Golf course closures are typically met with howls of indignation and despair, as locals countenance their stark, new, diminished reality. But it’s fair to wonder exactly how the public golfing population here in Southern Maine processed the news, received in late January, that Sable Oaks Golf Club would not reopen this spring (the land will instead be marketed to housing developers).
Because while I loved Sable Oaks, mine has always been the minority view.
Most of the Maine golfers I know never cared much for Sable Oaks. Too penal, they said. Driver was too often taken out of their hands (on account of wetlands too often cutting across fairways in constricting fashion). For walkers, hilly Sable Oaks was death march.
These sentiments, accompanied by knowing nods and perhaps champagne toasts, are surely being bandied about even now. But I must protest. It’s bad manners to speak ill of the dead, after all. And so I’m here today not merely to praise Sable Oaks but to defend her — for perhaps the last time.
All the things people hated most about Sable Oaks recommended the course, to me, when I moved to Portland in 1992. I was 28 years old and a pretty good player back then — breaking 80 at Sable (something I managed only three times in 30 years) really meant something. I didn’t even carry a driver for much of the ‘90s, relying instead on a 1-iron (and a weirdly shaped, seldom deployed, persimmon Ping 2-wood). Walking 18 holes at Sable with a bag on my back was certainly a workout and a half; the hike from 17 green to 18 tee in particular was a heart-stopper — but I was young! A round there meant I didn’t need to go to the gym.
And what a taxing-but-comely walk it was. Designed by architect Brian Silva (who laid out the once-private, now semi-private Falmouth Country Club at exactly the same time), Sable Oaks made for golf in an undeniably gorgeous, secluded setting across lush, dramatic terrain, with gargantuan specimen trees framing the greens and colorful wetlands everywhere one turned.
Okay, those wetlands required forced carries on four of the first five holes — but they were even more colorful in the fall!
Yes, Sable Oaks was located directly in the Portland Jetport flight path — but you never heard the highway (!).
I arrived in Portland that March of 1992 to take a new job: editor-in-chief at Golf Course News, a national business journal published by Yarmouth-based United Publications. When I stumbled upon Sable Oaks that spring, I was honestly blown away. The greens were inventive and fun — always in superb shape, too (something Sable could boast to its dying day). Indeed, the place seemed pretty brand new. The overall conditioning, the contour/detail around those greens, the bunkering throughout seemed way too nice for a public course — especially one that charged just $20.
Sable seemed fancy and new because it had been conceived and built as a private golf/residential community just a few years before I showed up in Portland. A late-80s recession obliged it to open and operate as a public course. Ownership would change several times through the years. Housing and other commercial elements never got built. An oversupply of competing courses meant Sable would never do more than survive. National trends didn’t help matters: The U.S. course stock has suffered an annual net loss of some 150 properties each year since 2008. Ironically, Greater Portland’s red-hot housing market today — and Sable’s prime location on a wooded hillock right across I-95 from the Maine Mall — made the closure decision (from current owners, Delray, Fla.-based Ocean Properties Hotels Resorts & Affiliates) something of a no-brainer.
But none of this accounts for Sable Oaks’ poor reputation among Greater Portland golfers. Did it get a bad rap? Or was it simply too hard to enjoy? Are Southern Maine golfers a bunch of pussies? Is course difficulty something they want to observe on television but avoid for ourselves?
The answers here are complicated. I can tell you this much, having spent 30 years in the golf business (rating courses and writing about course-design issues): Difficult tracks are, more often than not, successfully marketed on account of their resistance to scoring, not in spite of it. Portland-area golfers were eager throughout the 1990s, for example, to drive two-plus hours for the pleasure of losing 10 golf balls and shooting 117 at Sugarloaf (where river crossings were celebrated). The Woodlands in Falmouth (another track that debuted about the same time as Sable and Falmouth CC) is a much harder golf course than Sable Oaks, in my view, and yet it has succeeded in attracting private club members in this market.
