A Touch of Madness
To be perfectly honest, when our friend Walter suggests we try out the homemade golf course down the road, I think we are going to be sneaking into someone's backyard. I picture those John Deere-built, hundred-yard holes you sometimes see adjacent to a ranch or farmhouse from the highway. I'm not expecting real golf — and that's why I say yes.
My husband, John, and I are visiting our friends Marguerite and Walter in the western Maine mountains. We've just had a roadside picnic and polished off a bottle of wine in the process (the other reason I say yes), when Walter — a serious, seven-handicap golfer — thinks we should go knock a few balls around.I was an avid golfer in my youth, playing almost exclusively with my parents, most seriously with my dad. I was never much for practicing, never much of a scorer, but I could knock the stuffing out of a drive and sink a long putt every now and then. "That'll bring you back," my dad would say. And no matter how many tears of frustration were shed or balls lost, it always did. But when I moved to San Francisco in 1987, two years after his death, my clubs went into storage, where they have remained since.
Ah, but it's a splendid August afternoon, and we have nothing to do but kill time until the martini hour, so why not? We hop in our car and follow Walter onto the rumbly dirt drive off Route 16 and bounce down to Moose Meadows, a "wilderness" par-three golf course.
Even though I see tees and flags and surprisingly nice-looking fairways, I still am not thinking real golf. The only sign of a clubhouse is a screenhouse with a few plastic chairs in it near the dirt parking area. Greens fees are by donation only, a suggested meager ten dollars per adult. Walter stuffs some bills in the collection barrel while we change shoes. Marguerite, whose sporting life leans more toward real wilderness adventures, gamely offers to caddy for everyone, since we'll all be playing out of Walter's bag. And, thus, our three-and-a-halfsome is off.
The first hole is a pretty little ninety-four-yarder (139 yards for men), a straight shot to the green, with towering pines to our left and a gurgling stream to our right. Walter suggests a seven-iron for me. I tee up the ball and whack it with some authority down the fairway. I've hooked my shot, and it takes me a couple of strokes to get back, but my spirits remain buoyed. I wait for the fellas to take their approach shots, nab Walter's nine-iron, and have at it again. The moment the club makes contact, however, I know I've topped the ball, and I watch it skitter toward the green, preparing myself for the inevitable volley of chip shots it will take me to get on. Except, what's this? My missed shot seems to be on a collision course with the pin. Except, wait a minute. It's hit the pin. It's hit the pin — and it's dropped in the cup. My ball is in the cup.
I would like to say the remainder of the round follows a similar track, but, alas, that miracle shot has been a fluke. But what difference does it make? I start to take in our surroundings: the backdrop of majestic mountains, the fairways carved out of the deep, thick woods, the amazing shape each hole is in. How — it suddenly dawns on me — could something like this happen?
Madness would be a start. At least that might be the answer you'd get from the course's chief designer, contractor, and owner, Russell "Rocky" Stewart, who has been working on this cockamamie project for the better part of nearly twenty years. Stewart, a wiry, compact man with a graying ponytail sticking out from under his ballcap, looks more ex-hippie than PGA-type, but his devotion to making and maintaining his course couldn't be more passionate. He arises in the dark and works until the light fails, which is not unusual for most Mainers . . . in the dead of winter. But this is Stewart's summer schedule we're talking about. It seems he spends almost all his waking hours out here, and perfecting the course is what drives him. "We all have a little madness in us," he says with, indeed, a mad glint in his eye.
Stewart moved from Connecticut to Rangeley in 1976, when he says the area was still all farms and barns, as part of the back-to-the-land movement. One day in the mid-1980s, while he was driving his '49 Chevy along Route 16 between Stratton and Rangeley — locally known as Moose Alley — he noticed a land-for-sale sign. He got, as he says, "kind of jumpy about it." It was a forty-five-acre parcel — out of his range, he figured — but he threw out an offer, which he said was "balked at." Yet, a counter-offer was put out and accepted. Stewart didn't have a plan — all he knew is that he had always wanted to work a piece of land, and now he had himself one. That first year, he put in a garden. Sometimes people would stop to see what he was doing, sometimes they'd join him. That was how the first green, he says, came to be.
He stresses none of this would've happened, however, without his partner, a local logger named Mooch. He was the only one, Stewart says, who took the endeavor seriously — the one who brought his clubs, who brought a cold beer, and, maybe most important, the one who brought his skidder.
At first, Stewart recalls, the land didn't look like much, but gradually, he started clearing. There was no "master plan" he says. He didn't set out to make a nine-hole course. He says he built the third hole three times before it came to him where number three really wanted to be. It was as though he were waiting for the land to speak to him.
The serious golf began with the purchase of his first greens mower from the nearby Sugarloaf golf course. The chief groundskeeper there more or less took Stewart under his wing and sent him home with books about turf science and course design. That learning turned into a passion, and that passion begot a lovely little course that challenges seasoned pros, duffers, and novices alike. "No one has ever parred this course," Stewart says with a bit of swagger. "One-over is the best."
Our ragtag party is in no danger of besting that record. Despite the occasional par or birdie by each of us, we have long stopped keeping score and are simply content to be out on this beautiful course on this beautiful summer afternoon. As we finish up, we notice what appears to be a rowdy sixteensome working their way up the first fairway with as many coolers as golf bags in tow.
A touch of madness, indeed.
