Charles Harff sits at table in the Farm Neck Golf Club Cafe dressed to the nines - the back nines. He’s wearing a Martha’s Vineyard Hospital 2004 golf tournament polo, white shorts and a pair of semi-dress loafers. Tan from day on the links, with gray hair and an air of congeniality, he’s soft-spoken and unassuming.
His demeanor may be quiet, but his achievement is impressive. Neither the bricks underfoot on the cafe‘s ou1door patio, nor the roof above it, nor the acres of verdant golf course beyond would exist if not for him, some friends and a fair amount of foresight.
Farm Neck, the Island’s only public golf course, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Mr. Harff, Bob Fullem and Douglass Mabee are credited with creating it. To mark the occasion, Mr. Harff has written a book about the nationally recognized club and its origins, A Dream Fulfilled: Farm Neck Golf Club.
Mr. Harff started coming to the Vineyard with his parents in the 1950s, and was later urged by a colleague to consider it an ideal vacation spot. He practiced law for firms like New York-based Chadbourne and Park, negotiating sweeping legal contracts with government agencies, including subjects such as environmental protection.
Working out of New York, he would escape to the Hamptons, only to be called into work once he got there. As a result, the Vineyard soon became the perfect vacation spot, mainly for its geographical constraints: “The Vineyard fit the bill because if someone wants you, you can’t always get back. If you’re lucky, you may even get fogged in,” said Mr. Harff, gesturing to the golf course glistening in the July sun. “Look at all this fog.”
In 1969 Mr. Harff built a home overlooking Sengekontacket Pond next door to his friend, Mr. Fullem. The two had met as students at Colgate University, and both were attorneys.
The houses, now overlooking Farm Neck, were then part of Waterview Farms, a property owned by brothers Moses and Alvin Strock, who purchased more than 2,000 acres of land and formed a real estate company, Island Properties, in 1967, according to Mr. Harff’s book.
The brothers’ development was planned to be low key, with New England flair, houses of cedar shingles and lots of open space, but plans change. In the 1970s, after Moses Strock died, the company, then Strock Enterprises, began plans for a golf course and 867 half-acre housing lots. The plans were approved by the Oak Bluffs planning board in 1974.
For the two friends, settling into new summer homes with 360-degree scenic vistas, this raised red flags. Countless others voiced concern, and, spurred by community outcry, the recently formed Martha’s Vineyard Commission froze the plans.
What followed was four years of litigation ping-pong between the realtors, commission and community. Eventually, it reached the state Supreme Judicial Court, which upheld the MVC ruling in 1977.
The Strocks’ real estate company went bankrupt, and the bank foreclosed on the properties.
With that, a significant tract of land, including a completed nine-hole golf course and endless possibilities, came onto the market. Mr. Harff and Mr. Fullem set out to find buyers for what was then essentially just an idea: development paired with conservation. That idea became a 51-lot subdivision, and an 18-hole golf course: Farm Neck.
“Basically [...] there’s an old phrase, It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it,” said Mr. Harff, when asked why he undertook the lengthy process of paperwork and legalities and asking friends and acquaintances to invest in an invisible development.
“The challenge was singularly difficult because there was only a concept [...] While we were not surprised that there was not a rush to join us in our dream, our dedication to trying to save this beautiful property kept us motivated and optimistic,” Mr. Harff said in his book.
Mr. Mabee, who became interested in the project after reading about it, was instrumental in finding buyers and was a major player, he served as president of Farm Neck for a number of years until 1983. In his memoirs, Mr. Mabee - who died in March of this year - wrote about inviting a renowned developer from Houston, Gerald Hines, out to the undeveloped property for a quick tour, during a typically torrential Island downpour.
“The Lear jet touched down at precisely 1:30 and out stepped a fellow in a business suit...I was wearing my usual Easterner red pants, guaranteed to fade, L.L. Bean boots and a yellow slicker...It was pouring by then, the car windows were steamed, and at best one could only sense the terrain and physical features of Farm Neck.”
But the foggy outline of potential prompted Mr. Hines and his friend Robert Barton to sign up.
After many planning meetings and the recruitment of renowned golf course developer John Williams McGrath, Mr. Harff and Mr. Fullem found buyers for the housing sites. In October of 1978 the investors, organized as Farm Neck Associates, paid the bank $1.5 million and took on the task of converting acres of scrub brush and dense woods.
