When the kids put on their mouse ears they’re readying themselves for a trip to Florida. On the other hand, you traveling golfers looking to play one of the most exciting courses on the eastern seaboard . . . fasten those moose antlers, you’re heading up to Maine.
A warning, however. This is not the down east Maine of lobster boats, craggy coasts and precious art towns. Leave that for another vacation. Perched high in the mountains and high on the map of Maine your destination is the ski / golf resort called Sugarloaf USA.
You have to earn your stripes just to get to this resort, which is so remote a wrong turn could land you in Quebec. The nearest airport is down in Portland, which might strike you as a southern city from these latitudes. But if you are dedicated to playing one of the nation’s most exhilarating public courses, you’ll bravely announce, “I’m going golfing. And I’m going northing.”
This is mountain golf at its finest. No condos, no houses. One of Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s personal favorites, Sugarloaf plays along mountain ridges, astride birch forests and weaves around the incessantly babbling Carrabassett River. Find me a golfer oblivious to these lovely gifts from nature and I’ll find you a Scrooge for the 21st century.
There are three sets of men’s tees here. But from wherever you hit, there is lots of trouble and you rarely get a level lie. To give you an indication of the course’s difficulty, the forward tees have earned a 141 slope rating. As for the championship tees? They are assigned a number which comes perilously close to uncharted territory: 151. For comparison purposes, the back tees at the Bethpage Black course are rated 148.
Of course in the name of thorough journalism or just good ol’ self-flagellation, I played the back tees. The first tee got the knees knocking pretty good. The highest of the four tee boxes looks down from over the treetops at a bowling alley fairway, towards which I promptly rolled a gutter ball. Fine, I’ll drop down in the valley and take my two-stroke penalty. It would not be the last such infraction of the day.
The second hole, a fine double dogleg par 5, gives you the first taste (recommended on a hot day!) of the running streams which play alongside and occasionally across many of the fairways. The landing area turns out to be plenty wide, but from the treed back tees it is barely visible. Played smartly, this is not a terribly difficult hole.
The first few holes play mostly downhill, but that trend is reversed at the No. 1 handicap uphill par 4 5th. The tee boxes here are a real oddity. They descend as you look back from the forward tees, so that the championship tees are a good 15 feet lower than the whites. The compulsion to get your drive airborne in a hurry really shouldn’t affect your swing, but after all, this is golf, and it does. Must hit the ball straight, too, because a creek with an untidy bank area runs laterally to the left and black forest (no piece of cake to get out of) awaits to the right.
Carts are required at Sugarloaf and it is cart paths only here, making the up-and-down sixth hole a rigorous cardiovascular workout if you choose to walk your way up to the steeply elevated green. Actually, this hole will make you sweat just thinking about club selection. You must first clear a creek 140 yards down the slope from the elevated tees. The fairway makes an abrupt turn to the right as it begins its climb toward the green. So if you hit a wood, you’ll easily outhit the fairway, which always means a lost ball here. Hit a little short and you face an impossible second shot, 200 yards straight uphill with a minefield of barely visible greenside bunkers eager to detonate your approach. A par here deserves to stay long in your memory.
But for memorability, nothing in your experience is likely to compare with the opening two holes on the back nine at Sugarloaf. The sheer drama of these two holes is matched only by the sheer cliffs you must hit off to put your tee shots in play.
As you stand atop the par 4 tenth, some skydiving experience might – and only might – still your nerves. The foursome ahead of you are ants! In winter, nudge a golf ball off the edge and cause an avalanche. Your chances of hitting the fairway with your drive depend on your ability to hit the ball within five degrees or so of perfectly straight. If you manage this, the hole actually becomes quite short, since your ball gains extra yards while burning through the atmosphere on its way back to Earth. The green, though, is smallish, shallow and protected in front by bunkers everywhere and in back by the rushing Carrabassett.
Just when you are glad to be running free from the Tower of Terror, up shoots the elevator again. This time it’s a par 3 of a cool 216 yards out and almost as many down. The river is below and will grab two or three of your tee shots, until you get the hang of it. The green is even more nefarious, with a raised plateau fronting the right side and everything else dropping down about three feet. Naturally the pin was up front. In other words, hit a 210-220 yard iron with backspin and you have a chance of hitting it stiff. Otherwise, get out of there with a three-putt, and after sundry tee adventures, take your googol-bogey.
In contrast to the funhouse nature of the previous two holes, the par 5 12th is a golfer’s golf hole. Coming out of a chute and across the river, there is a fairly generous landing area, particularly to the right side. Then things narrow again on the second shot, which also encounters a ridge indented with sand traps about 140 yards out. Another rise, 80 yards from the green is less treacherous as it will careen your shot dangerously treeward if not cleared. A spectacular hole scenically and one that requires a high degree of strategy from tee to green.
On both the 14th and 15th the approach shots are guarded by the Carrabassett, whose banks are also known as the 700 blocks of granite, so strewn are they with large chunks of native stone. These two holes conclude the six-hole stretch which Robert Trent Jones, Jr. describes as his “String of Pearls.” This for two reasons. First, the layout of these holes knows no rivals, perhaps on all of God’s little acre. Secondly, the fairways here are lined by thick birch forests, which might actually be a sane reason to play an orange ball.
When we played in mid-June, the course was yet to reach tip-top shape. Several of the greens and fairways showed the effects of what was an uncommonly long winter ski season. This prompted one to consider a suitable adage for this portion of the country: What’s good for the goose-feather set, is not necessarily good for the golfer!
This is a test to see if my new paragraph classes carry through when using the visual editor.