What makes ski country special? The mountains, of course. Those same hills also make for some fabulous golf outings. As will become obvious (if you read this article start to finish), selecting “the best” is a fool’s errand. So we’ll just highlight a few favorites.
Sugarloaf Golf Club
Carrabassett Valley, Maine | sugarloaf.com
I first fell in love with Sugarloaf as a skier/snowboarder in the last century, and then rekindled my romance as a mountain biker. However, several fat-tire friends would bring along their golf clubs during that time-consuming trip to Carrabassett Valley. Now I know why. You simply can’t pedal your bike all day, especially at my age. But regardless of age, visitors to Sugarloaf will love the fact that this outstanding resort is proof positive that there’s no need to limit your leisure-time activities.
Sugarloaf is a drop-dead gorgeous course. You don’t have to take my word for it. The course has been named the top track in Vacationland by Golf Digest and is routinely considered one of the top 100 courses from coast to coast by a number of national publications. The accolades are as abundant as the balls I routinely lost here. Perennially the top-ranked course in the state, Sugarloaf Golf Club has plenty of elevation change, great mountain views and even some uphill approaches to blind greens. The back nine is especially scenic along the Carrabassett River.
Make no mistake, though — this par-72, 6,956-yard course can be as ornery as a Maine black bear. Designers Kyle Phillips and Robert Trent Jones Jr. must have been salivating when they first laid eyes on this stretch of forestland. As one TripAdvisor reviewer noted, the course is “challenging but not insane.” I agree.
It’s also one of the toughest courses you’ll ever play. With a slope rating of 151 from the tips and trees on both sides of most of the fairways, it requires accuracy and skill. Suffice to say, there is a significant risk/reward element to Sugarloaf. If you’re confident in your placement, the course will reward you. If your approach shots are inconsistent, they can make for a cringe-worthy round.
“Don’t expect to play your usual game here,” said another reviewer. “Just come with the idea of enjoying the absolutely gorgeous setting surrounding you, the clear air, and the camaraderie with other golfers.”
Speaking of camaraderie, one of Sugarloaf’s most endearing qualities is the welcoming attitude of its employees. It’s true in the winter, and it’s true in the summer. The resort also takes the edge off that long drive (not off the tee, but to get to the resort) by offering a number of wallet-sparing deals. For example, Sugarloaf allows juniors 18 and under to play free after 2 p.m. every day with a paying adult. For a really special treat, plan to visit Sugarloaf during foliage season, when the hardwoods that line many of the fairways explode in a kaleidoscope of autumnal colors. Simply breathtaking.
Sunday River Golf Club
Newry, Maine | sundayriver.com
One of the liveliest debates in Maine begins with this simple question: “Which is the best mountain layout in the state?” And you certainly could make the argument for Sunday River Golf Club. Another Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout, the 7,000-yard, 18-hole championship course winds through the western Maine woods in a dramatic mountain setting overlooking the Sunday River Valley and Mahoosuc Range.
Sunday River has garnered its share of accolades, including No. 1 course in Maine by Golfweek, Best Mountain Course in New England by Links, and Top 100 Courses You Can Play by Golf.
As with most of Jones’ best creations, the course follows the natural topography of the rippled landscape, taking advantage of natural features and elevation changes with a design that strikes the perfect balance between ambitious and playable. Like Sugarloaf, Sunday River is also fairly difficult, requiring accurate tee shots and precise calculations to compensate for the significant elevation swings. Stay and play packages at the adjacent resort make Sunday River a particularly appealing option.
For a little variety, pay a visit to the Bethel Inn Resort (bethelinn.com) and its Guaranteed Performance School of Golf just minutes away in the little village of Bethel. Renowned architect Geoffrey Cornish designed this 6,663-yard, par-72 tract to take maximum advantage of the mountain vistas and natural beauty of the area. Tree-lined fairways, natural hazards, well-trapped greens and five tee positions make play challenging for golfers of every ability. And unlike many courses today, walking is encouraged to take maximum advantage of the gorgeous surroundings.
Omni Mount Washington
Bretton Woods, N.H. | brettonwoods.com
I’m still holding out hope that Les Otten and his team will be able to pull off the long-promised renovation of The Balsams resort in Dixville Notch, and its stunning 18-hole golf course. In the meantime, I’m content to “settle” for another wonderful grand hotel layout. There are few, if any, resorts that can match the eye-popping image of the iconic Mount Washington Hotel, nestled at the western base of the Granite State’s awe-inspiring Presidential Range. In fact, the venue is so picture perfect that it would be a travesty if the golfing experience didn’t measure up.
Great resorts, like great athletes or great entertainers, can’t rest on their laurels. For years, Mount Washington (officially the Omni Mount Washington) boasted a ballyhooed championship 18-hole course designed by the legendary Scot, Donald Ross (like The Balsams). But, in reality, the course was tired and worn. No more. In the past 15 years, the course has undergone an exhaustive renovation under the caring eye of acclaimed architect Brian Silva, who employed Ross’ original plans. The result is a born-again 7,004-yard classic that will test your skill while it takes your breath away. The critics took note, and the tributes followed quickly. The Mount Washington Course was voted Golfweek Magazine’s “Best Course You Can Play in N.H.” from 2009 to 2020.
Then, of course, there is the hotel itself, which conjures a grand lifestyle of a time and elegance long gone by. There’s no better 19th hole than cocktails on the hotel’s back deck veranda (though the clubhouse, with its own bar and restaurant, isn’t too shabby). For a family outing, check out the resort’s 9-hole par-35 Mount Pleasant course at the front of the property, alongside the scenic Ammonoosuc River, which originally opened in 1895.
