For the Love of the Green
The highs and lows of playing 18 at Sugarloaf Golf Club
And already my fellow Mainers are emitting sighs and expressing generalized fretfulness about the end of summer.
But at Sugarloaf Golf Club in Carrabassett Valley, the summer has not yet ended.
To me, it almost feels like it’s just begun.
While sipping beverages on the sun- soaked patio after finishing my first-ever round at Sugarloaf Golf Club, I happen to mention that I played the same ball for all 18 holes. This offhand remark is greeted with no small amount of astonishment, even admiration, by those assembled around the table. Apparently, losing balls—specifically, losing large numbers of balls—is a rite of passage at Sugarloaf. And my accomplishment, both improbable and unwitting, is a rare feat. “We have members around here who, if they played with one ball, it would go on the mantel,” quips John DeBiase, director of golf at Sugarloaf.
Suddenly, I’m feeling pretty good about myself.
If you play golf in Maine, you have almost certainly heard of Sugarloaf’s reputation. In fact, it may be more akin to a mythology. While the course regularly appears on various best-course lists in national magazines, Sugarloaf Golf Club may be better known for its difficulty than its design among Maine golfers. Its fairways are invariably enfolded in dense, untamed forest, and the first six holes on the back nine weave precariously back and forth across the South Branch of the Carrabassett River. For the average golfer who happens to be playing poorly, an 18- hole round can quickly build, crescendo- like, into a veritable kettledrum-pounding, cymbal-crashing symphony of lost balls.
According to Steve Niezgoda, Sugarloaf’s head golf professional, on one particularly fruitful day of harvesting, a local member reportedly found 104 formerly lost balls in 20 minutes while combing a hillside adjacent to the eleventh hole.
Given Sugarloaf’s reputation for difficulty, I’m surprised, and happily so, to discover that its reputation is largely misleading. Yes, Sugarloaf is a tough course, but it’s also fair and—in the parlance of golfers— exceedingly playable. More to the point, it’s just plain fun. While some wild shots may be unrecoverable, mishit shots are more likely to be found than lost. And since the course opened in September 1985, the forest has been cut back to widen fairways and several particularly penal sand traps have been filled in and grassed over. In fact, DeBiase estimates that somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 trees have been removed over the years.
What truly sets Sugarloaf apart is not its difficulty but its monumental natural backdrop. Nestled between the treeless ski runs of Sugarloaf Mountain and the multiple peaks of the Bigelow Range, the whole gestalt of the course—cloud-topped mountains, primeval forest, burbling river waters, prancing wildlife—practically broadcasts relaxation, an effect that’s accentuated by an inimitable design: each hole at Sugarloaf is visually separated from the other holes, making a round something of a Thoreauvian ramble. When you play Sugarloaf, it almost feels like you have the course entirely to yourself.
Any description of Sugarloaf Golf Club would be incomplete without mention of the greens, many of which are shaped like curvy potato chips, with flowing slopes, steep declivities, and grass cut so tight it’s more blanket-like than carpet-like. Several greens feature multiple tiers, and accurate putting practically requires complex mathematical calculations involving slope, angle, and speed of ascent and descent best estimated with a scientific calculator. Robert Trent Jones, Jr., the renowned architect who designed Sugarloaf, reportedly sculpted the greens with Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament, in mind. For those who do not follow professional golf, Augusta National’s greens are widely considered to be among the slipperiest— and most treacherous—in the world.
Given the accolades and media attention the course has received over the years, it’s remarkable that Sugarloaf Golf Club is actually a true municipal course—it is and always has been owned by the town of Carrabassett Valley. Even more remarkably, if you are a taxpayer in the town, an unlimited, full-season, play- anytime membership is—unbelievably— only $879 a year. As any golfer will tell you, this price must rank among the best golfing deals in the country, if not the planet.
On a weekend morning, I get in a round with Reggie Gordon and Larry Warren, two local residents, devoted members, and zealous Sugarloaf proselytizers.
After a varied career of 60-hour workweeks, three heart surgeries, and a bout of cancer, Gordon decided to retire two years ago. He now plays golf at least five times a week during the season, and his style of play— carefree, laughter-filled, smiling all the while—is suggestive of a man committed to enjoying every moment of every day. Warren is something of a one-man economic engine in the valley. Not only did he co-found Sugarloaf Golf Club with his friend Peter Webber, but he has been the driving force behind Maine Huts and Trails, a nonprofit network of eco-friendly lodges situated along 80 miles of backcountry trails in western Maine.
On the first hole of the day, with heavy, early-morning fog drifting through the mountains and the fairways still shimmering with dew, Warren chips in from off the green. As the ball follows its snaking path toward the hole, I say— prophetically it turns out—“That one looks good,” just moments before the ball dives into the hole. While we walk energetically to the next tee, I inhale a healthy lungful
of invigorating morning air. Suffused with optimism, I just know it’s going to be a very good day indeed.
