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Golf Treasure On This Island

Originally Posted: May 24, 2007

Tom Clavin

If the island had enough tea bags, there could be a Fishers Island Tea Party in its future. The most recent experience the island has had with revolution was in 1779 when the British raided it and burned several homes. Now, however, after an islander was replaced on a town board, residents are re-examining their governmental tie to the Town of Southold.

It is safe to say that many people in the state don't know that Fishers Island is part of New York. And the county too, for that matter. Island residents and businesses are not listed in the Suffolk phone book. Fishers Island is in appearance, accent, location, and sensibility a decidedly New England community that, because of a deal done over a century ago, is uncomfortably linked to New York, and to the East End of Long Island.

The island is seven miles long and 1.5 miles wide, comprising about 4000 acres. It is at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, and its southern shoreline overlooks Block Island Sound. As of the 2000 U.S. Census the island has 289 year-round residents. There are 625 housing units on the island, and in the summer the population at least quintuples because of part-time residents, who over the last century have included duPonts, Firestones and Whitneys. The median age of islanders is 43.

Munnawtawkit was the name given to the island two miles off the Connecticut coast. In 1614, the Dutch explorer Adrian Block dropped anchor in one of the harbors, and after a brief visit, named Vissher's Island. John Winthrop Jr. purchased the island from the Pequots in 1644, and when he became Governor of Connecticut 13 years later, he had the island included in the state's royal charter. However, a different royal charter given to the Duke of York in 1664 gave him Fishers Island along with the rest of Long Island. Ownership remained in dispute for over two centuries.

Finally, in 1879, a committee consisting of officials from Connecticut and New York met and determined that Fishers Island belonged to New York and would be part of the Town of Southold. Today, the island is one of the town's 10 hamlets. Thanks to this committee's decision, one of the great golf courses in the country is within New York State's rather extended boundaries.

There is no direct ferry service from Long Island, 10 miles away. From eastern Long Island, one must take the ferry from Orient Point to New London, and from elsewhere one drives to New London. A 40-minute ferry ride between New London and Fishers Island allows visitors, workers and others to come and go. Of the 72 students in the K-12 Fishers Island School, almost two dozen commute from Connecticut, as do some of the teachers. There is a small airport with two runways that is used primarily by summer residents and those who play at the Fishers Island Golf Club.

The course was designed in 1926 by Seth Raynor of Southampton, who was also involved in the creation of National Golf Links in 1911. It is often listed as one of the top 25 golf courses in the country. One of its most amazing aspects is that water is visible from every tee and green.

The island was more of a resort destination over a century ago than it is today. In the late 1890s it boasted three hotels and the Hay Harbor Club, which offered nine holes of golf on the western end of the island. East of that were 1800 acres of land owned by the Ferguson's Fishers Island Farms Company. In 1925 the company hired Raynor and the landscaper Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., whose father had laid out Central Park in Manhattan.

Initially, Raynor designed two courses. However, in January 1926 he died, and because of that and a desire by the company to offer more home sites, just the one course was constructed. It and the clubhouse opened in July 1926, with 180 members. The total length is 6544 yards from the back tees, and 72 is par.

Most of the holes have spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean, and water is a threat on a dozen of the holes. The two most unforgettable holes are 4 and 5. The 4th is a moderate-length par-4 that after a long drive to an elevated fairway demands a blind approach over a tall peak to a punchbowl green perched at the water's edge. The 5th is a long par-3 rising sharply from tee to green, with the ocean in front of the tee and along the right. Courage!

A note about the clubhouse: The original structure was a massive one. In 1963, the club decided that the members did not need so big a place and an attempt was made to take it down via explosives. The attempt failed. Later the same year, however, the clubhouse burned down and was replaced by the present one, a more modest manse.

I visited the island last fall, and even though it is now full spring, I am looking forward to another autumnal visit there. It is easy to believe that you are in rural New Hampshire or northwest Massachusetts. Orange, red and yellow are the primary colors, even on the roads - a curious tradition is for people to create colorful drawings on roadways, beach parking lots and rocks. The only place today for lodgings is the Pequod Inn, which operates through Columbus Day. The only grocery store is open just 3 to 5 p.m. every day. The ice cream shop is also closed, but because it is in the same building and owned by the same person who runs the liquor store (open year-round), in the off-season one can purchase a pinot noir and a pint of pistachio at the same counter.

The island does not have its own weekly newspaper (most residents read The New London Day), but community events, announcements, and other bits of news are checked regularly by residents on the two-sided bulletin board on the village green. There is a physician full-time now on the island, subsidized by residents. Previously, when medical care was needed, the patient was ferried to the mainland. In older days, a flag was raised, that message was received on the mainland and a doctor was dispatched. The police force consists of three constables, and a state trooper is stationed on the island half the year.

Other than its natural beauty and the gorgeous golf course, the only "tourist attraction" Fishers Island has is the shorefront home on the southwest side where scenes from "The World According to Garp" with Robin Williams and Glenn Close were filmed.

Whether the island will remain a part of Southold Town, or New York State, is a question that has been raised on Fishers Island the last few years. Fishers Island has a unique situation politically. At one time the Town Board consisted solely of town justices. The law was changed in Albany in 1977, but the state did allow for a Fishers Island resident to retain that dual status. When town voters elected someone named Evans in 1993, 1997 and 2001, they elected her as a Town Justice, which automatically puts her on the Town Board. Many Fishers Island residents feel the distance between them and the town government has grown longer than two ferry rides.

The possibility exists that islanders may do more than identify with its mainland neighbor, and will secede and become a part of Connecticut. That should make for some interesting headlines . . . but you know what? It won't matter to the playing of golf.

The Fishers Island Golf Club is well worth a visit during spring, summer and fall. For details on greens fees, tee times, and public use and guest privileges, call 631-788-7221.

Images courtesy of GolfClubAtlas.com

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