Every so often, this part of the country grabs the world’s attention, and sometimes it’s the sports world that gets to know a little more about what makes our region so special.
No, it’s not the Ali-Liston fight in Lewiston I’m talking about. It’s golf. It was a world-class match and it took place at the new and beautiful course at Poland Spring in 1900.
At a time when American golf was dominated by Scottish professionals, Arthur Fenn was hailed as one of America’s first home-bred golfers. As an amateur he won many championships and when invited to design a course at Poland Spring, he quickly accepted. It was to be America’s first course at a resort. The first six holes opened in 1893, and Fenn later added three more holes.
He was recognized as one the United States’ top golfers, but the real superstar of the day was Harry Varden. In 1900, Varden had won three British Opens in the past five years, and he would win two more.
The A.G. Spalding sports equipment firm was marketing a new golf ball called the “Varden Flyer,” and the company’s tour to promote the ball brought Varden to Poland Spring.
That visit by “the greatest golfer in the world” became Maine’s athletic event of the year. Exhibition matches were set up, including a mid-August pairing with Fenn, who had become Poland Spring’s resident pro. The match was being called “one of the greatest golf matches played in America.” Hotel patrons wagered on whether Verdon would be able to hit a 300-yard drive on the sixth hole, or whether he could shoot a 36 for the course.
A large gallery followed the golfers that day. They enduring an intense rainstorm, but Varden’s play lived up to expectations. He narrowly beat Fenn and lowered the course record for both nine and 18 holes.
According to descriptions of those early days of golf at Poland Spring, the sport caught on quickly and the hotel’s wealthy patrons appreciated its genteel qualities. The course scorecard emphasized etiquette and spelled out the game’s special terminology.
In his recent book, “Poland Spring: A Tale of the Gilded Age, 1860-1900,” David L. Richards says Poland Spring’s trendy summer residents could send to Lewiston for the proper attire – golf suits, boots, stockings, belts and white duck trousers. Other fashionable wear included red golf coats and sweaters, plain and vested capes, fancy flannels and knit waistcoats from Boston.
Hill-Top, the resort’s own newspaper, said golf at Poland Spring “has been a great thing for the plaid manufacturers.” The newspaper advertised silver scoring pencils, gold golf pins, leather scorebooks and silver prize cups from Tiffany and Company of New York City.
Somehow, such pricey accessories aren’t that different from the high-tech golf necessities of the present.
Some of the celebrities who have played the Poland Spring course include baseball’s legendary Babe Ruth; golf greats Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, and Ben Hogan; political patriarch Joseph Kennedy; Rockefellers, Roosevelts and entertainers including Jack Paar and Martin Milner.
In fact, Sonny Liston also played the course when he brought his entire training camp to Poland Spring prior to the 1965 fight.
Golf has become much more accessible to the average person. Thousands of local golfers have played Auburn’s Martindale Country Club since it was built in 1921. Springbrook Golf Club in Leeds came along in 1966, and many local golfers have honed their game at Prospect Hill Golf Course in Auburn or Fairlawn in Poland.
Taber’s Driving Range overlooking Lake Auburn and several other local ranges are annual favorites. Miniature golf can accommodate all ages of a family, and now disc golf is a variation that’s attracting quite a following. Some other new courses have appeared, but golfers can still get a taste of that beautiful Poland Spring course with its fantastic views of the White Mountains.
Real golfers, serious golfers, have been swinging the clubs for weeks now. I’m still thinking about it, but some sunshine and a few more warm days will go a long way toward convincing me it’s time to tee up.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and an Auburn native. You can e-mail him at [email protected]