The Robert Trent Jones Junior-designed course at the Sugarloaf Mountain Resort first appeared on the Maine golfing scene in 1985. It’s a demanding layout with fairways hewn from a very hilly, heavily wooded site that throws up some spectacular, plunging holes.
The stretch of holes between 10 and 15 has been described as Sugarloaf’s “string of pearls” and it features the signature hole on the course, the short par three 11th, where the green sits more than 120 feet below the level of the elevated tee.A number of holes – the 5th and 6th in particular – have been upgraded in recent times with drainage issues addressed. A program of selective tree removal has also allowed natural sunlight to reach more greens and fairways, promoting growth in key areas around the course.
First off, I’d like to say wow what a course. The back nine at Sugarloaf in particular holes 10-16, dubbed Robert Trent Jones Jr’s pearl necklace are arguably some of the most scenic holes found anywhere.
Trent Jones Jr’s Pearls start off with hole #10 a downhill, let me rephrase down-cliff par 4. The hole is drivable but hit long and your ball will be in the river. As you approach the green the sound of rocks crashing by the force of the river blare out like a rock concert. The concert of rock plays not only along 10 but along 11-16 as well. Hole 10 at Sugarloaf is the first indication that you’re at a special place.
Hole 11, a down cliff par 3, 190 on the scorecard but in reality, 135-140 is all you’ll need. The river from the back of 10 cuts short and left of the green. Often the most photographed holes at Sugarloaf, #11 is a gem.
The 12th hole plays almost like two holes. With two different and very distinct set of tees right and left of the river that will drastically change the approach into the green.
Hole 13, though the sound of the river can be heard, the hole offers no exceptional view of it, till you reach the green. A strong hole by design merits in its own right.
The 14th another river hole, however nothing crazy off the tee, expect hitting driver may leave your ball swimming if 290+ drives are a staple of your game. The approach goes over the swell and torrent of the river, exposing Maine’s ruggedness and wildness.
15th this nasty little par 3 leaves a lot of golfers reaching for a second ball. The river punishes any shot short, left and right of the green. What about clubbing up then? The forest will punish shots hit long.
Lastly 16, a dogleg right, hitting over the river off the tee, the 16th is a setter hole in its own right. Cut the corner and your challenged with bunkers.
If Sunday River is the more subdued younger brother, Sugarloaf is the eccentric in your face older brother. A polarizing design that will leave strong impressions on golfers.
As mentioned by others, Sugarloaf is a mountain resort course with that in mind, many who come to Sugarloaf come and play infrequently. With this in mind, I think the general criteria changes, a larger emphasis on “wow” is placed as many golfers including myself cannot play a course as remote as Sugarloaf consistently. Sugarloaf does not disappoint.
The key issue when facilities seek to include both golf and skiing as main elements of attraction is how difficult that combination can prove to be. Ski sites need to be near major hills and golf needs to be routed in a manner that makes sense without being burdened by having major terrain changes that clearly go beyond sensibility for the challenges they mete out.
RTJ, Jr. deserves credit for trying to get the most out of a very challenging site. But, the major impediment with Sugarloaf is that the penalties are severe -- to the max. In sum - if you are wayward to even the slightest of degrees -- you will be reaching into your bag for another ball - again and again. Just realize Sugarloaf is just under 7,000 yards and sports a 146 slope! That should send a loud and clear signal that the demands are quite intense.
Part of that is tied to the exacting nature of the terrain -- the other relates to the wooded areas lying just off the narrow fairways. When you leave the prepared areas you clearly enter the wilderness. The wherewithal for recovery is limited and this constant nature of "either or" golf can get quite repetitive and weigh heavily on those golfers unable to consistently find the short grass. Recovery is fundamental to sound golf design and when there's precious little available the balance between appropriate challenge and outright difficulty can be easily lost.
There are memorable holes which commence with the bulk of the inward half. The hole that's often photographed is the short par-4 10th that plunged severely downhill. The temptation to go for the big play is present but those who go for the fool's gold will pay a very steep price unless the execution is laser-like in precision.
The series of holes that follow from the 11th through the 15th have vintage New England scenery but it comes with the aforementioned limited playability quotient.
What would help Sugarloaf score higher would be a widening of the fairway corridors in concert with the a thinning out of the brush just off the fairways. Adding a bit more playability would aid higher handicaps while still having enough teeth to bite when needed.
For many who make just a one time trek to Sugarloaf the need for such a balancing act between "either or" golf may not seem that important. But, playing such golf on a consistent basis can clearly tax the nerves and ball supply beyond a prudent manner.
M. James Ward