So, I may have been a little crazy when I instantly accept Walter's invitation to try another homemade course, this one in the town of Clinton between Waterville and Skowhegan. He mentions what fabulous shape it's in, but what he really raves about are the hamburgers. It seems that after your round, the owner himself will grill you a big, thick juicy burger that so wowed Walter that he actually offered to pay greens fees just for a second helping.
Again, I don't think real golf. I picture someone taking a tractor to the cow pastures of this area between Waterville and Skowhegan and then sinking some soup cans into patchy greens. I picture lunch at the farmer's kitchen table, maybe his wife and daughter helping serve in ruffly aprons. This, combined with my "golf isn't so bad, after all" experience at Moose Meadows makes me say, without hesitation, "yes."
Our foursome rendezvous from our respective corners of the state for our 9:30 tee time with ample time to look around. No wilderness golf adventure here. When I said yes, I didn't expect to find a white stone driveway or a fleet of carts lined in the lot. Nor did I expect extensive fencework or a lavish porticoed clubhouse flanked by two large porches dripping with boxes and baskets of petunias. Or fairways that look like greens, and greens that are so lush Marguerite actually has to bend down and run her fingers across one, as though she were inspecting a fine carpet. There is nary a bovine or ruffle in sight.
As we are greeted by co-owner Mike Brown (the course is a family affair, started out by Mike's parents, Steven and Paula Brown; Mike's sister, Nicole, is responsible for the amazing gardening), my head swivels around as though we've arrived in Oz. The clubhouse fronts a large pond with a pristine putting green in its center that is connected to the "mainland" by a grassy peninsula. The white stone cart path forms a gentle crescent around the pond. Everything is trim, spotless, in perfect PGA order. And Mike is every bit the part.
A nicely groomed man in his mid-thirties, sporting a golf shirt bearing the Clinton Golf Course name, Mike Brown has the professional demeanor of a pro, mixed with the warmth of a host welcoming you into his home. We are directed to help ourselves to the baskets of free snacks and candy, the coolers of free beverages (there are two more of these located out on the course), and free tees. There's even free sunblock, hand cream, and bug repellent in the lavatories. Mike says one of the most annoying things you can hear in a clubhouse is the constant ring of a cash register. He wants the experience people have at Clinton to be all-inclusive, so they can just come out and play the game and have fun. The only time you'll ever need to open your wallet here is to pay the very reasonable greens fees — ranging from twenty-five to sixty dollars, depending on nine or eighteen holes and whether you walk or ride — or maybe for an ill-placed wager on an unlikely putt. The Clinton course doesn't sell memberships, which keeps traffic down and limits wear on the course.
On the first tee, I take a couple of practice swings to loosen up and then let go. On the downstroke, however, I am suddenly struck by the thought that I have no idea what I'm doing. Everything at that moment unravels, I pooch my shot, and it dribbles pathetically up the fairway and into the rough. I gamely chase after it, give it a few more whacks, and even enter my "9" onto the scorecard for this par four. It's not like we're playing real golf, right?
As wildly different in appearance as the Clinton course is from Moose Meadows, there are also many similarities. Both were born out of something of a mad whim, this one by the senior Brown, Steve, who has a bit of that wild golf-course designer look in his eye and course-making in his blood. (He and his father built a course in Brooks in the 1960s.) Like Stewart, the Browns never had any intention of making nine holes. It all started out in the early eighties— a practice green and tee intended only for family — which ran a little rampant. The Browns' neighbors down the road became involved. More land was cleared, ponds were dug, the project sprawled, and by 1989 they had their first five holes; by 1994, all nine. Like Stewart, the Browns largely let the land "dictate" the lay of the course, although they admit there were some missteps along the way — planting trees in a field in one area and cutting down trees to make a field in another, for example. "We're smarter now," concedes Mike.
Between 1994 and 2001, the Clinton course hosted a number of private charity events, particularly for the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, which led to constant inquiries from charity players about coming back. The Browns finally opened the course to the public in the fall of 2001 and now employ around a dozen full- and part-time staff, mostly neighbors. And their first priority is that every player has fun.
But, alas, I am not having fun. I want to throw myself down on the fairway and weep. I want to chase one of my balls into the woods and stay there. But then (as it can be with golf) a small miracle happens. On the sixth hole — a sharp, 215-yard dogleg from the ladies' tee — I pass over the dread driver that has been causing me so much woe and reach for my trusty three wood. As I'm teeing up my ball, the groundskeeper (who, it later turns out, is Steve) rumbles up on his tractor and idles there, waiting for me to hit. Even at my best game, this sort of distraction would make me nervous and cause me to blow my shot. But I am already the most pitiful golfer on the face of this earth, so what do I have to lose? I step right up and whack the crap out of the thing. It sails straight and true and leaves me with a perfect lie for the green. I can see my pals are palpably relieved I have broken the curse.
Indeed, I have. The rest of the day is a lark — with a gorgeous blue sky and just a little breeze and sparkling ponds and arching fairways and prim, hosta-lined tees and an open rolling meadow spangled with yellow flowers. And dang if I don't make a great drive on the ninth hole, despite its lake-like water hazard, and sink my long putt to close out the day.
And, as we make our way back to the clubhouse for our burgers and I toss my ball up in the air, a voice in my head says: "That'll bring you back."
If You Go
Moose Meadows is three miles south of Stratton on Route 16. 207-864-2783. Clinton Golf Course is on Hill Road in Clinton. 207-426-8795.