Mike Flynn figures that if the Sankaty Head Golf Club had not
bucked the odds and hung on to its caddie camp, he would have
spent the summer in jail. Instead, Flynn did a 10-week stretch
on Nantucket, the swanky Massachusetts island 25 miles south of
Cape Cod. Welcome to a place where worlds collide, Nantucket's
Camp Sankaty Head, the last caddie camp on earth.
Flynn, 17, clearly does not fit the Nantucket profile. And while
he's not typical of the modern Sankaty camper either, his case
underscores both the age-old values on which caddie camps were
founded and the high esteem in which the last one is still held.
An eighth-grade dropout, Flynn has done time for larceny and
breaking and entering. He has shot and been shot at. Earlier
this summer he was in court again, this time facing another
larceny charge. But when the judge learned that he had lined up
a job at Camp Sankaty, Flynn was given a suspended sentence so
that he could earn the nearly $2,000 restitution ordered by the
court. Flynn came home with $1,600. More important, he earned
"You learn you ain't going to get nothing in life if you don't
work hard," he says of his summer at Sankaty Head. "I'd love to
get my G.E.D. and go to college someday. Man, that would be
cool. This place makes me think that's possible. That I can do
Camp Sankaty Head has been having that effect on young men for
66 years. Campers have gone on to become doctors, lawyers,
policemen and, yes, golf pros. It's a place where boys go not to
become the next John Glenn, Michael Jordan or Baryshnikov but,
as camp director Doug Ellsworth says, "to get ready to go out
into the real world and survive and, of course, to have some fun
along the way."
September 1, 1996
Sankaty Head is the last link to a bygone era. In the early
1900s the first caddie camps were the inspired result of a
convergence of social service and practical need. Cities in the
Northeast teemed with working-class boys with limited options.
The fashionable resorts and country clubs sprinkled throughout
rural New England--isolated retreats at such places as Fishers
Island, N.Y.; Bethlehem, N.H.; and Poland Spring, Maine--needed
caddies. So the clubs built the camps and imported the kids to
work the high season. In most cases schools and youth
organizations like the YMCA and the Boys Club managed the camps
and recruited the caddies.
At the peak of their popularity, in the 1940s, about 20 camps
existed. Then, around 1950, came the motorized golf cart, and
along with it the beginning of the end for caddie camps. Yet
Sankaty Head's camp has not only survived, but it has also
thrived. And for two reasons: Over the past 33 years the camp
has been run by two devoted leaders, and the club's members
decided early on that the ambience provided by caddies was worth
a substantial investment.
Camp Sankaty Head was founded in 1930 but by the early '60s had
hit hard times. Enrollment was down and cash flow reduced to a
trickle when the Sankaty Head Foundation, a charitable trust,
took over ownership of the camp. In 1963 a new camp director,
Norman L. Claxton, was brought on board to right the ship. A
schoolteacher and a retired captain in the U.S. Navy, Claxton
loved kids and discipline, and he had an immediate impact.
Claxton, now 83, ran Camp Sankaty until 1985, when he promoted
Ellsworth, his longtime assistant. Their relationship dates all
the way back to Ellsworth's days in high school. When Ellsworth
was 14, his father died of a heart attack, and Claxton, the
school's disciplinarian, became his surrogate father. "I decided
that if I could do for one kid what Dad [Claxton] did for me, my
life would be a success," says the 57-year-old Ellsworth.
Sankaty's members subsidize the camp to the tune of $60,000
annually and last year spent $750,000 to build new dormitories,
a mess hall and a recreation center. The foundation has also
awarded campers more than $40,000 in academic scholarships in
Perhaps that's why filling the three dorms--huts, they call
them--that compose Sankaty Head's caddie camp has not been a
problem. This summer 52 boys between the ages of 13 and 18
attended the 10-week camp, some coming from as far away as
Ireland and California. Another 100 applicants were turned away.
Many of the kids are the sons (sorry, no girls) of camp alumni.
The campers' day begins with reveille at 7 a.m. followed by bunk
inspection, breakfast and a flag-raising ceremony. Then the
campers trek up the hill from their compound, which is
surrounded by Sankaty's 11th, 12th and 13th holes, to the caddie
shack (a.k.a. the Bench). The caddies work six days a week,
often looping two rounds a day carrying D's--two bags--at $10
per bag plus tips. The campers pay $5 a day for room and board,
and on average go home at the end of the summer with $1,500.
When not working, the campers play sports, go to the beach or
visit the villages of Siasconset--a mile from the club--or
Nantucket for ice cream and a glimpse of girls. And every
evening the boys are allowed to play Sankaty Head's 6,623 yards
of magnificent seaside links, although the golf course is often
the last place they want to spend the remains of the day after
caddying 36 holes.
Having fun with the strange new world of Sankaty Head is not
always easy, at least at first. Many campers have trouble
adjusting to the strict rules as well as the Buffy and Muffy
atmosphere at the club. Some of the most high-powered
businessmen in America--captains of industry such as Jack Welch
(General Electric), Bob Wright (NBC) and Nelson Doubleday (owner
of the New York Mets)--play there. "If you compared us to the
members," says 13-year-old Ron Northrup, a first-year camper,
"it's like prime rib to bologna."
Of course, the young and fearless campers know a choice cut when
they see one. Greg Montesano, who plays the ukulele, once
rewarded a good shot with an impromptu concert. Lampooning
members is an art form. Poor play is tolerated, but poor tippers
who play poorly are not.
But don't let all the Bench-jockeying fool you. "I love the
place," says 18-year-old Ben Smith of Spring Villa Athy,
Ireland, a third-year camper. "My friends think I'm crazy, but
this is life, the real world. We learn to take care of
ourselves, to make beds, do laundry. And if you stay focused,
you go home with a fat check."
And Sankaty Head loves to see happy campers. "The caddies enrich
our lives as much as we hope the camp enriches theirs," says
Bill Cox, the president of the foundation. "We take a lot of
pride in the camp. Without the camp we wouldn't have caddies,
and what's golf without caddies?"