Friday, February 16, 2007

It's a good thing truth-in-advertising laws don't extend to state mottos and license plates. Missouri, The Show Me State? Well what exactly do they want to see? Connecticut, The Nutmeg State? The last time we checked, this once-prized spice was the proprietary export of Indonesia.

There is no such hyperbole (or outright fabrication) when it comes to the Great State of Maine, whose credos and rotating license-plate slogans are nothing if not accurate: "The Pine Tree State," "Vacationland," and "The Way Life Should Be." Happily, for golfers on safari, all three maxims are more true today than ever before.

The recent golf development boom was relatively slow in coming to Maine, but when it arrived, it did so in force. Some 20 new facilities have debuted here during the last five years, complementing a surprisingly strong, diverse stock of existing layouts.

What's more, Maine golf -- old and new -- is refreshingly affordable; the sub-$50 green fee, like the moose, is anything but endangered in this Yankee refuge. So much in Maine truly is "as it should be."

The lobster is cheap, fresh and plentiful. The extensive, rocky coastline remains the least fettered of any on the Eastern Seaboard, while the state's enormous inland empire continues to boast New England's most scenic and pristine wilderness.

This time-tested mix of natural attractions is what makes Maine such a fine overall destination: If there wasn't a single golf course here, there'd still be holiday-makers backed up into New Hampshire trying to get in.

Yet with so many fine new layouts in the ground, Maine now merits the all-important prefix: It's a "golf" destination, too -- an intriguing one, as all of the state's traditional allures represent a nice bit of gravy for golfers on tour. Unfortunately, that won't fit on a license plate.

Truth be told, this is Maine's second go-round as a golf destination. It was one of America's first, as privileged 19th century urbanites colonized coastal towns like Bar Harbor, Camden and Ogunquit. They brought golf with them, of course, and from this era several well-preserved relics remain.

The original nine-hole loop at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport was laid out in late 1890s. "The Old Man," Walter Travis, would eventually formalize these proto-holes and add nine more in 1922.

Until the first President Bush drew attention to it in the late 1980s (blowing through his trademark "relaxation" rounds in under three hours), few had heard of Cape Arundel Golf Club. Today, the cat has crept from its bag.

Framed by the Kennebunk River and intersected several times by the tidal Bass Creek, Cape Arundel is an old-world delight and one of Maine's best examples of classic architecture. Indeed, Bruce Hepner (an associate of architect Tom Doak) has been working here for several years reinstituting those vintage qualities lost to time and the elements.

The full 18 measures less than 6,000 yards, but don't let the numbers fool you. Largely exposed to the elements, Cape Arundel's collection of blind shots and small, severe greens will test and charm the best of players.

Like many of New England's older venues, the layout here is full of vintage quirks: chocolate-drop mounds decorate several fairways, there isn't a level lie on the property, and roads cross five separate holes. Few courses in America offer a better glimpse of how golf was played back in the day.

Because it's a semi-private club, weekend tee times are scarce here during the summer. But it's well worth setting aside a weekday for Cape Arundel.

Nowhere did the recent spate of new-course construction hit harder than in southern Maine.

Opened in 1998 and designed by Maine-based architect Brad Booth, The Ledges Golf Club in York is perhaps the best of this new breed. Protuberant rock outcroppings and huge elevation changes are the calling cards here.

At the par-three eighth, four different tees have been cut from a granite ledge, offering dizzying and intimidating views of the peninsula green below.

The clever par-four third doglegs around an enormous slab of rock at its elbow -- players turn the corner and, for the first time, see the lovely green perched on a natural shelf above them.

The Ledges is definitely not for the meek. It's sloped at 144 from the 6,981-yard tips, and several forced carries make the choice of tees particularly important here.

However, it's always well kept, and holes like the fourth and 12th -- a pair of sinewy, inventive par fives -- make this a first-rate daily-fee experience in every way.

Just up Route 4 from The Ledges is another new entry, The Links at Outlook in South Berwick .

Maine is replete with golf courses built atop former farmland, but none quite like this one. On one side of the street, architect Brian Silva took a treeless parcel and fashioned 11 authentic heathland-style holes which stand in fairly stark contrast to the hilly, New England parkland-style holes he created directly across the street.

