I had the opportunity to visit the Sunday River and Sugarloaf resorts early this fall and came away duly impressed with two of the best courses in New England, both set amid the wild beauty and laid back living western Maine offers to visitors.
Boyne Golf, which has a splendid cache of resorts and golf courses in Michigan, acquired Sunday River and Sugarloaf last year. Special Play and Stay packages are available, allowing you to experience both properties, as well as Belgrade Lakes (not a Boyne Golf property) in Belgrade as an option. A nice golf vacation would be a two-day stay at Sunday River followed by a similar length stay at Sugarloaf with a round of golf at Belgrade Lakes thrown in as one travels between the two Boyne Golf properties.
Tucked into the unspoiled landscape of western Maine near the Mahoosuc Mountain Range is one of the best golf courses ever designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., Sunday River Golf Club.
Since it opened in 2005, the track has won raves from reviewers and recreational golfers alike for its beauty, superb routing and challenging holes. In fact, Jones, Jr. has said that Sunday River was one of his most pleasurable undertakings to date. The course sits on a hillside and offers sweeping views across the Sunday River Valley to the Mahoosuc Mountain Range.
I had the pleasure of playing a round with head pro Jerry Roman, who gave me the lowdwn onn this special layout. “Sunday Rier is an excellent routing with generous fairways that make the holes approchable for all players. It’s playable for the mid- to high-handicap golfer, with plenty of challenge for the single-digit handicapper.”
Jerry told me that driver is usually never out of your hands on the tee boxes and can be employed on almost every par-four and par-five. “The shorter your approach shots, the better your chance you have to score here,” he said. “Bring your best putting stroke, the greens are slopped and can be quick. You can find yourself over-reading breaks. Pick the right line and they run true.”
Jones worked his magic and incorporated the natural terrain and its various physical features into the design of Sunday River, which plays over 7,000 yards from the tips and is rated as one of the toughest layouts in the Northeast. Each hole is pleasingly self-contained and there are numerous elevation changes as the course winds up and down the hillside. There is no water to speak of and both the fairways and greens are generous. But there are lots of bunkers and forced carries over waste areas that demand precision off the tees and on approaches to the undulating putting surfaces.
The par-threes, several of them playing from dramatically elevated tees, as well as the par-fives, are a strength of Sunday River. The 499-yard par-five first hole sets a stunning tone for the remainder of the round. The fairway runs downhill to the green and the putting surface can be reached in two shots, providing you play your ball down the right side and avoid two bunkers on either side of the green.
The 425-yard-par four fifth plays shorter than its length because it’s all downhill, and the ninth, a 339-yarder, is a great example of a superb, short par-four. The tee shot and approach must carry waste areas.
Number 14 is a demanding, 213-yard par-three that is all carry over another waste area to a redan-style green.
While the downhill holes allow big hitters off the tee to approach the putting surfaces with short or mid-irons after a good drive, Jones followed a downhill hole with one working its way back up the hillside. The most notable climbs are found on numbers three, seven, eight and 15, and all call for at least one or two more clubs to get to the right yardage.
The par-four 17th is a beast from every tee marker, and according to Jerry has been birdied only once from the back tees.
Sunday River features a comprehensive practice range with six target greens ranging from 75 to 265 yards in distance, as well as a large putting green.
The resort has over 700 condominiums, ranging from studio condos to three-bedroom townhomes, all with access to indoor and outdoor pools and saunas. Sunday River offers attractive stay and play package at the property’s Jordan Hotel, which is just two miles from the golf course.
The litle towns that dot the area have quaint shops and restaurants, while hiking and bike trails abound. There’s fishing, kayaking and canoeing for apres golf.
There are special golf courses that define and embody a region. Pebble Beach reflects the stunning beauty of the Monterey Peninsula. Augusta National sums up the charm and grace of the South. Bethpage Black embodies the tumult and challenge of New York City.
Tucked into the western mountain region of Maine is a course that brilliantly captures the awesome natural beauty of northern New England: Sugarloaf Golf Club in Carabaset Valley.
One of the most scenic and challenging golf courses to be found anywhere, the Robert Trent Jones, Jr. wonder has six holes on the back side where the crystal clear Carabassett River comes into play, including the simply incredible, 216-yard par-three 11th. The tee shot is from a dramatically elevated area that offers a one-of-kind view of the blue-tinged mountains and plays across the Carabassett River to a large green.
The 401-yard 14th and the 178-yard 15th also play across the Carabassett River. It’s no wonder this stretch of holes has been called “The String of Pearls.”
I had a tough time concentrating on the golf as I played “The String of Pearls”, it’s just that gorgeous a routing. But you need to be sharp because there are forced carries that demand you hit the ball crisply and accurately. But even if don’t play well, you will leave with a truly lasting memory.
The course is consistently ranked the best in Maine and New England and among the top 100 courses in the country by various publications and rating services.
Jones, Jr. called the course, “One of the most spectacular courses I’ve ever been associated with.” The layout offers challenge to golfers of all abilities, and shot values at Sugarloaf are high, rewarding golfers for good strikes. It’s no wonder individuals make annual treks to the resort during the summer and early fall to not only enjoy the course but also sample the multitude of recreational offerings the area has to offer.
It’s difficult not to be impressed and inspired by Sugarloaf. It is not exageraiton for me to say that the views and scenery, as well as the pure playing experience derived from “The String of Pearls”, are alone worth the price of admission.
The resort serves as an ideal base camp for all kinds of outdoor fun and frolic beyond great golf. The property has pristine views and access to the Maine wilderness, while its many lodging offerings provide a comfortable place to relax at night.
Guest services at Sugarloaf, as at Sunday River, are consistently rated among the best in the industry, ensuring an enjoyable stay for all visitors. And, like at Sunday River, nature is all around you.
Be sure to put these two courses on your must play list for 2021.