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Sunday River Golf Club: Maine's newest public golf course a must-play

Jeffrey WhiteBy Jeffrey White,
Sunday River Golf Club
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Sunday River Golf Club has been open only two years, but it's earning the reputation of being a must-play in Maine golf. (Jeffrey White/GolfPublisher.com)

NEWRY, Maine - Talk to people around here about Maine golf courses and they are likely to bring up two: Belgrade Lakes Golf Course and Sugarloaf Golf Club.

Both have well-earned reputations of being tops in the state. But increasingly, Mainers are throwing another golf course into the mix: Sunday River Golf Club near Bethel.

It only opened two years ago, so it hasn't had much time to rake in all the Golf Digest accolades that Sugarloaf and Belgrade can boast of. Yet. Trust me: yet.

This is a magnificent golf course in almost every way: Terrain, conditioning, challenge.

With 360-degree views of the Mahoosuc Mountains - dressed in their showy autumnal best this time of year - Sunday River is considerably more scenic than scenic Belgrade Lakes. And this is a true mountain golf course, unlike wooded Sugarloaf: There really isn't a flat hole on the entire track, and elevation changes - long the golf writer's main cliché - really do command attention here.

Like Sugarloaf, Sunday River is a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design, but it feels more modern (Sugarloaf is 20 years old). Jones saw in the 350 acres of land here an opportunity to carve out some truly memorable holes, with steep descents and ascents, lots of mounding and with greens that are often pitched and always undulating.

The 499-yard par-5 first is a perfect example. A slightly elevated tee shot opens up a wide landing area, after which the fairway runs steadily downhill to a green that, because it's downhill, can be reached in two - provided you've played down the right hand side and can avoid the two deep bunkers flanking it.

"You really have to control the golf ball here," says Brett Holiday, playing with his father, Lou, one recent morning.

At Sunday River, Jones opted more often than not to follow descending holes with uphill climbs, and vice versa. The result is mixed, depending on the golfer: Either you'll like the variety in shot making, or you'll feel vexed that you can't get a real read on the kind of golf course this is.

The uphill holes, notably Nos. 3, 7, 8 and 15, all play considerably longer than the scorecard indicates. But where Jones really shines are on the downhill runs, steep ramps of fairway that more often than not can produce tricky lies even for the best placed drive. The 425-yard par-4 fifth is a gentle dogleg that flows, beautifully, down in a succession of tiers to one of the longer greens on the golf course.

Jones worked in some of his trademarks at Sunday River. There are well-positioned hazards that can change the entire strategy of a hole. Take No. 5. It is so downhill that you'll want to take driver and let the fairway do all the work. Ah, but Jones then sticks in a smallish fairway bunker in the center-right of the landing zone, and you're left wondering whether to play a draw around it or lay up short.

Jones also works in plenty of waste areas (No. 6 has got one running its entire length on the left) and there are numerous forced carries.

Two of the most daunting holes are Nos. 9 and 14. Nine, a 339-yard par-4, requires a carry off the tee and then another one, over a waste area, to the green. Fourteen, the course's longest par 3 at 213 yards, is all carry over a waste area to a "Redan" green.

"Sugarloaf is more difficult off the tee," says Alex Kaufman, who works at Sunday River and plays here throughout the season. "Sunday River is more difficult around the greens."

He's right. While Jones built a lot of movement into this golf course, it's the greens where you'll likely to lose strokes. Missing any of them often means awkward recoveries, and their often extreme contours and shelving make being on the right side of the pin essential.

Sunday River Golf Club: The Verdict

The new kid on the block in Maine golf seems just around the corner from being nationally touted.

The course is a pretty hefty 7,130 from the tips, with a 146 slope ratings. There are four sets of tees, and the blues - one set up - is more manageable at 6,558 yards.

Golfers who are long and accurate off the tee will find plenty of chances to play short irons and set up scoring opportunities. Mid- to high-handicappers (especially high) who are not particularly long will struggle on the course's uphill climbs and on its forced carries.

There is no water to negotiate on the golf course, but plenty of waste areas.

The course is kept in immaculate condition, and the mountain scenery alone is worth showing up for.

Greens fees are around $100, depending on when you play.

Stay and play

The Jordan Grand Hotel and Conference Center is a nicely appointment hotel, and it has the easiest access to the golf course. Located at the bottom of Sunday River's Jordan Bowl, it boasts 187 guest rooms ranging from standard rooms two-bedroom suites complete with kitchens.

There is a full range of spa treatments, tennis and health facilities. The hotel also has free wireless Internet.

Stay and play packages start at $149 during peak season and include a round of golf and one night at Jordan Grand.

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Sunday River Golf Club

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • the river

    Peter wrote on: Aug 11, 2008

    Sunday River is an absolutely gorgeous course with spectacualr vistas from every single tee box. It is a must play in Maine.