BELGRADE LAKES, Maine - Mention Maine to most non-New Englanders who are not geographically challenged and they can probably pinpoint The Pine Tree State as this country's northeasternmost outpost. The Maine things that come to the minds and stomachs of gastronomes are likely the delectable wild blueberries - in pies, pancakes and even ales - and freshly steamed pick-your-own lobsters consumed with a Geary's draft on the picturesque rocky coastline.
Outdoorsmen and shop-till-you-droppers can tell you that Leon Leonwood (better known as L.L.) Bean's original superstore is found in Freeport, and that the chance to purchase duck shoes in person without the help of a catalog or toll-free number is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
But mention golf in Maine to most lovers of layouts and you will probably draw a dumbstruck stare. At best, you might extract mumblings about the town of Kennebunkport. A few true fans may recall seeing - on the evening news - one of the leaders of the free world from the Bush family getting in a round there while unwinding at the family's compound.
Many first-time visitors from far away, filled with misconceptions of nothing but moose, snowdrifts and lumberjacks, might not even consider toting along their golf gear to Vacationland (so touts its license tags).
That is an oversight as egregious as forgetting to pack DEET-based products to ward off welts from the unofficial state bird, the Mosquitous Monstrousus.
Though Maine does not have a density of golf courses - understandable considering its relatively short playing season of mid-May to early October - it does have one of the game's superstars that should be on every player's wish list.
The heavyweight champion for the state's top destination is Belgrade Lakes Golf Club, a short drive north from the state capitol of Augusta, situated in the midst of central Maine's Lake District.
After hearing of its pedigree, you are excused if you lust in your heart for an immediate golfing tryst with this voluptuous layout. In 2002, Golf Digest rated architect Clive Clark's design at five stars ("golf at its absolute best," according to the magazine), which included a clean sweep of 5-star ratings for the following categories: Pace of Play, Unrestricted Walking, Course Conditioning, and Courses Averaging Fewer than 20,000 Rounds Per Year.
Talk about heady company, only 12 public courses in the entire country rated the coveted five stars in 2002. Belgrade Lakes is in that dynamic dozen along with golfing mecca destinations such as Pinehurst No. 2, Pebble Beach, The Broadmoor and Whistling Straits.
Having toured this Maine beauty in just over three hours on a recent Fourthof July weekend (Mach speed for 18 holes on a holiday), this author atteststo the validity of the above accolades. The caveat, and the only blemish,can be blamed on Mother Nature. A harsh 2002-2003 winter caused noticeabledamage to some of the greens and they were still in the midst of recovery.BelgradeLakes Golf Club and its president, Kyle Evans, admirably responded to thetemporary imperfections by cutting its $100 green fee in half untilconditions are back to their normal exacting standards.
Driving up the hill to Belgrade Lakes' understated clubhouse, you might think you took a wrong turn to the local municipal 18 and not to the location of the layout voted Fifth Best New Course in America (by Golf Digest) in 1999.
Its seemingly simplistic outward appearance seems to jive with the low-key, proof-is-in-the-pudding demeanor that is practiced and respected by many Mainers. It is not what you say, it is what you do. Talk is cheap - show me what you got.
At Belgrade Lakes, it is all about the golf and the course. And it speaks volumes.
Before starting your round, be sure to soak in the panorama of your surroundings. There are commanding views of Great Pond, French's Mountain and thick spruce and pine forests in every direction.
With 15-minute intervals between tee times, expect moments of solitude out on the course. Chances are good that you won't even catch sight of the groups in front or behind you for the entire round. While adequate spacing is a cherished and rare thing at most courses, at Belgrade Lakes it means you might miss getting a glimpse at the state's governor or former New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford, among other luminaries who consider the course a favorite.
Huge boulders in glacial moraines frequent the Maine landscape. This rugged feature is heavily incorporated into the Belgrade Lakes design. Never mind that bulldozers, not eons of geology, have determined the final resting places of many of the stones on the course. They are everywhere and come into play on a number of holes. If those golfing cartoon quarrymen Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble were ever to have a home course, this would be it.
The 474-yard, par-5 No. 3 is lined down its entire right side with piles of granite. A notation in the yardage book for this hole states "Please keep out of rocks," which is advice best taken before you swing. There is no need to grovel for your ball in the overgrown gravel after a wayward shot, because you won't be able to find it without rope, pitons and carabineers. No. 9 is a dogleg left par-4 of 427 yards. It brings you back to the clubhouse perched high atop a hillside behind the back of a wide green complex shared by No. 9 and No. 18. The fairways of the two holes run perpendicular to each other, separated by another lengthy boulder pile that should only be admired from as far away from your ball as possible.
Pay particular attention to club selection on No. 13, a 205-yard par-3. A small stream cuts across the front of the green that is also protected on the front right by a pair of bunkers. It is best to miss left on this hole. Shots that go right will flirt with protected wetlands.
Belgrade Lakes Golf Club is a diverse and playable layout carved from the midst of the woods. It's not easy to reach even as a diversionary round on your way from Boston to Bar Harbor. But if you're insistent on playing the game's best layouts, finding your way to Belgrade Lakes should be one on your Maine considerations.
This is the lakes region of Maine and that means there are plenty of cottages, cabins and bed and breakfasts to choose from if you are looking to stay close by and play. Writer Ernest Thompson penned "On Golden Pond" in this location. Go rent and rewatch the Academy Award-winning movie version with Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, and Katherine Hepburn for a reminder of what this region is all about. The Maine Office of Tourism (visitmaine.com or 1-888-95-MAINE) can help you with accommodations and other what-to-do information.
Belgrade Lakes Golf Club
P.O. Box 500
Belgrade Lakes, ME
August 2, 2003