The wooded holes at Outlook are nice (the drivable par-four 12th is very good), but the heathland holes are superb.

The eighth is a 200-yard par three which plays into a prevailing wind; the par-four second heads in the same direction -- uphill to a green nestled in a natural saddle, which Silva set off with closely mowed chipping areas.

The finishing hole may be the best of the bunch. This miniature Cape plays 354 yards uphill to a well-bunkered putting surface which sits in the shadow of a big, red barn. It doesn't get any more "New England" than this.

There's very little "New England" feel at Dunegrass Golf Club , which is part of its distinct appeal. With its sandy waste areas and thick stands of pine, Dunegrass has an agreeable Pinehurst flavor to it -- fitting, as it was designed by North Carolina-based architect Dan Maples.

Located just two miles from Old Orchard Beach, Dunegrass starts with a bang and never lets up.

The par-five opener plays from atop an enormous sand ridge, downhill to a fairway flanked right by 200 yards of beach bunker. The fairway funnels down to a lovely-but-exacting putting surface, one of several Maples designed here.

The third green -- located across a mini-chasm at the business end of a short par four -- might be the prettiest in Maine, but you'd find arguments from fans of the par-three 13th and par-five 18th, both of which were cannily situated in natural amphitheaters.

One matter at Dunegrass which is not subject to debate is the turf: This course is always in splendid shape, thanks in part to its sandy environs.

The greens here roll as well as any in northern New England, whether it be public or private.

Portland is Maine's largest city, though with a population of just 70,000, it's better described as a big waterfront town. Its elegant shopping streets, fine restaurants and central location make Portland a fine base of operations.

The pick of the litter in Greater Portland is Sable Oaks Golf Club , a Silva design located less than a mile from the Maine Mall in South Portland.

Developed as a private club in the late 1980s, Sable Oaks opened just when the local economy went into a swan dive. The investors' loss was the daily-fee golfer's gain, however, as Sable quickly morphed into a public track, and so it has remained.

Always terrifically maintained, Sable Oaks features one of the finest collection of par fours in Maine: the 410-yard third turns right and finishes at a putting surface perched high atop a volcano-like knoll; the 385-yard 15th plays uphill to a plateau fairway bordered left by a cliff which crashes down into Jackson Creek.

The green, with its enormous false front, also hovers at the edge of this abyss. From the forward tees, this hole becomes a perilous, but drivable, par four.

The knock on Sable has always been its difficulty for 18-plus handicappers; indeed, there are some stern forced carries here. But management has spent the past few years widening fairways and improving playability -- to considerable effect. The carries remain, but at least the far sides are more generous and forgiving.

Just north of Portland, along the shores of Lake Sebago, sits Point Sebago Golf Club in Casco .

Designed by New England architects Phil Wogan and George Sargent, this resort track opened in 1993 and immediately took its place among the cream of Maine's daily-fee course crop.

There's nothing quite like Point Sebago -- in Maine or anywhere else in the golf world.

The enormous, 800-acre development here centers around a lakeside marina/resort where families can rent cottages or simply park their trailers for the week. The land set aside for golf is just as huge, some 300 acres, which allowed Wogan and Sargent to carve 18 strong holes from the northern forest.

The mix of holes here is what makes Point Sebago such a pleasant resort experience. The par-four ninth -- a sweeping dogleg right which plays to an enormous, elevated green is one of several formidable two-shotters, while Point Sebago's diverse quartet of par threes stacks up with the state's finest.

For the bold, the par-four 14th is driveable, but the stern, par-four 15th will require a long-iron approach from the best of players. The par-five 11th is reachable in two, while the monster par-five 18th most certainly is not. Indeed, two fine shots are required simply to see the closing green, which sits just across a small pond.

The only drawback is the considerable distance between these holes. Point Sebago is essentially unwalkable. It's cart golf, to be sure, but it's very good cart golf.

East of Sebago, across the Crystal Lake Region, one happens upon a more recent addition to the state's golfing inventory: Auburn's Fox Ridge Golf Club , which opened for play last year.

