The four opening holes are pedestrian par fours less than 315 yards long. But the group ahead lets us through--"We're just here to have fun," one of them sniffs defensively, as if we are on a forced march (though, in fairness, Dad may have muttered, "For godsake!" too loud while waiting on the tee). The course picks up steam in solidarity with us. By the seventh--a 203-yard par three that runs over a deep grassy swale that the Rothman family proudly parred (followed by a high five and some trash talking)--things are really rolling.
The back side, designed locally, gradually dissolves into something entirely different: newer grass, yellow-green as fresh tennis balls, towering pines. The back half of the course is 450 yards longer than the front. And yet it feels like a transition rather than a revolt, because it builds upon the elegance of the front side: If the back nine didn't get its father's looks, the personality is the same. Again, we are on our own--not another foursome in sight and not one hole visible from another--and finish in a little more than three hours.
"I was going to cry after those first four holes," Dad says over a beer on the clubhouse porch. "Then it was like . . . a miracle." Amen.
Just a few minutes away, the Center Lovell Inn & Restaurant looks like a nice little spot. It is--just like Augusta National is a nice little spot. From the wraparound screened porch, the view of the verdant White Mountain Presidential Range is sublime; the food, world-class--and I don't mean just for a place ten minutes from nowhere. Dad again chats away with the waitress, but not only do I not mind, I find myself joining in. Mini beef Wellingtons and smoked ravioli followed by the juiciest morsels of duck in lingonberry sauce will do that to a guy. We talk not about golf but about politics and ethics. (Guess who came up?) We are in concert on the former and at odds on the latter--halved, with no concessions. Not even Dad's excessive buttering or his apple pie à la mode can bother me; live a little, I think, as I devour my cheesecake.
Dad wants to know how I ever found this place. The answer: on the Internet--the 194-year-old inn has a web site. The world is changing, we decide on the drive home under a canopy of trees, sated.
Sugarloaf Golf Club is Maine's most decorated course, and no wonder. Gorgeous, immaculate and pitiless, it is quite obviously championship caliber. It is also an anomaly: in my sample, more of a Robert Trent Jones Jr. course than a Maine course in its flamboyant character and aerial demands. In Jones Jr.'s work, I am reminded, he is more like his father than his brother, Rees Jones, whose retro style evokes comparisons with Ross.
A morning outing means that afternoon players go out in shotgun format. Dad and I start at number six, a dogleg-right par four of 402 yards per the card, which isn't even half the story. Our drives just make the turn. The pin is a haunted castle atop a faraway mountain, a long iron or fairway wood up a sixty-degree incline ("What are they, kidding?"). What is more, snarling rough and copious bunkers guard the green like gargoyles and hounds of hell. Stephen King would feel right at home.
Twelve of the fourteen non-par threes are doglegged. Traps surround almost every green, which run roller-coaster fast and twisty. The course is great for good players on their game and a beast for everyone else. Struggle, as I do, and the white pines begin to resemble skeletons, and the many rocks, headstones. However, the consolation of its splendor and a few pars is considerable, and I am proud to make one of the latter on the spectacular tenth, whose tee boxes reside some sixty vertiginous feet above the narrow fairway (take an iron and a camera). At 122 feet on high, the 216-yard par-three eleventh begins at a different atmospheric pressure from the green; the distance appears to be a five-club drop, though it may only be three.
Sadly, a visit to the most sublime expression of Maine golf coincides with a dreary, rainy day. We walk up the stone steps to the modest clubhouse of the Belgrade Lakes Golf Club and are confronted by one of the most awesome views afforded not just by a golf course but by anyplace I've yet been: a 360-degree panorama of crystalline Long Pond and Great Pond (reportedly the inspiration for On Golden Pond).