Sugarloaf Golf Club is second to none

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Here in the heart of ski country, the mountains soar -- not Colorado style, but majestic and rugged just the same.

They jut from the ground in jagged patterns, creating a stunning scene in the summer sun.

This region, long known as a winter haven, has produced its share of Olympic-caliber skiers. The junior programs overflow with talented youngsters, swooshing and swirling their way down the white-covered terrain.

But come summer time, a different breed shows up to test their mettle against the natural surroundings - golfers.

It's only fitting that great golf found a home in one of the prettiest places in the northeast.

But golfers should be wary of the Sugarloaf Golf Club, Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s mountain layout in the heart of Maine's backwoods. With beauty comes a beast.

The addition of the golf course in 1985 transformed the Sugarloaf/USA Resort into the undisputed king of Maine tourism year-round, despite its location 150 miles from the nearest airport.

Golf has become a $250 million a year industry and a "Maine" attraction in the state, with Sugarloaf leading the way.

"We are affordable and accessible," said Scott Hoisington, the director of golf at Sugarloaf/USA who's also a co-president of the Golf Maine, an association of nearly 30 public courses.

Dan Horihan, the owner of Nonesuch River Golf Club near Portland, founded Golf Maine in 1998 to help get the secret out about the state's golf scene.

"Our top courses - Sugarloaf and Samoset (Resort on the Ocean in Camden)- I would put them up against any of the top courses in any other state," Horihan said. "And our commitment to service is No. 1."

And those black flies, which have such a nasty reputation, aren't as big a problem as many people think.

The journey to Sugarloaf isn't easy, but there's no doubt, it is worth the effort.

The Course

Sugarloaf's 6,910-yard design has been rated the state's No. 1 layout for 17 straight years by Golf Digest. The New England Journal of Golf has crowned it the best course in all of New England for several years running.

Severe elevation changes are a part of the grand and the gruff of the course, offering up tantalizing views and at the same time, dreadful uphill approach shots to blind greens. With trees tight to every fairway, Sugarloaf's astronomical 151 slope rating is not for the faint-hearted.

The blockbuster run along the Carrabassett River - the "String of Pearls" - is the six-hole stretch that gets camera shutters popping. It starts off with the 10th, a 334-yard plummet from tee to fairway, guarded by five bunkers. The 190-yard 11th plays similar with a gorgeous view of the valley from an elevated tee. The fall colors must be overwhelming from this vantage point.

No. 14, a 370-yard par-4, and No. 15, a 178-yard par-4, both demand intimidating approach shots over the river's rocky shores.

For such an incredible layout, the clubhouse is tiny, by comparison, and seems out of place. But there's simply no reason to go grandiose on facilities that won't be used most of the year.

Several golf school packages, some specialized for women and juniors, could help hone your swing for the test that awaits on the course.

Greens fees start at $70 during the shoulder seasons and top out at $110 from July 14 to October 13.

Where to Stay

The Resort's Grand Summit Hotel isn't the most modern resort, but its 120 rooms certainly serve their purpose as a place to crash after a long day outdoors. All have cable TV, VCRs and most important, mountain views.

Three-bedroom penthouses, complete with private sauna and hot tub, accommodate larger parties.

The resort's sports and fitness center includes a small swim spa, an oversized hot tub, steam room and weight room. There are also racquetball courts, an indoor climbing wall and massages available.

Outdoor tennis courts and an outdoor pool and hot tub open in the summer months.

Off the Course

Don't pamper yourself with only a ride through the woods on a golf cart. True adventurers will take advantage of their surroundings. Sugarloaf has an incredible array of outdoor excursions away from the course.

A hike to the summit of Burnt Mountain will surely take your breath away - literally and visually. Hiking and biking up to the 4,237-foot summit of Sugarloaf will stimulate your senses, while whitewater rafting on the mighty Kennebec River demands you navigate some Class 5 rapids, the roughest waters commercial ventures are allowed to tackle.

Canoe trips and fly fishing lessons are less strenuous activities. Cascading waterfalls provide sightseers a Kodak moment.

By twilight, try a moose cruise. You might see some large tracks on the golf course, but to experience the big, burling creatures up close, this is your chance. Rarely, does the group come back disappointed.

At the foot of the resort, the 20,000-square-foot Carrabassett Valley Antigravity Recreational Complex houses the state's largest skating bowl for kids.

Where to Eat

Gepetto's Restaurant, a short walk from the hotel, and the Double Diamond Steakhouse & Pub, right in the hotel, both provide casual dinning environments and fine fare.

For a night out, try Tufulio's Italian Restaurant (207-235-2010), about seven miles south on Route 27. Twelve miles north in Eustis, The Porter House (207-246-7932) requires reservations.

Obviously, if you don't go home without trying the Maine lobster - in a bisque, or salad or in your main meal - you've failed your mission in Maine.

The Verdict

For the scenery and experience, Sugarloaf is second to none, providing a round you'll remember. It's like playing golf in the Rocky Mountains, only with a price tag more like the Canadian side than the American version.

But there is a tradeoff. The lack of playability, and a nearby second course, keeps many players from returning. It was the toughest course I've ever played, but that also can be a great movitator - I'm itching to get back and take my revenge. If you're looking for a relaxing round of golf, though, this might not be the place for you.

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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