Odds are probably high that when you're talking golf destinations, Maine is not foremost — heck, probably not even second or third — in that discussion
POLAND, Maine — Odds are probably high that when you're talking golf destinations, Maine is not foremost — heck, probably not even second or third — in that discussion. The state has only about 140 courses, most of them public and many of those nine-holers.
Maine, though, has its place in American golf history. The Poland Spring Resort has the oldest resort golf course in the country. And while it's a Donald Ross design, there was golf there before Donald Ross.
"We start with Arthur Fenn," said Cyndi Robbins, a remarkable woman who started working at Poland Spring 45 years ago as a waitress and is now the resort’s owner. "He’s an important part of our history."
The town may be best known for the mineral water that has long been produced here, but Robbins makes a strong case for recognizing the importance of golf and Fenn, who designed the first course on the property, a nine-holer, in 1896.
A top player himself, Fenn — who, at age 61, won the Maine State Golf Association's first Open Championship in 1918 — attracted many other top golfers to the resort in the early 1900s. Most notable were Englishman Harry Vardon and Scotsman Willie Anderson, the only golfer to win three straight U.S. Opens. While most of the golf professionals of that era were either from England or Scotland, Poland Spring historians consider Fenn the "first American-born golf professional and course designer."
Fenn’s daughter Bessie also became part of the operation, and she is considered the "first woman golf professional in charge of a club," according to local historians.
The resort, however, dates further than the Fenns. An inn has operated continuously on the property since 1797. It was called the Wentworth Ricker Inn originally, and the Ricker family owned the resort for almost 150 years.
"The Rickers hired Fenn because they wanted to be involved in golf," said Robbins, noting that subsequent owners all felt the same way. "We still get people coming just because of our golf course. Some who never played our course have come just because of Donald Ross."
The legendary Ross was hired by the Rickers to convert Fenn’s nine-holer into 18 holes. Ross started work in 1913 and finished the job in 1915, and the course hasn’t undergone any major changes since then. The course measured 6,380 yards when it opened and is now a 6,178-yard, par-71 layout known as The Links at Poland Spring.
"In World War II some of his features were let go," said Robbins, who married Mel Robbins in the 1970s. Soon the couple took ownership in the resort, and when Mel passed away 11 years ago, Robbins opted to keep the historic place going. "We’ve worked to restore what we can."
The Maine Golf Hall of Fame is also located on property, which features the Maine Inn — a Colonial-style building with a huge porch and stately white pillars — as its centerpiece. The resort offers a wide variety of activities, but Poland Spring still has just the one golf course.
Many resorts have multiple courses these days, and — rather than build more of courses at the expense of the resort’s other entertainment offerings — Robbins opted to start the Maine Golf Trifecta.
She invited the owners of two nearby privately-owned public courses — Spring Meadows at Cole Farms, in the town of Gray, and Fox Ridge, in Auburn — to join forces on a golf package. Neither Spring Meadows nor Fox Ridge offers lodging.
They’re much newer courses, though, and the mix of layouts offered to those joining the Trifecta covers all levels of players. Poland Spring’s course is short, flat and historic; Spring Meadows is fun with stunning elevation changes; and Fox Ridge has some similar features, but is a tougher challenge.
The Maine Trifecta has been in existence for 10 years and benefitted all three facilities. For $319, participants can play all three courses, receive two nights of lodging at Poland Spring and four buffet meals. With upgraded accommodations, the price remains a reasonable $349.
"It’s been 10 years in the making and we have something very unique,’’ said David Pollard, co-owner and manager of Spring Meadows. "We are 15 minutes apart and the owners have come together. That’s unheard of. We’re very proud of what we’ve done."
Len Ziehm is a former golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. He is currently a golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers and a golf columnist for Chicagoland Golf, a monthly publication. He also contributes to Chicago District Golfer and the Illinois PGA website.