Cape Arundel Golf Club was founded as Kennebunkport Golf Club in 1896, with the much under-appreciated Alexander H. Findlay (who some claim to be “The Father of American Golf” with almost a hundred designs to his name by the end of the 19th century) laying out the club’s original 9-hole course in 1900.
The renamed Cape Arundel Golf Club commissioned three-time US Amateur Champion Walter Travis to extend its 9-hole course in the early 1920s and the architect somehow managed to shoehorn eighteen holes into a tight, 88-acre property along the tidal branches of the Kennebunk River, close to where its waters flow into Nantucket Sound.
Measuring a mere 5,881 yards from the back tees and playing to a par of 69, the layout is definitely short by modern standards, but often the length of a course and the fun that can be derived from playing it are in inverse proportion to one another, so don’t be swayed by those who might dismiss Cape Arundel as a relic of the past.
There’s only one par five on the card, at the 480-yard left doglegged 9th hole, and only one of the ten par four holes on this links-style layout (the right doglegged 12th) measures in excess of 400 yards. The subtle addition of mounding on relatively flat terrain helps to obscure approaches into small, often wind-protected greens.
Renaissance Golf Design lists Cape Arundel as one of the clubs where it provides consultation services.
Layout - As close to a perfect layout as it gets in my opinion. Coming from the golden age of golf course design, it is one of the most walkable courses you'll come across anywhere. A short course that has many memorable holes, asking you to hit several types of shots with several different clubs. 5.5 of 6
Conditions - About as well kept as a course can be, great rough, great fairways, true greens - 5 of 6
Value - Expensive to play here but I would still say it is well worth the price, just not a place I could afford to play every weekend - 4 of 6
Pace - Never waited for a second, a lot of people walking along with the semi-private nature and the quick easy routing keeps play moving beautifully - 5 of 6
Amenities - Pretty bare bones - No alcohol, no beverage cart, water on the course in a few spots, golf carts are extremely comfortable if you do choose to ride. 3.5 of 6
Friendliness of Staff - No complaints here, staff was plenty friendly - 4 of 6
Cape Arundel has received recognition for being on Golfclubatlas.com’s Custodian’s list, a list of 148 courses (one is added every year after the Open Championship is held. These courses are to celebrate the game of golf, make one feel invigorated to play due to the enjoyable nature of the course. Cape Arundel is also known as a favorite of the Bush family, including two Presidents, who were known for their “speed” golf. I have played behind George W. Bush (43) at Preston Trail, and this time I played three groups behind Jeb Bush. I can attest that they play quickly.
As I played Cape Arundel, what came to my mind was Kilspindie in East Lothian, Scotland, Both are under 6000 yards from the “back” tees although Kilspindie is approximately 1000 yards shorter. While Cape Arundel does not offer the beautiful seaside views as it does not sit beside a firth, both courses are a joy to play. One does not or perhaps should not worry about their score, they should simply enjoy the setting and play. I did not find a “great” hole at Cape Arundel, (although I did at Kilspindie), but I did find several memorable holes including the first three par 3’s, and the par 4 seventeenth.
Both Cape Arundel and Kilspindie are basically walking courses, both take well under four hours, and both have routings that move every way. On both courses there are areas that feel cramped due to a lack of land. Both courses made me wonder why both of the clubs decided never to expand to keep up with the evolution of the technology of the game.
Yet golfers are the beneficiaries of both club’s staying the same.
Cape Arundel is celebrating its 125 year anniversary, which is young compared to many courses in the UK, but in the USA it is one of the older clubs.
Cape Arundel was laid out by Walter Travis and this is perhaps his best course. I have stated before the importance of the quality of the land in determining how good a course is and what surprised me the most at Cape Arundel is that the land is much “flatter” than I expected. There are obvious humps, rolls, and mounds on the course beginning at the first hole. Yet overall there are more level holes by a wide margin. The biggest movement in land are on one, five, eleven, thirteen, and seventeen. Other holes are flat or the land movement is gradual over the length of the hole.
A previous reviewer noted there is only one par four over 400 yards although my scorecard showed the three longest at 399, 398 and 397 yards, respectively. I did note there seemed to be some “new” tees on a couple of holes. The single par 5 is only 476 yards.
Length and land movement are often prime determinants of a course’s challenge, yet Cape Arundel does not have an abundance of either. The fairways for the most part are wide. Yet before we set off with our first tee shots of the day, the starter said to us “this course is a driver, wedge, and then make bogey.” That sums up Cape Arundel perfectly because the challenge is at the green complex.
