By Sterling Pingree
About a year ago, I was playing golf at Bar Harbor Golf Club with my friend Dave McLaughlin when he brought up the idea of playing in a multi-day golf tournament up in Presque Isle. It was too late to sign up at the time of this conversation, but we vowed that we would investigate our chances of getting into the field for next year. Registration opened in November 2016 for the July of 2017 tournament and we were set to take part, in the 50th edition of the Spudland Open.
Now I’ve lived in Maine my entire life but until last week I had never been farther north than Houlton. I had heard tales for years about the way of life up in “The County” and some of which I just couldn’t believe. Students getting two weeks off in September for the potato harvest? What type of classic American work ethic is that? It was with this criminally limited knowledge, a fully stocked cooler and my golf clubs that Dave and I traveled up to “God’s Country” to tee it up at Presque Isle Country Club.
On the way from Houlton to Presque Isle Dave told tales of his times as a student at UMPI (then known as the Aroostook School for Extraordinary Gentlemen or something along those lines) and pointed out landmarks along the way. I even saw a spaced out, roadside diorama of sorts adjacent to a potato field, because well of course I did.
We arrived at the course around 9am on Friday to get in line for our practice round and we paired up with my buddy Drew and his friend James. James, unfortunately due to an inside joke about soccer wound up going by “Hammas” for the rest of the weekend, so for that sake of this story, James will be henceforth known as Hammas. (Hey, when in The County, right?) Drew and Hammas were staying as part of a group of 18 other guys who were camping out in tents at a nearby camp ground. (And people think sleeping for a couple of hours in your car to play Bethpage Black is arduous, try sleeping in a tent in Presque Isle for three or four days. The temperatures each night hovered around 45 degrees.) Dave and I opted for a hotel, we figured we’d spend enough time in the woods during our round, we didn’t need to sleep there too. Unless of course we hit one so abroad that we were never heard from again, which the way we played the long and difficult par 5, 12th hole was very much in play. (Unlike many balls hit on this hole.)
The course was long off the tee and always interesting, as Presque Isle CC commands your attention. It was on the 6th tee that Dave asked Hammas what his handicap was, to which he responded “One. Technically 1.1.” Well then. Hammas shot a smooth 70 during the practice round while the rest of us decidedly did NOT shoot 70. Fortunately for us, the afternoon thunderstorm missed us and soaked the late wave of golfers who hadn’t gotten up and around on Friday morning.
Dave and I went out as part of the final tee time on both Saturday and Sunday at 1:40pm. We arrived at the course a few hours early to get loose and see some of the morning scores as they came in. We ran into Drew and Hammas who would be playing just ahead of us at 1:10pm. Strangely Hammas was wearing a cowboy hat for the round, which he said was good luck. Who am I to argue with a golfer wearing a lucky cowboy hat?
Dave and I were going to be uniquely part of a three person group to end the day which was fine after we did some Facebook recognizance on our playing partner for the next two days. Our third was a big man who taught Phys. Ed, once hit a hole-in-one on the par 4, 1st hole at Presque Isle and was a clown in his spare time named Fizz-ed. (Get it?) Dave and I were very pleased by this draw, but upon arriving at the course we found that we were now a part of a foursome with two guys with the same last name who turned out to be father and son, which in hindsight probably should have been a tip off that something wasn’t so par.
With so many players, the play was slow which was expected but the back up on select holes was exacerbated by the temperament of one member of our group. The father was a stickler for rules and etiquette, which is part of the game, but failed to practice any decorum himself. Things hit a boiling point after 11 contentious holes when the par 5, 12th hole reared its ugly head and it took us almost 45 minutes to complete. 3 players went out of bounds, 2 players made a 10 and 1 threated to go home rather colorfully. (I’ll give you one guess on who that was.) The prospect of playing another five and a half hour round with this guy was about as appetizing as an air freshener that smells like Drew and Hammas’ tent. Unbeknownst to us, our playing disgruntled partner had been complaining about their late draw and were politicking to go off earlier the next day. Unbeknownst to them, we were politicking to get the hell away from the father. Thank goodness for karma and the golf gods (or maybe it was club pro Barry Madore, probably it was Barry Madore) somehow our playing partners wouldn’t be joining us on Sunday. They were told after we finished our round at 7:45pm that they’d be going off in the first group in the morning at 6:20am. Sometimes a putt breaks your way.
After a night of Cribbage, with Dave playing the Washington Generals to my Harlem Globetrotters, (6-0 record with one near double skunking and 5 hands of at least 20 points.) we set out for the final round of the Spudland. Between warming up for my own round, I found myself distracted by Jordan Spieth’s quest for the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale and Drew’s stories of “a bunch of women singing karaoke” near their camp site. Hammas had ditched the cowboy hat from round 1 and was now sporting an Adams Golf hat backwards. I’m starting to find that Hammas might be a bit eccentric, but when it comes to golf we all are to some extent. Drew is worried, not so much about the Spudland, but the Spudnik. The Spudnik is the tournament inside the tournament for the 18 fellas camping out for the weekend. Two man, Ryder Cup style best ball, with the winning duo receiving the treasured Mr. Potato Head trophy. (These guys even had Spudnik 2017 sweatshirts and everything. Perhaps next year I will weasel my way into the Spudnik but hopefully not into a sleeping bag.)
Blissfully the final round was without incident, unless you count Dave almost acing the par 3, 4th hole and then making the birdie putt coming back. The highlight of my round came with perhaps the greatest bogey I’ve ever made and low and behold it was at the par 5, 12th hole. A unique feature of the Spudland, is that on some of the more difficult holes, they have kids stationed behind screens on the course who will spot your ball. They track your tee shot, leap out from behind their screen and put a flag in the ground where your ball is. It’s a phenomenal addition to a tournament and badly needed on a few of the courses blinder and tougher holes. It is customary to tip the flagger a dollar or so if they flag your ball. On the 12th, there is a flagger at the top hill as the fairway pitches down left before it pick back straight up and to the right. I believe that the particular young man on this hole grossed more money than Floyd Mayweather over the course of the tournament. However, he didn’t earn any of that money from me, (not that I’m a cheapskate, as far as you know) because in this case I hit my ball into the short grass. (I’m told that’s why they mow it.) I was able to tether together 3 solid shots leaving me with an approach into a steeply elevated green. I’d love to tell you that I flushed my 4th shot with a lovely, buttery draw that dotted the green just to the right of the hole and cozied up right next to the pin, but I’d be telling a lie and a rather verbose one at that. Instead I chunked an 8 iron maybe 3/4th of the way up the hill, which I believe doubles as a ski slope in the winter. Slightly deterred, I hitched up my pants like Arnold Palmer at Cherry Hills in 1960 and pitched my yellow Srixon to within two feet of the cup and made a most satisfying bogey putt. I had doubted the existence of a satisfying bogey, but I found it in Presque Isle.
In the end, the winner of the Spudland was a Husson alum, though to the surprise of no one it was not me. Hammas placed in the top 10 in his group, but sadly Drew and Hammas lost the Spudnik by one shot, which was even more frustrating when they recalled that neither made their birdie putts on the final hole. I didn’t play my best golf in the Spudland, but I felt that I played some smart golf and learned a lot about my game. As for Dave and I? Well playing 54 tough holes of golf in 3 days can be downright arduous, but on our way back towards Bangor on Monday, we stopped in Island Falls and played 18 more at Va Jo Wa.
Because of course we did.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.