golf scenic

Top-Shelf Golf on the Side of a Mountain

Sugarbush Resort Golf Club, designed by the famed Robert Trent Jones Sr., challenges golfers with the variables of a beautiful mountain setting.

To walk onto the tee of the seventh hole at Sugarbush Resort Golf Club is to step up to the threshold of an almost otherworldly promised land. Ahead lies a panoramic sweep of ineffable Vermont beauty—the ski area to the left, the Northfield mountain range to the right, Hunger Mountain at center stage in the far distance. The landscape is a muscularly mountainous tour de force.

That was very much what the original course architect, the late Robert Trent Jones Sr., had in mind. Commissioned in 1961 by the Herman family, who were the owners of the Sugarbush Inn at the time, Jones was assigned to transform a hundred or so mountainside acres into an eighteen-hole championship layout. (At the time, the inn was not affiliated with the ski resort.) A hallmark of Jones’s design philosophy, according to his profile in the World Golf Hall of Fame, was “a fanatical devotion to preserving the land’s natural beauty.” Of course, with views like the one from the seventh tee—or from the fourteenth fairway, or the seventeenth green, or almost anywhere on the course, for that matter—he had great material to work with. Still, he made the most of it.

“I know my father was very proud of the design,” says Jones’s son Rees, who worked as an understudy for his father for ten years before becoming one of the world’s most respected course architects in his own right. “He wanted to make the golf course not just a test but also an experience.” In other words, playing a course like Sugarbush was not just about the golf itself but about the more encompassing experience of spending time in a breathtaking environment.

But while Jones might have had inspiring natural backdrops at his disposal, he was also confronted with the inherent challenge of trying to shape a golf course from a mountainous setting that might have seemed to discourage course building. In recent years, golf courses coupled with ski areas have become ubiquitous, but that wasn’t the case in 1961. The topographical severity of the ski world was largely terra incognita for golf course architects accustomed to working with far gentler tracts of land.

The elder Jones was famous for saying that a fundamentally well-designed golf hole should yield a hard par but an easy bogey. But with the inevitability of sloping fairways, blind shots, elevation changes to confound yardage calculations, and the near presence on every hole of dense woods to suck in errantly struck balls, staying true to the second half of that guiding principle wasn’t easy. “It was a rugged site,” says Rees, “and routing”—the exact mapping of each hole—“was important.”

Almost 400 vertical feet of elevation change from the Sugarbush site’s high point to its low point had little precedent for Jones; in a 450-course portfolio, the only mountain course that Rees could recollect was the famed layout at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado, which Jones helped to design and rework. And while that course might have comparable mountain backdrops, the actual lie of the land is flatter and more open than the Sugarbush terrain.

There were a few other hiccups in the design and construction process; according to R. J. Austin, Sugarbush’s vice president of golf and fitness, the tee for the third hole was originally supposed to be well back of today’s tee. The only problem? The inn didn’t own the land and the right to build there. The third hole was shortened and ultimately built as the hole that it is today.

The course opened for play in 1962 as a 6,524-yard layout, with signature features of a Jones course in evidence: big, undulating greens and tee boxes with multiple options. Jones had a particular fondness for diabolically challenging greens; according to Rees, his father “thought greens were a form of hazard.” By modern standards, the Sugarbush greens featured a tremendous amount of slope. But if big breaks were to be a part of the Sugarbush putting game, they were mitigated, says Rees, by the fact that greens fifty years ago were designed for putting speeds far slower than on greens built today. If the slope of Sugarbush greens were to be coupled with the fast, closely cropped surfaces of modern greens, putted balls would fly by holes at an uncontrollable speed.

Combine those design components with the variables of a mountain setting, and the result is unique. Austin calls the complex puzzle presented by the Sugarbush course “ever-changing on every hole. You could play the course ten ways to Sunday and never get the same score. It offers so many opportunities to test your game.”

The 1960s, of course, were a time of high and youthful exuberance in the life of Sugarbush. Both the ski area, then less than a decade old, and the golf course had the sexy allure of newness. Sugarbush was chic. The ski area was attracting the rich and famous of that era—Hollywood stars, famous politicians, high-society figures, business moguls—earning in the process a compelling nickname: Mascara Mountain. The golf course was built to tap into that celebrity cachet at a time when the Sugarbush Inn was perhaps the most fashionable place in the Valley to stay.

By the late 1970s, however, the Mascara Mountain image had begun to fade. The Hermans were ready to sell the inn and the golf course, and they found ready buyers in 1977 in a group of Bermudian resort developers. Jay Young, a principal in the Bermudian group, says the hope was to recapture some of that bygone glamour. “There had been a name and a reputation, and it didn’t have that anymore,” says Young. “But it had the potential for getting it back.”

The new owners were more familiar with building resorts in the Caribbean than running them in Vermont. But with the political unrest on islands such as Jamaica at the time—Young says he got tired of having to carry a pistol with him wherever he went—buying holdings in the Sugarbush area represented an effort to shift at least some of the group’s resort focus to a less politically volatile region.