By the sixth hole, however, our group is limping along with decidedly less dynamism in our gaits. It turns out that Warren’s chip-in would be one of our few highlights of the day. Poor shots have spread like a contagion, and all three of us are playing like invalids recovering from a wasting disease. On one particularly dispiriting hole, we all chunk our second shots so bad that none of us make it even halfway to the green.
Summoning the zeitgeist of the moment, I say, “Well, at least our balls went forward.” With more good-spirited sunniness than current circumstances would suggest appropriate, Warren replies, “Yup, we’re heading in the right direction.”
What then ensues can only be described as a heavy bombardment.
After we eventually surround the green with too-short, too-far-left, and too-far- right shots, Warren says, “There’s a lot of room on that green.” I certainly can’t disagree.
Needless to say, I lose a few balls on this particular loop around the course.
And yet onward we trudge through a heady mix of seesawing emotions, good shots and bad shots, and no small amount of cussing. What all devoted players eventually realize is that golf is less a game than it is a quixotic pursuit, a heedless quest undertaken without rational consideration or sensible forethought.
Despite our discouraging performance, we nevertheless stride off the course like conquerors. Because what golf takes, golf always gives back.
Every day you get to golf is, by definition, a good day.
Implausibly, they don’t have a group nickname. So I’ll call them the Matros Boys.
I first meet Ron “Ronzo” Matros—the unofficial squad leader, team mascot, and spiritual swami to his crew of 23 guys— while he’s finishing up lunch. He and the boys are about to play an afternoon round of nine holes. They already played 18 holes that morning, but the plan calls for another nine holes in the afternoon—and the plan, I soon learn, is always followed.
The buddy trip is an enduring motif in golf, a romanticized image that wends its way through the game’s literature and lore. When I meet the Matros Boys, I realize—for the first time—that the buddy trip just may be far more than a glorified trope. It’s a real thing, and the Matros Boys have made me a believer.
Every year, the boys make their annual pilgrimage to Sugarloaf Golf Club on the weekend after Labor Day. Their trip always takes place on the same weekend, and the boys always play precisely 27 holes of golf each day—a yearly ritual that’s practically graven on stone tablets and carried around in a golden palanquin. This is no whooping, butt-slapping, cart-crashing band of bros on a drunken bachelor-party junket; these are ardent devotees, true-hearted pilgrims who come every year to genuflect at the great altar of golf.
The Matros Boys have played, in aggregate, exactly 13,050 holes of golf at Sugarloaf since 1996, when Matros and seven friends made the inaugural trip. I know this figure because I’m looking at an Excel spreadsheet with 2,500 rows of data fanning out across nine worksheets and 66 cumulative pages. The spreadsheet is emblazoned with photos of each player, and features an extensive catalog of individual records and an itemization of money won and lost.
Peter Masucci, a marketing professor at the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire, is “Master of the Spreadsheet.” “I’m old, so I keep track of everything,” says Masucci. And indeed he has. The spreadsheet is a thoroughgoing record of every shot hit on every hole every year for the past 18 years (except, I suspect, for a few thousand or so quietly overlooked and/ or unobserved strokes now lost to memory and the fog of time). In advance of the trip, the group receives six pages of assiduously documented tee times, Byzantine rules and game formats, and a complex battery of betting scenarios that frankly make me feel a little exhausted just perusing.
“It’s run like the United States Navy,” one of the guys tells me. More like the Manhattan Project, I’m thinking.
If you spend more than a few minutes with the Matros Boys, the stories start rolling out. One of the boys, who goes by the nickname “Sandbag,” is reportedly so scared of heights that, on the elevated precipice of the majestic 11th tee, which drops nearly 125 feet to the green below, Sandbag regularly falls to the ground after hitting his shot and then “crawls like a baby” back to the cart. In 1998, Paul Phaneuf had the only hole-in-one in the group’s history on the par-three third hole. But in a reckless moment of celebratory jubilance following his ace, he fell out of the golf cart while rounding a corner on the way to the next hole. Phaneuf happened to land on his side where, unluckily, he had pocketed a ball. The resulting contusion swelled his thigh to the size of a cantaloupe and required several months of largely immobilized convalescence.
Such are the highs and lows of golf.
Despite his accident, Phaneuf’s enthusiasm for Sugarloaf remains undiminished. “I couldn’t sleep the night before we came here I was so excited,” he says. As it turns out, sleepless nights before the annual trip are apparently so common that Bob Laufer, the group’s self- appointed lyricist, penned an adaptation of the Clement Clarke Moore’s timeless “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Laufer’s opening stanza:
“‘Twas the night before Sugarloaf when our golf balls found out,
Their return trip from Maine was surely in doubt.
New or old, dull or shiny,
Their chance of survival was definitely tiny.”
The Matros Boys are practically evangelical in their affection for Sugarloaf, and it’s impossible not to be seduced by their childlike enthusiasm and obvious camaraderie. After spending some time with the crew, I’m thinking I might give Ron Matros a call to see if he can fit in another player.
As it turns out, next year’s tee times are already booked.