It was designed by Lenny Myshrall, a course builder by trade. Fox Ridge was his first attempt at course design and judging from the results, it shouldn't be his last.

This is another former farm, but this land was a golf course just waiting to happen -- a great piece of property and Myshrall used it wisely.

The 11th and 17th are both par fives, routed in opposite directions through a spectacular, natural valley; a long, wriggling swath of native grass is all that separates the two. This wispy golden rough borders most every hole at Fox Ridge and it sets off the layout's wide fairways extremely well.

There's a bit of everything here: a short-pitch par three which drops some 60 feet from tee to green (the 13th), a blind-but-drivable par four (the eighth), an island green (at the par-three fifth, which plays 202 yards from the tips), and a pair of equally heroic finishing holes over water (the ninth and 18th).

Forty minutes north of Auburn is Belgrade Lakes Golf Club , one of the few new courses in Maine to receive national attention of late. It's easy to see why: No expense was spared in building this Clive Clark design, which features one gorgeous golf hole after another.

The 16th is one of the state's best par fives; it plays over a pond and skirts a massive oak (positioned just left of the landing area) before moving uphill to a green guarded by deep bunkers and carved into a gentle hillside. Walking off this green, the common appraisal is, "Wow."

Unlike Fox Ridge, the site at Belgrade Lakes was not necessarily made for golf. Indeed, it was built on the side of a small mountain, and hundreds of tons of granite were removed while fashioning the fairways.

However, the stair-stepping Clark did here never feels forced, and his solution for what to do with all that rock (massive boulder "fields" border several fairways) is nothing if not inventive.

Indeed, one such rocky expanse separates the ninth and 18th holes, side-by-side par fours that play to an extraordinary double-tiered, double green.

Clark, a Brit, employed other flashy touches at Belgrade, such as the sleepers he placed in the bunker faces on the sixth, a cute par three. But just as often he created solid, gracefully unadorned holes like the gently uphill, par-four fourth, and the short-but-tricky, par-four 15th.

Belgrade Lakes, whose full 18 debuted in 1999, did what many Maine golfers thought couldn't be done -- that is, challenge famed Sugarloaf in terms of quality and aesthetics.

Located deep in the western mountains, a good two and half hour drive north of Portland, Sugarloaf GC had stood as Maine's top course -- public or private -- pretty much from the day it opened in 1986.

It's picturesque (autumn rounds at Sugarloaf are almost comically colorful). It's vertiginous (the par-three 11th tee is located some 130 feet above the green which sits just across the raging Carrabassett River). And it's a supreme test of skill (slope, 151; course record, a meager 68).

Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed the course, and he produced much more here than a few elevated tees. The back nine features five separate river crossings, all four par fives are triple-doglegs, and the bunkering is oversized and splashy.

If you're expecting the greens to be somewhat tame relative to their wild surroundings, think again. These are some of the most flamboyant undulations you'll ever encounter.

Oft photographed but never done justice on film, The Loaf is New England's quintessential "mountain golf" experience.

Not surprisingly the course is somewhat impractical on foot. The hike to the 11th tee alone would severely tax the fittest among us, and the three finishing holes play dead uphill.

That said, the golf here remains primo (Sugarloaf ranked 38th in GOLF Magazine's most recent "Top 100 You Can Play") and well worth the trip.

The jury is still out on which layout, Sugarloaf or Belgrade Lakes, is superior. But one thing is certain: Belgrade has brought remote Sugarloaf further into the mainstream, if only because the two courses are just 40 miles apart -- if you make the trip to Belgrade, Sugarloaf is simply too close to bypass, and vice versa.

In fact, because Belgrade offers no accommodations, the two facilities jointly offer a two-day, one-night package whereby golfers play both courses on consecutive days and stay the night at Sugarloaf, which offers several fine lodging options.

If you hit Sugarloaf first, and then visit Belgrade Lakes, you'll be left with only an hour's drive to coastal Rockport, where the Samoset Resort has been drawing golfers since the mid-1970s.