The greens have a lot of internal movement with various shelves and swales. I had a good day of chipping and putting so they were less consequential to me. But my playing partners nearly always put themselves in a poor position for both chipping and putting. They suffered a lot of three-four putts. I did not three putt a green and one putted seven greens and perhaps should have made a couple more. There are only three greens that are lacking in a lot of movement. The other fifteen have a lot of movement. What was the primary difference in my short game versus theirs? I heeded the other advice of the starter who said, “make your misses in front of the green, do not miss to the back half or over the back of the green.” That was sage advice because nearly all of the more severe movement is in the back half of the greens as well as most greens go sharply to the front.
While Adam praised the green on the seventeenth, which sits well below the fairway requiring a guide pole to a blind shot, I liked the green on the tenth the most with a false front and two humps in it. It is also narrow. Go long and one will be fortunate to make a double bogey. If one gets to the left of one of the humps, their ball will go off the green into thick rough.
The rough is the other defense of the course. While there are trees they do not often come into play except perhaps on the second and fifteenth. Go too far right off the tee on the second and the line is blocked to a green placed on the right. On the fifteenth there is a series of trees that if one goes too far right you can catch a branch and end up in tall grass and rocks.
There are two memorable sights near the course. While neither are as eye catching as the Firth of Forth at Kilspindie, the dome house behind the sixteenth tee as the cemetery behind the seventeenth tee are both interesting.
As mentioned three of the par 3’s are very good. The third hole has water and tall grass on the left side, a false front on the front left, a very tilted green back to front with two tiers and if one goes long they will fall down an eight feet slope leading to a blind recovery shot. The sixth hole is short at less than 120 yards playing over a pond but again the green is tilted sharply to the front and sits in sort of a hollow. The thirteenth played nearly 180 yards due to the pin location into the wind. It plays over what looks like a creek inlet (dry due to tides), and sits perhaps 25 feet above what is actually Grist Mill Pond. I was well short and nearly in the muck, but managed to recover. I did not care as much for sixteen, a long par 3 of 210 yards that lacks the visual appeal of the other par 3’s although the green had more movement than it appeared.
The single par 5 has a very good green and features perhaps the most consequential decision on the course which is whether to lay up in front of three bunkers placed about 110 yards from the green. I did and hit a good shot to eight feet.
My favorite par 4 is the fifth, a dogleg left of only 340 yards except I went too far right and turned the hole into 390 yards. Down the left side of the fairway are two bunkers followed by a mound with a hidden bunker behind it. The green sits below the fairway with two fronting bunkers, a mound on the right and another hidden bunker behind the green. It is a great look from the fairway. The seventeenth also deserves mention due to the setting of the green about 20 feet below the fairway with a central cross bunker about 50 yards shy of the green. All one has to do is clear that bunker and they should be on the green. I also liked the eighteenth with its elevated green with fall-offs to all sides.
Cape Arundel is a joy to play. It is a throwback to a different era in golf. It is a perfect example of why the more celebrated architects of today are minimalists who skillfully use the land available to them to route a course and put the focus where it should be on the green complexes. If one is in Maine or Boston, New Hampshire, or Vermont, they should go to Cape Arundel. They will have both fun and enjoyment. While I consider Yale to be the “golf museum” of the USA, Cape Arundel is not far behind.
Cape Arundel is an example of a well preserved course that understands how to be properly presented. After the opening tee shot flys over a hollow in the fairway and lands atop a ridge you see the green with its 3 foot false front. This sets the tone for the day. As a set, Cape Arundel’s greens have to be some of the finest I have ever seen. Almost random in nature they have slopes that follow grade and fall off in a way that is nothing but artistic. As a course that does not even tip out at 6000 yards, it is paramount that the greens can hold defence and they surely do. I thought standout holes were the par 4 5th which requires a drive of no more than 250 then an approach over a native area to a green protected by one small bunker and a hump in the front center of the green. The par 4 11th that features a diagonal tee shot over the river and calls for an approach into a punchbowl like green. And the par 4 17th with a blind approach down into a natural valley to a green with massive movements and false fronts left and front. What this course lacks in yardage is easily made up by its requirements in shot variety and putts that often break 2 or more different ways when rolling towards the pin. As far as summer courses go, it would be hard to find a more playable, relaxing, and strategic one than this.
As noted in other reviews below, Cape Arundel is finally receiving the recognition it deserves with its recent rating in the 147 Custodians, and the Golf Architecture Community’s focus on Walter Travis. In my opinion, any true student of the game should pay a visit to Cape Arundel to study its green complexes. In a word, a round at Cape Arundel is surreal.