What’s more, Sable Oaks was not a long course; it played only 6,300 yards from the tips. Indeed, the choosing of one’s tees at Sable was key to maximizing the fun and strategy Silva created there. Too often, in my view, Sable-haters didn’t manage this aspect particularly well for themselves.
For example, there are/were only three par-5s at Sable Oaks. Two of them — the 5th and 14th — play/played side-by-side (okay, the course is not reopening; I’m going past tense from here on out). Both featured the same riparian corridor cutting across the fairways some 220-240 yards from their respective greens. So yes, driver on both holes was risky. But if you cozied up to that wetland, both greens were eminently reachable in two strokes. In the trade, they call this risk/reward design; architecture nerds are supposed to swoon over this stuff. At Sable, they turned up their noses.
What’s more, from the back tees, on both holes (especially 14), it was frankly difficult for mere mortals to even reach the hazard with driver… But most guys played the middle tees and complained about not being able to hit driver. Pick your poison, I say.
The 14th was a peculiar hole, in that its green was a sort of peninsula, buttressed by a stone retaining wall and surrounded by those colorful wetlands. Going for that green in two shots was very risky – even a pitching wedge approach to that putting surface was difficult… It was also pretty thrilling.
The two holes at Sable Oaks that stood out to me for being legitimately overtaxing were the par-4s at 12h and 15t. Yet, again, both got bad raps in my view.
Twelve was a monster measuring some 460 yards and requiring a drive up and onto a plateau, then an approach playing way back down to sea level. There was out of bounds all along the right side. This was a classic half-par hole, the likes of which design legend Donald Ross created routinely (and for which he is routinely praised by architecture nerds still today). The key is convincing yourself the hole is a par 4.5, meaning 4 would be great but 5 is just fine. The adjoining par-5 2nd hole played about the same yardage with the same expectations. The simple fact that it was listed on the scorecard as a par-5 resulted in very few complaints.
On a course that played to par 70 (where all three par-5s were reachable in two shots), the difficulty of no. 12 (and the ease of no. 2) have always seemed reasonable to me. To its lasting aesthetic credit, No. 12 was also a stunningly beautiful and topographically gripping golf hole.
The 15th was another outwardly difficult hole that just required a bit of imagination. What made this par-4 so hard was the landing area – or rather, the lack of one. And here there is no defense: Silva was clearly obliged to get from point A to point B here along the northern boundary of the property; the massive wetland at left (and steep slope at right) made the landing area on 15 almost ribbon-like.
But the green at 15 (and the contours/bunkering right and left) was superb. Solution? We often played the 15th as a driveable par-4 — from the women’s tee high on the right slope. The hole still played tight but the prospect of eagle (or an easy 7-iron/wedge par) changed our outlook and expectation.
That June of 1992, my brother and father came north from Massachusetts to play our annual Father’s Day match. I took them to Sable; they were similarly struck and smitten. We moved our annual game around from year to year but they were always more than happy to revisit Sable Oaks. I was all too happy to oblige.
I would leave Golf Course News in 1997 (today it’s known as Golf Course Industry magazine). I started a media company, a family. We moved from Portland out to New Gloucester. My father passed away, in 2011… Even so, my brother and I maintained the Father’s Day golf tradition. We didn’t always play Sable but often enough we did. He lives in coastal New Hamster; Sable remained reasonably equidistant from our respective homes.
Some 5 or 6 years ago, however, I noticed a change.
So, I’m a better golfer than my brother. Always have been. He would cop to this. If we play 10 rounds together, I’ll beat him 6-8 times. Yet somewhere in the middle of the second Obama administration, the competitive worm turned in a specific way: We came to realize that he was building an anomalously successful record, against me, at Sable Oaks specifically. We both remarked on it. Then I treated him to a subsequent birthday round there — and he beat me again.
I could have just as easily avoided playing my brother ever again at Sable Oaks. But that would’ve been churlish — and I loved the golf course! So we kept going back. And I’m glad we did, because now it’s gone.
When I read this winter of Sable Oaks’ imminent demise, I sent my brother a link to the Portland Press-Herald story. “Sorry, dude,” I texted him… His reply was swift and brief: