Golf course closures are typically met with howls of indignation and despair, as locals countenance their stark, newly diminished reality. Still, it’s fair to wonder exactly how the public golfing population here in Southern Maine processed the news, received late in January, that Sable Oaks Golf Club would not reopen this spring. The land will instead be marketed to housing developers.
I loved Sable Oaks. Consider this my own, contrarian howl of indignation.
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, they howled. For walkers, hilly Sable Oaks was a death march. It was an extraordinarily demanding 6,300 yards. In every sense.
Still, I must protest. It’s bad manners to speak ill of the dead, and I’m here today not merely to praise Sable Oaks but to defend her — for perhaps the last time.
All the things people hated 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 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 in the early ’90s! A round at Sable meant I need not 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 and 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.
Come Fall, however, those wetland went technicolor — something we noticed because Silva brought them into play SO many times.
Yes, Sable Oaks was located directly in the Portland Jetport flight path — but the forested environs otherwise muffled the sound from nearby I-95 (!).
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. 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 arrived. 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.
Curiously, however, none of this existential chaos 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 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 2-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 did play 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.