I am lucky enough to be engaged to a ‘Mainah’, and while visiting with her family was fortunate to visit Cape Arundel. The course is listed as being private, but there are open public tee times, many of which are reasonably affordable in the afternoon, especially since it is walkable for virtually any player. Cape Arundel is the home course to the Bush family, and many other reviewers have mentioned seeing past presidents playing in the morning.
Cape Arundel takes advantage of its gently rolling topography and tidal rivers for hazards, and is also impacted by wind. There is a refreshing lack of trees throughout the course, yet wildlife is present at every turn. Strangely, the entry driveway bisects many holes as you arrive at the property. Despite this, the quaint clubhouse and potentially most picturesque putting green in America could put any player at ease before their round.
While there are so many amazing holes at Arundel, some of the most memorable from my round include:
• #1: A stunner from the first tee. The tee shot contains natural hazards with the Grist Mill Pond on the left, and a massive swale causing a blind tee shot on the fairway. The green complex is out of sight if you do not surpass this landform.
• #2: A potentially drivable par four with natural hazards down the left, and beautiful bunkering short and long.
• #5: This is the first hole on the course without a run-up option. The player must first place their tee ball to an ‘island’ fairway, noted by a charming 150 yard marker. From there, a mid to short iron is required to hit an aerial shot to a quasi-heart shaped green with fascinating contours throughout.
• #11: This par four has a simply inspirational tee shot, asking the player to bite off all they can chew. However, cutting out too much of the hole is problematic as well, as spin will be necessary to position the ball properly.
• #13: This medium length par three plays over Grist Mill Pond to one of the largest greens on the golf course. At low tide, you can see the fate of many players who miscalculated yardage and wind. However, despite its intimidating nature, there is actually a lot of room short of the putting surface. It is a great example of natural visual intimidation.
• #15: Travis uses the terrain as a natural hazard on this short par 4. From the tee box, I could not actually tell what was in the ditch on the left side of the fairway. It turns out, there was no fairway at all – in fact, it was a deep hole of lengthy rough. The player must think their way through the intricate design.
• ***#17: The 17th hole at Cape Arundel is among my favorite of the roughly 3500 played, and its green may be my lifetime favorite. Once again, a player taking driver may not necessarily be rewarded here. Instead, it is crucial for the golfer to find a yardage that suits their wedge play, positioned well away from fairway bunkers. From there, the golfer must make a blind approach shot to a wild green that runs away from them hard toward Grist Mill Pond. There are terraces, swales…just about any compelling feature on any green anywhere, all in one. The best play on this hole may actually be to land the ball 30 yards short of the putting surface. I have never seen a green like it before – a true one-of-a-kind masterpiece.***
• #18: If standing on the tiny, coastal tee box for this hole does not inspire you and excite you for a return trip, you may wish to find a new sport!
Cape Arundel is truly divine. The 17th hole is among my favorite ever played, and like many other Maine courses, the atmosphere remains relaxed and charming at all points in the round. Their driving range is off-site, but provides an amazing practice facility. While I think Cape Arundel could benefit from slightly firmer, tighter fairways, there are virtually no other aspects of the course I would change. It is excellent in all ways, fitting the natural topography perfectly with extremely compelling green complexes throughout.
Cape Arundel is well worth the trip to Maine! I cannot say enough positive things about this genius, work-of-art.
Golf in the state of Maine has a relatively short, but picturesque season. Cape Arundel’s profile has significantly improved in the past couple of years due to its inclusion in the ‘147 Custodians’ list from golfclubatlas.com.
Having played several of Walter Travis’ special courses, I was eager to see another set of his green complexes, and Cape Arundel’s greens didn’t disappoint – in fact, they could be his best.
While the course itself is laid out on gentle topography, and the length being very manageable from every set of tees, the defense is the shaping of the greens. Due to the compact piece of land, on several occasions, the routing brings a few greens close to each other, so you get to see up close the beauty of them from many different angles. We joked that after 125 years, nobody has figured out the contours on these putting surfaces, and there’s no guarantee anybody will in the next 125 years either!
The low-key nature of the club, it’s contribution to golfing history and the idyllic setting along the Grist Mill Pond, makes Cape Arundel a brilliant day’s golf.
This is simply a fun golf course with unique holes, easy walk, and arguably a Top 10 set of greens via Walter Travis. The course exemplifies the Maine spirit of golf as there is no food, no alcohol - the focus is on golf. Play 18, and have a beer and a lobster at Federal Jacks in Kennebunk after the round.