This state’s not often going to be the main (or should we say Maine?) choice for golfers based in or visiting New England. The other five states of the region offer myriad golf charms that are readily apparent. There’s the bucolic setting of the Massachusetts Berkshires, the seaside courses of Connecticut and Rhode Island, the homespun feeling of the mom-and-pop courses in the Lakes Region of central New Hampshire, and the ski resort-centric courses that pepper southern and central Vermont. But mysterious Maine, harder to get to and further off the beaten path, offers dedicated golfers a number of compelling reasons to visit (other than spectacular coastline and ubiquitous lobster shacks).
Partially due to its relative remoteness, golf in Maine is less crowded, less expensive and more accessible than in many places. (Although, remoteness is a fluid and relative concept. Grabbing a National Rental Car at Boston’s Logan Airport and heading up to Portland, Maine is an easy drive that’s a little more than a hundred miles.) The majority of private clubs are open to the public on weekday afternoons, and even when courses get busier in the peak months, players keep moving with an alacrity that reflects the shorter golf season. In other words, no time to waste. Throw in the spectacular scenery, from the long ocean views at Samoset, to the canyons of Sunday River, and Maine has, in a truncated season, most everything a golfer could desire. Here are five great options for the traveling player:
Belgrade Lakes has become a Maine favorite since its 1999 debut. This Clive Clark design features exciting topography and some of the largest and most undulating greens in the state. With a 115-yard-wide double green lying well below the clubhouse, railroad ties lining many of the bunkers, massive rock piles left over from construction, and occasional long views across Great Pond, this course is a feast for the eyes. The targets here are large, but it’s easy to get out of position, especially around the greens. Favorite holes include the roller-coaster par-four first and the handsome sixteenth, which weaves around a pond, a tree, and a nest of six greenside bunkers.
Kebo Valley is the oldest course in Maine, and in addition to the numerous ‘chocolate drop’ mounds, which wreak havoc with errant shots and showcase its antiquity, Kebo has a raw and throwback feel. The course shares a border with Acadia National Park, and there are spectacular views to go along with the deep sense of solitude. The modest length of 6,100 yards is defended by a par of 70 and a series of devilishly sloped greens which are generally kept at their practical maximum of ten on the Stimpmeter, making an approach shot which finishes under the hole a must. The deployment of Kebo Brook and Cromwell Brook, which snakes along seven, eight, and seventeen, and in front of five and nine, ratchets up the difficulty factor.
Sable Oaks is an urban oasis lodged between the mall and the airport in Portland, and this fiendish layout is the home course of many of Maine’s top players. Although the woods and the underbrush have been drastically thinned out over the years, straight shots are still a requirement for negotiating these corridors. The up-and-down site features numerous ledges and ravines which provide exciting shot values throughout, including three reachable par-five holes and the drop-shot eighth. The lush fairways and pristine bunkers are among the best in the state. The course was built in 1989 and was one of the first courses to showcase the work of Brian Silva, who has subsequently become an architect of note around New England.
Penobscot Valley is a Donald Ross gem that will appeal to aficionados and casual golfers alike. Architecture fans will be very pleasantly surprised to find this largely untouched gem just outside of Bangor. Brilliantly laid out over wonderful terrain, the course uses every nook and cranny to maximum effect. The presence of over one hundred bunkers, recently restored by Brian Silva, help make this one of Maine’s great driving courses, where you can let it fly on all of the long holes, with varying degrees of risk and reward. The greens are similarly diverse. Some are pushed up, some are continuations of the fairway, but all of them feature a bunker (or quite a few) to gobble up errant shots. Many consider this course to be in the upper echelon of all Donald Ross-designed public courses in New England.
Finally, perhaps the best known and most acclaimed public course in the state is Sugarloaf. The broad shoulders of this Robert Trent Jones, Jr. monster have been vexing Maine golfers since 1986. The state’s first mountainside course features wide fairways that transition abruptly into the forest, creating an entertaining nexus of playable and penalizing. The front nine is an engaging trip up, down, and across the outrageous terrain, but the views and golf kick into high gear at the tenth and eleventh, which plunge a combined two hundred feet from tee to green. The Carrabassett River also enters the picture at this point, and weaves in and out of the serene finishing holes. On top off all this, the greens at Sugarloaf are among the most perplexing in the state, rolling and falling away in multiple directions.