OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Four years ago, Dunegrass Golf Club was in rough shape. The fairways were brown and cracked from lack of water. The greens and tees were in similar condition.
Dave Jackson of Hebron, Connecticut, vowed not to return after playing the course that season. But here was Jackson playing the course last week with three buddies, also from Connecticut. He heard the course had made a comeback.
“It’s a lot different now,” said Jackson. “The golf course has really turned around.”
The course was busy the day Jackson and his group were playing. There were twosomes, threesomes and foursomes scattered across the course on a perfect day to play. Husbands and wives played together, alongside golfers from Quebec, who were vacationing a couple of miles away at the town’s world famous beach.
At Dunegrass Golf Club, they were treated to lush fairways and greens.
“We increased the maintenance budget and let the superintendent do his job,” said Dan Hourihan, explaining how the conditions improved.
Hourihan has run the course for the last three years, with business partner and director of golf Jim Fairbanks, on a lease agreement from owner Domenic Pugliares.
“The course conditions continue to get better and better,” said Hourihan, who owns Nonesuch River Golf Course in Scarborough. “We’re close to where we want it to be.”
The golf course starts and finishes with two outstanding par 5s. In between?
“There’s a good mixture of holes,” said Hourihan.
Accuracy off the tee is a prerequisite at Dunegrass on most of the par 4s and two of the par 5s. That’s true to some extent on the first and 18th holes. The first hole, which measures 513 yards from the white tees and 547 yards from the gold tees, sets up the round, both visually and competitively. Standing on the elevated tee, the hole offers a panoramic view of a typical New England style hole without the condominiums on the left.
Real estate is a major component at Dunegrass. That was the plan of Dunegrass developer Ron Boutet when the golf course was being built. It opened in 1998. There’s no housing recession here as homes have sprouted up left and right.
Steve Mazziotti and his wife, Kathy, live adjacent to the 10th hole on Cherry Hills Drive. The Mazziottis were longtime Portland residents who played golf at Riverside Golf Course.
“I always wanted to live on a golf course and always thought it would be in Florida,” said Steve Mazziotti.
“We were living in Saco after Portland and I drove back and forth to Riverside for about 10 years. Gary Agger was always trying to get us to come down here and we finally did. We built this house. I’m living the dream. I back my golf cart out of the garage and I’m right there on the 10th hole. I know the 10th hole better than anyone. It’s a country club atmosphere.”
Agger, a baseball teammate of Mazziotti at Portland High in the late 1960s and later a Portland policeman, lives at Dunegrass with his wife, Marsha. Approximately 10 percent of the people who live at Dunegrass play golf. The course has 150 members. That leaves plenty of tee times for off-the-street golfers. The longtime financial well-being of the course is dependent of those daily-fee golfers. Members have preferred tee times on the weekend and Fairbanks said any golfer with a USGA handicap is welcomed to play in weekend sweeps.
Dunegrass and Nonesuch members can play the other course for a slight membership increase.
Dunegrass has the look of a golf course in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the unofficial, affordable golf capital of the world. It has pines, sand and wetlands. That’s not surprising since the course architect is Dan Maples, who is from North Carolina and has done the bulk of his designs in the Carolinas.
Vaughn Gushee and his wife, Kelly, moved to Dunegrass from Gorham five years ago. One of the things Gushee likes about Dunegrass is that no two holes are alike.
“None of the holes intersect,” said Gushee. “The holes are isolated. Except for a few holes, you don’t see other golfers on the course.
“When you’re playing, you feel like you’re the only one on the course and you have your own little country club.”
Dunegrass offers plenty of challenges. Some holes require pinpoint accuracy like Nos. 3, 7, 14, 15 and 16. The 7th and 15th are par 5s. There are other holes where the golfer can spray his drive a little and still make 5.
“In a year and a half, Dan and Jim have literally turned the golf course around,” said Mazziotti.
“I think the condition of the course is as good as any I’ve been on this year. We have three to four greens that had a little trouble early in the year, but they’ve come back. The ball rolls true on the greens.”
The members love the friendliness of the pro shop staff. Fairbanks goes out of his way to make sure members and nonmembers have an enjoyable experience. One of the staffers is assistant pro Abby Spector, who runs the First Tee Program at the course. Assistant pro Curt Goldsberry and Spector also run the PGA Junior Golf League at Dunegrass.
“We have 200 kids being introduced to golf,” said Fairbanks.
That’s good for the kids, the course and the future of golf.
Last week, Fairbanks drove up to the fourth tee where Jackson and his group were preparing to hit.
“Can I get you guys anything, a drink?,” said Fairbanks.
Fairbanks then called the Dunegrass restaurant and had them bring out some beverages on a hot day.
Walking or riding up the 18th hole, the Dunegrass clubhouse provides an impressive backdrop. It’s a classic New England clubhouse that serves as a nice place to have a function.
“It’s a great finishing hole,” said Fairbanks.