courses in his homeland; keenly aware that not all sites were ideally suited to golf, he moved dirt to suit his wishes. A master strategist, Park built a “risk-reward” element into many of the holes. By successfully flirting with a hazard—a cavernous bunker, or the corner of a marsh—a player could gain advantage over an opponent who played it safe. Golf, after all, is a game of tactics. The golfer attacks; the architect defends.

Park imbued his ideas deep into the club’s sandy terrain, expertly melding the pre-existing holes with his new creations. According to Golf Clubs of the MGA, “[Park] responded with 12 new holes on the recently acquired duneland, and combined these holes with the first three and final three holes on the existing course to create the West Course, which remains virtually intact today.”

The new holes were embraced by members and critically acclaimed by the cognoscenti. Bernard Darwin, grandson of the British naturalist Charles Darwin and one of golf’s great chroniclers, confided to American sportswriter Grantland Rice, a Maidstone member, that the dunes holes (6 through 10) were “the finest stretch I have ever seen in America.”

Then as now, the gently rolling course reveals Park’s naturalistic flair and total grasp of strategic design. Very few of the holes run straight; instead they’re cleverly angled around salt marsh, scrub-covered dunes, deep sand pits, and the reed-rimmed pond. There is plenty of danger, but with just enough safety to reassure players of lesser attainment that the challenge is fair and sporting. If the goal of a golf course is to deliver pleasurable excitement to the greatest number of players, Maidstone succeeds admirably.

A few holes are especially noteworthy. The par-4 9th is ranked in the Top 100 of The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes. With low dunes separating the fairway from the broad expanse of beach to the right, this exposed hole, on the very margin of the waves, may well be the purest links hole in America. From a tee box chiseled into the dunes, it proceeds across thorny scrub and beach grass to a level fairway that beckons from a shallow valley set between shouldering dunes. A stern cross bunker—to be avoided at all costs—protrudes into the fairway from the right about 80 yards short of the putting surface. The green, sloped from back to front and subtly undulating, is defended to the right by a gaping bunker nicknamed the “Yale Bowl” after the university’s football stadium in New Haven, which was dug deep into the earth. Maidstone’s signature bunker is 10 feet deep, but it feels deeper when you’re in it. It’s the kind of hazard that can drain the plaid from a pair of knickers.

Maidstone’s other standout hole is number 14, a “postcard” par 3 that’s both a beauty and, for the wayward, a beast. A modest 148 yards from the blue (back) tees, the hole plays from a flattened dune over a forbidding wasteland of scrub and sandy ground to a perched green nestled in the dunes. Deep pot bunkers and long, unkempt grass encircle the target. The steel-blue sea floods the horizon directly behind the green. The hole calls for a proper shot, as Park might have said.

There are, of course, other holes worth noting. I first played the course in 1993 with Rees Jones, the course architect responsible for Atlantic Golf Club and The Bridge, both in Bridgehampton. Standing in front of the green at the 2nd hole, a seemingly innocuous par 5, Jones whispered, “Architects don’t build greens like this anymore.” I took a hard look at the raised putting surface. Set on a diagonal, the green is defended to the right and behind by a long, sinuous bunker. According to Eden Foster, the club’s longtime head pro, the front left bunker works in tandem with the rear bunker to create a “bait-and-switch” game in the mind of tentative players. Doubt, as Park well knew, is every golfer’s bugaboo.

Maidstone’s superbly designed course, coupled with its majestic seaside setting, set it apart from all other East End clubs. Adding to its luster is the fact that the firm, fast-running links never play the same twice due to the shifting winds. Conditions change from morning to afternoon; the challenge never stales. Maidstone may appear petite on the scorecard at a par-72 6,423 yards from the back tees, but there is resistance to scoring at every turn.

In the end, Maidstone Club is a links cherished by dyed-in-the-wool purists who respect the origins of the game and accept the vagaries of nature. At Maidstone there is no gingerbread, no frou-frou. Most of the members walk. The golf experience is pure, unadulterated.

So where does this club that eschews high-profile events stack up against its East End neighbors? Shinnecock Hills, the splendid Southampton club that will host its fifth US Open in 2018, is currently ranked fourth on Golf Magazine’s list of the “Top 100 Courses in the US.” The National Golf Links of America, also in Southampton, was acknowledged as the nation’s first great course when it opened in 1908. Rated ninth on Golf Magazine’s roster, it will host the 2013 Walker Cup matches, pitting the top US amateurs against their counterparts from Great Britain and Ireland.

Maidstone is ranked number 42 on the list, ahead of Sebonack Golf Club (number 63), the Southampton newcomer that will host the 2013 US Women’s Open, and behind Friar’s Head (number 23), the superlative venue near Riverhead that is not considered part of the Hamptons’ coterie. What these rankings fail to convey is that Maidstone is, as its founders intended, a family-oriented country club, not strictly a golf club. The shingled Tudor-style clubhouse, built 90 years ago to replace an earlier edifice that burned down, overlooks Egypt Beach, one of the prettiest strands in the Hamptons. There are beach cabanas, an Olympic-size swimming pool, grass tennis courts, and a sporty nine-hole course favored by beginners and juniors. The wood-paneled bar is timeless, as is the oceanfront terrace.

Given its diverse amenities, oceanfront location, historic patina, and understated glamour, the Maidstone Club is in a class of its own, and has been for more than a century. Many courses in America refer to themselves as a “links”; Maidstone, its sandy terrain and salty breezes calling to mind a Scottish seascape, is the genuine article.

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