Still, they wanted the golf course to be a centerpiece in the fostering of what Young calls “an international atmosphere.” Toward that end, they hired as the new head pro Michael Busk, who had made a name for himself at the famed Mid Ocean Club on Bermuda. They hired Algie Pulley, a well-known course architect, to produce a course-improvement plan.

Pulley’s recommendations weren’t followed at the time, although one of his principal ideas—to add more forward tee boxes for women and shorter hitters—would eventually come to fruition years later. But, according to Mark Grenert, the course superintendent from 1976 to 1984, the Bermudians didn’t give up on the idea of tweaking the course layout.

Frank Duane, himself a highly respected architect who had been Robert Trent Jones’s boots on the ground during the original course construction, was called in to make the course more playable for higher-handicap golfers. It made good business sense; because of its inherent difficulty, says Grenert, “a course that had been designed to draw hotel guests was actually driving them away.” Traps were added in places and removed elsewhere, mowing patterns were changed to enlarge greens and bring the fairways closer to the tees, and trees were trimmed to push back the encroaching forest. Whether or not Young’s international atmosphere was achieved is open to question, but Sugarbush retained at least some of its celebrity allure during the Bermudian years. Grenert remembers Carl Yastrzemski, the Hall of Fame Red Sox player, arriving at Sugarbush in the late 1970s, not long after his retirement from baseball, in a Lincoln Continental loaded with golf balls. Balls began flying off-line almost immediately, and, says Grenert, Yastrzemski “never made it to the twelfth tee” because he ran out of balls.In another incident, Grenert went up to a well-heeled corporate tycoon while he was in the middle of playing a round. The man had arrived with an entourage of bodyguards, and as Grenert approached, “suddenly, six guys came out of the woods with guns,” he says. When you are a man of unfathomable wealth, you apparently can’t take chances, even deep in the forest of central Vermont.

The Bermudian era lasted until 1984, when the inn and the course were sold to Claneil, the pharmaceutical company that owned the ski resort at the time. It was the end of an era of sorts but also the beginning of a new one—the union of the ski resort and golf course under the same ownership, which continues into the present.

Rees Jones (who has skied at Sugarbush but admits that he has never played golf here) says that one of the things that impresses him today about the course is how true it has remained over the years to his father’s original design. Still, various changes have been instituted—“renovations to enhance the game,” as Austin puts it. This is nothing unusual; even the world’s greatest courses, designed by the greatest architects—Pebble Beach, for example, or Augusta National—have periodically been subjected to makeovers. Sugarbush is no exception, but the makeovers have been unusually minor.

In some cases, change has been unavoidable. The eleventh green, for example, was once guarded by a fronting pond, adding intimidation to a relatively short par 3. But after a 1998 flood blew out the small dam that created the pond, acquiring the permits to rebuild the dam presented an unresolvable roadblock. Now a stream runs in front of the green where the pond once was—not as intimidating, but perhaps a return to the natural beauty that Robert Trent Jones originally had in mind.

As Austin points out, “golf courses are living, breathing entities” that naturally and inevitably change over time. Greens settle in some areas or get pushed up in others, producing ever-changing contours. Elm trees that once separated the third and fourth fairways succumbed to disease. The battle to hold back the forest along the fairways has been ongoing; Grenert recalls that, during his time as superintendent, a few renegade members would surreptitiously do their own trimming to improve shot angles or open up landing areas and sight lines. (The sub-rosa tree trimming was behavior no doubt borrowed from the habit of Sugarbush skiers to clear branches and brush to create private, skiable lines in the woods.) New forward tees added in the last few years on the third, sixth, tenth, twelfth, and sixteenth holes have heeded the redesign concept Algie Pulley had in mind thirty-five years earlier to make the course more playable for shorter hitters. The two nines have swapped positions; what is now the front nine was originally the back nine, and vice versa. Improved drainage has helped relieve the sogginess that in the past plagued some low collection areas; improved irrigation has relieved the need for water in higher and drier parts of the course. Because of changing mowing patterns, some greens have become larger and some smaller. And so on, as any golf course might evolve and mature with the passage of a half century.

But by and large, Rees Jones is correct—the layout is very much the same as it was when the course first opened in 1962. None of the holes has been dramatically reconstructed, and no new holes have been added. Sugarbush President Win Smith says that additional forward tees—on the eighteenth hole and possibly the fourth and fifth holes—are in the works, as is additional drainage management. But Smith adds, “I think it is important to keep the integrity of the original Robert Trent Jones course.”

An avid golfer who puts in about twenty rounds a year at Sugarbush, Smith has been to many of the world’s great courses but still reserves a special appreciation for the masterwork that Jones created here. “I haven’t been on another mountain course that is so beautiful,” Smith says. And his appreciation rises to its zenith when he stands on the seventh tee at the height of the fall foliage. In the pink, crimson, and golden hues of autumn, the promised land reveals itself in its full, majestic glory.

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