Construction began in 1979. Tony Paganis, who had built the nine holes for Island Properties, returned to help Pat Mulligan design the course. On a shoestring budget of $250,000, the course was completed, and members teed off for the first time on July 3, 1980, on the completed - but far from finished - course.
Today Mr. Harff, who said he’s a “hacker, not golfer,” rides around the sprawling, manicured course, pointing out his favorite holes and quickly taking a passenger back through 25 years of change.
“None of this was here,” said Mr. Harff, pointing out the well-manicured driving range. Walking out to the yardage markers, granite slabs with colored numbers on them, Mr. Harff notes that they sit on the site of some of the original nine holes.
“When we did this a few years ago, it was like the Big Dig in Boston,: Mr. Harff said.
Back in the golf cart, and clearly in his element, Mr. Harff weaves along paved trails, often taking the vehicle off road to go around parked carts, offering words of encouragement or some good-natured ribbing as he motors past. At the third hole, Mr. Harff walks up to the farthest tee and extols the sweeping view of Sengekontacket Pond and the greens.
Around the course, a few houses sit, some hidden behind old-growth trees. Taking the golf cart down a crunchy gravel driveway, Mr. Harff points out screenwriter and producer Spike Lee’s home, and stops further to point out a ticket of trees bordering the yard, where the old golf course’s fairway once was. The houses are surrounded by open land and woods.
Stopping to watch a gaggle of geese by one of the course’s ponds, Mr. Harff says he feels that after 25 years, Farm Neck is where it should be:
“I think we’ve pretty much done everything we ever planned to do,” he said. “It’s been very exciting to see how much better it was since it started...It’s a great sense of satisfaction to see it develop and keep the character it has.”
On the course, people are at play. Farm Neck was started with the intention of being a public course, open for all. That fact kept more than a few people from joining, Mr. Harff said; they were shocked at the notion that a golf course wouldn’t have an admissions board and instead, a first come, first admitted policy.
“There is particular satisfaction in seeing year-round Island businessmen, carpenters, builders, electricians and others sharing a golf tournament or playing with CEOs of major companies, ...government leaders, summer visiting teachers, doctors and lawyers ... Golf is, as it should be, the common denominator,” Mr. Harff said in his book.
Today, golf enthusiasts are hard pressed to find a tee time during the summer, a reverse from humble beginnings. The club didn’t have its 150 charter members until 1986. Back then, it cost a maximum of $1,500 to become a member and the annual dues were $250. Now the club has 284 full members and 136 Island members. More than 850 names are on a waiting list. Membership costs $100,000 and annual dues are $1,400. Mr. Harff said those amounts are still much lower than what most golf courses charge.
The golfers on the green may not know the whole history of Farm Neck’s creation, but the purpose of the course is still clearly evident when one pauses by a salt marsh bordering any of several holes. The wind blows across Sengekontacket, carrying with it the sweet scent of salt and native plants. There are no houses blighting the view of the pond, and waterfowl, including eagles and owls, nest on Farm Neck through a project with the National Audubon Society. Rusted farm machinery sits where it was found, part of the farmland that once was. All along the course, flowers bloom.
“It’s a pretty course,” Mr. Harff said; “You can’t help but love it.”
Back in the cart, Mr. Harff points out the conversation areas donated to various nonprofit groups. In 1979, 85 acres were donated to nearby Felix Neck sanctuary, and the Felix Neck Wildlife Trust oversees 260 acres of conservation easements and restrictions around the course.
None of the founders “have ever taken a single dime out of this project, it was purely done out of love of the land,” says Tim Sweet, general manager of Farm Neck since its creation.
Mr. Sweet is one of several staff with long tenure at Farm Neck. Groundskeeper Mike Alwardt has been keeping the greens pristine for 25 years now. Fred Sonnenberg, club engineer, has been here 15 years. The flowers that dot the club have been tended by Sara Alwardt for a number of years.
Part of Farm Neck’s mission, described in Mr. Harff’s book, has been community outreach. Since 1986, the course has hosted a charity tournament for the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. The Farm Neck Foundation has also raised more than $435,000 for various Island charities from greens fees and member contributions.
Mr. Harff technically retired from his legal work in 1996, though he still serves on a number of boards and is the president of the golf club. He and his wife, Marion, divide their time between a home in a Pittsburgh suburb and his house on Sengekontacket.