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|No. 18 at Belgrade Lakes is a classic finishing hole, complete with an elevated fairway and a severely undulating green. (Jeffrey White/GolfPublisher.com)|
Belgrade Lakes Golf Club in western Maine is a Clive Clark-designed golf course that Golf Digest this year called one of the 100 best public golf courses in the U.S. It's a must-play to include on your Autumn New England golf vacation.
BELGRADE LAKES, Maine - Kyle Evans, president of Belgrade Lakes Golf Club, likes to brag about his golf course, but in an unusual way: by telling you what it doesn't have.
There's no clubhouse. No bar. No driving range. No twilight rate (and not really any off-peak rates in general to speak of. There's no hotel, no condos, no gated communities.
That there is a parking lot becomes noteworthy.
Belgrade Lakes is about one thing: Golf. Eighteen. Holes. Of. It.
To hear Evans talk, you think he's pedaling some family-friendly golf resort. Never once does he mention that Golf Digest this year ranked Belgrade Lakes in its list of the top 100 public golf courses in America (it's 93) and called it the second best public golf course in Maine.
Sandwiched improbably between a lake they call Great Pond and another they call Long Pond (Yankees have never been known as creative namers) in the west of Maine, Belgrade Lakes was built in 2000 by British golf architect Clive Clark, his first American design. In eight years it has quickly earned the reputation as one of the most coveted rounds of golf in Maine.
Clark laid out a beautiful, challenging track, using a lot of the natural movement of the terrain and setting things apart not with bunkers or water hazards as often as with mounding and bouldering often running down along the sides of fairways, or crisscrossing them.
There's water on about half the holes, but rarely does it come into direct play (there's only two holes that could be described as forced carries, and that can be argued).
Another Clark design feature that plays well at Belgrade Lakes: Targets. Most holes have easy-to-shoot-for landmarks that help you craft tee shots and approaches. (Also handy is the exceptional yardage book they hand out to each golfer.)
"Here you have more target golf," says regular Ken Cox. "You leave your ego in you bag."
This is a golf course where there are some real opportunities to score. When you don't, you walk away scratching your head and wondering why (Answer: the greens. More on that in a bit).
Clark opted to bring the wow factor right to the first hole, a 424-yard par 4 with an elevated tee-box and a huge landing area maybe 100 feet below. It's easily the most scenic hole on the golf course - Great Pond shimmers in your line of sight, and you wonder whether you can reach it - and the most fun to play. Take driver and swing away: The fairway funnels balls down into an S-cure that leaves less than 100 yards for an approach.
No. 3, a 414-yard par 5 (it should really be a par 4), is the round's first opportunity to really score. The fairway is divided about 270 yards out by rough, but a good drive leaves you only 185 yards or so to the green, with water running along the left hand side of the approach. Walk away with a bogey here and it feels like a triple.
Clark designed his par 5s in a feast-or-famine mindset: Two are reachable in two. But then Clark throws his back-nine 5s at you, two monstrously long efforts strewn with just about everything imaginable to disrupt the forward progress of the golf ball: woods, swells, mounds, rocks, water, bunkers.
No. 12 runs 568 yards down a divided fairway. The water to the right really isn't in play, but you're asked to play your second shot down a gullet between trees and rocks. The green is guarded down its left side by a deep bunker. No. 16, at 530 yards, is slightly less congested, arrow-straight with a large string of boulders down most of its left hand side, and dense woods on the right.
Two of the best holes on the golf course are its endnotes: Nos. 9 and 18.
On the ninth, a 376-yard par 4, the tee box forces you right, not a bad place to be, especially if you can draw the golf ball slightly. But you're faced with an elevated approach shot to a large hourglass-shaped green that is shared with No. 18.
Clark designed an excellent closing hole in 18, a 371-yard par 4 with a dense hazard of rock and wetlands running down the entire right hand side of the fairway. Still, the tee shot is not difficult, nor is the approach, once you get over what you're looking at: A wide green set well below the fairway, not guarded by anything (save a rock amphitheater behind it) but so undulating that it looks like a quilt that hasn't been shaken out. Pin placements mean everything here.
The greens at Belgrade Lakes are understated. Well-conditioned and soft early in the day, they are less straightforward then you think, and you'll lose some strokes sacrificing putts to lines that break in ways you didn't see before.
Belgrade Lakes is not that long: It plays to 6,723 yards and a 135 slope rating from the tips. The yellow tees, a better bet for most golfers, drops down to 6,249 yards and a 131 slope rating.
The golf course is in excellent condition, and there's nothing so penal - deep rough, dense forest - on most holes that you can't recover from. Holes are well laid out, with a lot of natural mounding. Boulders do more work than bunkers. There are plenty of holes to score on.
It's a remarkably un-crowded golf course, thanks to tee times at standard 15-minute intervals.
The staff is helpful, right down to putting a bottle of spring water in your cart.
Greens fees run $140. Not cheap, but highly worth it - especially in the Fall - even with no amenities to accompany it.
The land that Belgrade Lakes sits on was owned by a man named Red Bartlet, who owned much of the town bearing the same name and who became a recluse in later life, living out his days almost where the pro shot now sits.
October 9, 2007
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
Referred to by its hosts as a "hidden gem," the greens alone at Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo, Calif. make this a stone worth turning over. Located an hour northwest of L.A., it's a pleasing, quiet and generally engaging round that will appease players of all levels.
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