Waitsfield, Vt. | sugarbush.com
Tucked in the serrated hillsides of the Mad River Valley in central Vermont, Sugarbush offers a true mountain golf experience with the brilliance of renowned designer Robert Trent Jones Sr. While many resort courses tend to trace cross-country trails at the base of the mountain, the par-71, 6,464-yard course at Sugarbush takes full advantage of the undulating contours found in the Mad River Valley.
The challenge starts with an uphill dogleg on the very first hole, and rarely relents over the next 17. The par-3 Hole 5 is another good example, as the slope requires an extra club. That’s true of a number of the holes. However, brute force isn’t enough to tame Sugarbush. Accuracy is also required, as many holes are unforgiving of errant tee shots. Walking the course is a workout; consider taking a cart, just so you can concentrate on your shot selection. Pay close attention to each hole description, as ball placement is critical.
Sugarbush also has a slew of services, such as one-on-one instruction catering to all skill levels as well as group clinics and custom club-fitting, junior golf camps, junior tennis-and-golf camps, and women’s clinics. At the Titleist Performance Institute, instructors provide a golf-specific fitness assessment to identify inefficient movements and will prescribe exercises to correct your game.
While the course stands on its own merits, the resort offers a number of package deals and top-flight accommodations to makes it even more enticing. It’s also worth mentioning the resort’s green initiatives, which strive to maintain a first-rate track while doing so in an environmentally friendly manner.
Stratton Mountain Golf Course
Stratton, Vt. | stratton.com
Rich in history and scenic beauty, Stratton Mountain offers one of New England’s finest golf experiences. Stratton’s first nine opened for play in 1964, making Stratton one of the first to offer year-round recreation. Two more nine-hole layouts would follow. All 27 holes are designed to take full advantage of the mountain landscape and stunning views. A multi-year project has restored the fairways, greens and bunkers to reflect the original Geoffrey Cornish blueprint.
“The golf is superb at this all-inclusive resort, which boasts a scenic and challenging championship 27-hole course that played host to six LPGA tournaments. The Forest, Lake and Mountain all have their own charm and danger, and are designed to be playable for any level golfer,” says Golf Magazine.
Green Apron at the Stratton Golf Course brings the fresh tastes of Vermont right to your table, serving a menu that evolves with the season. Savor the craft beer, wine and cocktails on the patio with views of the 18th hole and the mountain.
Fans of major resort courses at Stratton Mountain, Mount Snow and Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont could argue that their tracks are the finest in New England, and I wouldn’t argue with them. The 18-hole, heathland course at Okemo Valley Golf Club (okemo.com) in Ludlow, Vt., offers a wonderful series of unique dips, ripples, rolls and hollows against the backdrop of Vermont’s dazzling Green Mountains. Okemo’s greens are sweeping and well-manicured and will reward a precise short game. Given the inordinate amount of snow that falls at Jay Peak (jaypeakresort.com) in upstate Vermont, golfers may need to wait a little longer to hit the links here. Suffice to say, it’s worth the wait. The Graham Cook-designed championship course, laid out over 300 acres, is one of the finest not only in the Northeast Kingdom, but also in the entire state. The Woodstock Inn & Resort (woodstockinn.com), in Woodstock, Vt., shares a storied history with nearby Suicide Six ski area, but the golf course out back has a rich history of its own. First built in 1895, this Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed course nestled in Kedron Valley is a delight. Though not affiliated directly with any ski resort, Green Mountain National (gmngc.com) in Vermont, situated off Route 100, is not all that far from Killington. It features distinctive elevation changes, not too dissimilar than Sugarbush up the road, that will test not only your swing, but also your golf acumen.
Next door, in New Hampshire, the Waterville Valley Golf Course (watervillevalley.com) offers the full resort golfing experience over 9 holes, while Owl’s Nest Resort and Golf Course (owlsnestresort.com) in nearby Thornton is a beauty, with a 6819-yard course — the only New Hampshire course designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus — that’s been called “the best value in the Northeast, if not the entire country.” The real challenge for golfers at Owl’s Nest is staying focused on their game while enveloped by those expansive mountain views. The Maplewood Golf Course (maplewoodgolfresort.com) in Bethlehem is a historic property that hearkens back to the hey-day of railroad travel, with a recently renovated Donald Ross course to match. The 18-hole, par-72 White Mountain Country Club (whitemountaincc.com) in Ashland, designed by renowned golf course architect Geoffrey Cornish, is nestled along the Pemigewassett River. The user-friendly layout features wide, manicured fairways, strategically placed bunkers, and soft velvet bent grass greens. Golfers of all abilities will enjoy a truly great golfing experience in a peaceful, natural setting. A half-hour away, the picturesque Pheasant Ridge Golf Club (pheasantridgecc.com) in Gilford incorporates pretty lake and mountain views as it winds through the foothills of Belknap Mountain, 400 feet above Lake Winnipesaukee.
In Maine, the Mount Kineo Golf Course (mooseheadlakegolf.com) on Moosehead Lake in Rockwood requires a long, long drive, but this little gem is well worth it. It’s thought to be the second-oldest course in New England, first built in the 1880s alongside the Kineo House, which at one time was the largest inland waterfront hotel in America. The hotel is long since gone but the beauty of the island remains with Mount Kineo as the centerpiece, rising 1,798 feet above the shores of Moosehead Lake.