Up until about five years ago, the skinny on Samoset was this: Spectacular setting, decent golf course. But the resort, with direction from architect Brad Booth, has changed that assessment by rerouting the course, creating new holes, junking the merely average ones and sprucing up the signature holes.

Quick Facts

  Cape Arundel Golf Club
(207) 967-3494
$40

  The Ledges Golf Club
(207) 351-3000
$50-$70

  The Links At Outlook
(207) 384-4653
$38-$43

  Dunegrass Golf Club
(800) 521-1029
$55-$80

  Sable Oaks Golf Club
(207) 775-6257
$30-$35

  Point Sebago Golf Club
(207) 655-2747
$39-$55

  Fox Ridge Golf Club
(207) 777-4653
$30-$35

  Belgrade Lakes Golf Club
(207) 495-4653
$80

  Sugarloaf Golf Club
(800) THE-LOAF
$62-$110

  Samoset Resort
(800) 341-1650
$95-$115

  Kebo Valley Golf Club
(207) 288-3000
$63-$68

Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

As for the latter, you can boast of having more than one when your property is bounded on three sides by Penobscot Bay.

There have been so many alterations/improvements to Samoset that it's difficult to keep them all straight.

Booth completely rebuilt and rebunkered the signature fourth hole, with a green that sits right on the bay -- 20 yards from a rock breakwater/promenade that extends some 150 yards into the Bay.

He also created a brand new par-three fifth hole which plays from a tee box built right into the sea wall.

The tee on 12 has been moved to create a clever, dogleg par five. The old par- four 14th is now a par five which plays downhill to water's edge.

The 15th is an all-new par four and the 16th has a brand new green. There's a new 18th hole, a titanic par four measuring 468 yards from the tips. You get the idea.

Samoset played host to the 2001 New England Open and early returns on the new holes were extremely favorable. Suffice to say, if you haven't been to the Samoset in a while, you'll be pleasantly surprised by its new incarnation.

Having sampled Maine's new (and improved) golf offerings, it's appropriate to end one's safari with another exquisite blast from the past.

North of Rockport on Mt. Desert Island, just outside the hopping resort town of Bar Harbor, Kebo Valley Golf Club makes for a fitting and fascinating exclamation point. Kebo bills itself as the eighth oldest golf club in America; they've been playing on this site since 1888. But the 18 holes which survive to the present day weren't created until much later -- okay, six years later.

H.C. Leeds (the first club champion at The Country Club in Brookline and designer of Myopia Hunt Club) laid out Kebo's "new" nine in 1894 and added nine more in 1897.

Located in the heart of Acadia National Park, Kebo Valley provides a beautiful setting for golf. It also has all the eccentricities you'd expect from a golf course completed during the McKinley administration.

Yet it's that rare museum piece that both beguiles and bullies. How does Kebo continue to resist scoring? Well, that's a good question.

The par-70 layout isn't long (just 6,112 yards from the back), and it's not particularly tight. But the greens are tiny and pitched at angles you'd sooner see on a clubhouse roof.

Short holes (such as the 268-yard, uphill par-four 12th) are invariably punctuated with these demanding, often plateaued postage stamps; miss them and you're looking at bogey or worse. Then there are holes like the brawny eighth, a sweeping, 435-yard dogleg left which ranks among the best par fours in America. The par-three ninth is no slouch either; it plays 201 yards, downhill over a brook to a devilishly contoured, kidney-shaped green.

Then there's the 17th, a par four of just 358 yards. The green here sits some 40 feet above the fairway and is guarded by a colossal bunker. In the days before gentlemen "picked up," President William Howard Taft ran afoul of this sandy hazard before eventually holing out in 26. One needn't stand on such ceremony today. If you're lying double digits in The Taft Bunker, for heaven's sake PICK IT UP!

Maine's golf season, even up here in Bar Harbor, is longer than one might expect. The rule of thumb is May 1st to November 1st, though September -- when the leaves are turning, the temperatures still call for shorts, and all the summer folk have gone home -- should really count double. Ditto for July and August, when ocean breezes and alpine elevations keep you cool as the rest of the nation bakes.

The sum of these parts? Try "Golf As It Should Be." Which come to think of it, would fit nicely on a license plate.

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