Fall foliage complements Robert Trent Jones Jr. design.
NEWRY, Maine — When discussing fall foilage throughout Maine, it's best to know that the state is actually carved into seven geographic zones. The Sunday River Golf Club happens to be in Zone 5, in the western part of the state.
This knowledge isn’t going to lower your scores at the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course at the Sunday River Resort. But it will help plan your rounds to coincide with the peak fall foliage display, which usually runs Oct. 6-13.
Gale Ross, now retired from the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, keeps her hand in each autumn by tracking the evolution of the season’s blazing foliage colorings in the seven zones. With more than two decades of such forecasting under her belt, Ross is now officially called Maine’s “fall foliage spokesperson.” Unofficially she’s been called the Madam of Maples and the Fall Foliage Czar.
Despite her last name and Scottish heritage, Ross does not play golf. “But my daughter will give you a game.” Indeed, Celeste Ross, co-owner of the restaurant at the Val Halla Golf and Recreation Center in Cumberland Center, was a member of the Val Halla Golf Association's Women's 4-Ball Championship's winning team.
Gale Ross said red maples tend to give the most vibrant of reds in the fall panoply, splashed among the state’s 17 million forested acres. “But my forest rangers seem to favor the white oaks, which evolve from scarlet to orange in November and is one of the last trees to shed its leaves.”
Maine stakes a claim as the first state to post foliage predictions on the Internet, beginning in 1996, but it has been issuing weekly reports since 1959. Leaf peepers pay attention on the @mainefoliage Facebook and Twitter pages, and on mainefoliage.com that Ross updates weekly for two months in season. Tourism numbers soar before and around Columbus Day each year.
That’s about the time the Sunday River Golf Club shutters its doors each fall and the Sunday River Resort starts thinking about making snow. So time’s a-wasting to plan a trip this year. For forward planners, ponder going during the spring or fall Maine Beer Fests, which take place at the resort.
A drone shot of Sunday River Golf Club. [Photo: Sunday River Golf Club]The golf course had its first full season in 2005 and quickly drew plaudits for both its routing and visual beauty, and was frequently cited on various ranking lists as the best in Maine. Some ownership issues compromised conditioning in the last few years, but Boyne Resorts, which had been leasing the Sunday River Resort the last few years, took ownership of it in May 2018, and in June took over the operation of the golf course.
Best known for its stable of ski resorts and golf courses in Michigan, Boyne installed Jerry Roman as the new head golf professional and went to work on returning the course to pristine condition. RTJ II gave them quite the canvas to work on. The course is on a northwest facing slope looking across the Sunday River Valley to the most impressive Mahoosuc Mountain Range.
The holes are aptly named after wintry doings — Glissade, Sluice, Traverse, Avalanche— and indeed run up and down moguls all over the place, with some 400 feet of elevation changes in spots. Is the course challenging? Yes. Is it playable? Yes, particularly if you choose the right tee and avoid biting off more than you should chew. The 5,851-yard white tees, for example, play to a 128 slope for men. But move back to the 6,558 blue tees and the slope leaps up to 139. The insane can play from the 7,130-yard tips at a slope of 150.
While there’s nothing but trouble in the woods or down cliffsides for seriously wayward hits, the fairways hold shots well and are actually quite generous, even if it doesn’t always apper that way from the tee box. There are some forced carries and a few nefarious gullies to negotiate over the meandering Merrill Creek — particularly on holes eight and nine — but water doesn’t otherwise come into play.
Sand is omnipresent, but some greenside bunkers can save your bacon, or at least your ball from slicing down slopes into troublesome cabbage. Some of the greens are so huge that a putter might seem like under-clubbing. In short, the course will keep you on your toes at all times. It can be pleasingly rewarding even if you’re not firing on all cylinders, and particularly in repeat play, after the first go-round reveals some of the contouring quirks.
While the views rarely quit throughout the course, cameras will come in particularly handy on holes 11 through 12, where there’s also that pleasing sensation on downhill shots of sending your ball soaring off into a lingering freefall. When it’s against a backdrop of autumn leaves, even better.
Tom Bedell is, as best that he can discern, the sole member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the North American Guild of Beer Writers. He writes, and drinks, in Williamsville, Vt.