Golf still healthy, stable in Maine

Posted Dec. 18, 2009, at 11:28 p.m.
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Husson University senior Ben Estabrook of Bangor gets in some putting practice near the club house before Monday morning's round of the North Atlantic Conference Golf Championship at Penobscot Valley Country Club in Orono. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)   (WEB EDITION PHOTO)
CAPTION Husson University senior Ben Estabrook of Bangor gets in some putting practice near the club house before Monday morning's round of the North Atlantic Conference Golf Championship at Penobscot Valley Country Club in Orono. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ) (WEB EDITION PHOTO)

As with most leisure pursuits, golf in Maine is trying to keep its head above water during the current recession, but many people involved in the game remain upbeat about the survival of the game and the venues where it’s played.

Critical considerations for golfers are money and time, and Maine golf clubs and organizations are trying to work on both counts.

“Even as golfers are tightening their belts, they’re still playing,” said Nancy Storey, executive director of the Maine State Golf Association, which focuses on men’s activities but is working more closely with the Women’s Maine State Golf Association and the Southern Maine Women’s Golf Association.

The MSGA conducts both championship and weekend events, mostly for amateur golfers of all levels; makes awards from its college scholarship fund and is trying to help golf courses expand the number of players.

“Golf is very healthy, very stable now,” said Storey, who recently returned from a meeting of the International Association of Golf Administrators where these issues were discussed.

“The numbers are down about 4-10 percent depending on where you are [in the country],” said Storey.

“The drop here is about 6 percent of core golfers,” she added. “A core golfer is one who plays regularly enough to maintain a handicap, and in order to do that they must belong to a club of some sort.”

According to Storey, there are nearly 18,000 core golfers in Maine.

The key for the industry, which has been known for years, is trying to expose golf to more people, getting them to play and then keeping them playing.

“It’s going to take a concerted effort by all organizations to steady the ship,” said Gary Rees, who has multiple vantage points for expressing his views of the sport. Rees has been a member of the Maine chapter of Professional Golfers’ Association, which represents most of the club and teaching pros around the country, since 1976; is executive director of the Maine Golf Hall of Fame and is the owner, with his wife Toni, of Maine Indoor Golf Center in Bangor. He was also a high school golf coach for 28 years.

“You could see it coming back [growing],” said Rees. “It goes in cycles.”

And that may be part of the problem.

The first big boom in most people’s memories was when Arnold Palmer started hitching up his pants and winning tournaments on TV around 1960. Jack Nicklaus came along a couple of years later and set up a long-running rivalry that captured the imagination of the country and sparked a boom in play.

That quieted to a degree by the early ’70s until Tom Watson’s emergence in the mid-’70s lit another fire. Once again, it quieted somewhat until Tiger Woods’ dominance starting in the amateur ranks in the early and mid ’90s and his dominance since 1997 of the professional ranks.

Booms encourage more golf courses to be built to satisfy demand, but then some of them have to scramble when the boom dies down.

Rees understands that’s the way it works, but he’d rather see a different scenario.

“It’s going to have to be slow, steady growth,” said Rees.

It’s about time

Skip Chappelle, the former Paul Bunyan Tournament director who is now working with Harris Golf, believes the time issue — where players usually spend more than four hours, often more than five — playing a round has to be addressed.

“It’s time, not money” that’s the problem, he said. “Nobody has the time.”

Storey said that was a topic at the recent golf administrators meeting she attended.

“For the first time there are people who are working on the time issue,” she said. “[Future] facility developments may be built [around] time.”

On the other hand, Storey added, “In a bad economy, people look to kill time.”

An economical alternative

While golf on the surface appears to be, and sometimes can be, expensive, Storey sees it differently.

“In a down economy, some people play more,” she said.

Once a person has paid for a membership, she pointed out, they can play as often as they want without it costing more.

“It [a membership] is still a relatively inexpensive way to play,” she added.

The size of the expense is determined by where golfers play. And where they play is one form of cutting costs.

Private clubs can cost more than $1,000 each year, but that can range all the way down to a few hundred dollars at some courses.

Renowned Penobscot Valley Country Club in Orono, for instance, is $1,295 for a single adult, according to a BDN story published Friday. Bangor Municipal Golf Course, a 27-hole facility, recently set its rate at $630 for Bangor residents and $700 for nonresidents. Pine Hill Golf Club in South Brewer was a little more than $400 this past season.

“Members at private clubs might move down to upper-end public courses, upper-end players can join mid-level courses and so on,” said Storey.

Also, golfers are occasionally members at more than one club, she pointed out, but “there aren’t as many multi-club members now.”

Where are the new players?

The demographic of the average golfer is fairly well known, in spite of recent attempts to change it.

“The usual [characterization] of golf is ‘male, pale and stale,’” said Storey.

For years, the MSGA, the PGA and many individual clubs have had junior programs to spark interest among young players in the hopes that they would become avid players or club members.

That is still a key area of focus, and the MSGA is trying to get a program up and running which will expose youngsters to the sport who may not have been before.

“The Maine Golf Foundation has just outlined a plan, and now it’s raising money so next fall it can introduce [golf] to middle schoolers throughout the state,” said Storey.

The PGA is still committed to juniors as well, said Rees. But then comes a disconnect.

“When they’re 18 to about 29, they have other things going on,” said Rees, “families, jobs, whatever, and we lose ’em for a while.

“They come back after a while, but we lose some [permanently].”

He sees the need to start programs for men ages 30-40 and women of all ages.

“I’ll give a guy in his 60s a lesson, and he’ll tell me, ‘I wish I had done this when I was younger,’” said Rees, who also believes each club could do something specific to promote the game.

Val Halla Golf Course in Cumberland, which is also the new site of the MSGA offices, has instituted one example of such a program, said Storey.

“Brian Bickford [head pro at Val Halla] had 168 women who had never played before in his ‘Wine and Nine’ program,” she said.

Clubs hanging in

Despite the economy, Storey still sees strong play. Golf courses and clubs are changing hands, but that’s better than the alternative, she said.

“There are very few golf courses that have fallen into bankruptcy,” she pointed out.

Harris Golf bought Penobscot Valley when it ran into financial trouble a couple of years ago, for example. Harris already owned Old Marsh Country Club in Wells, owned Boothbay Country Club and Bath Country Club before selling them, and handles Sunday River Golf Club in Newry and Freeport Country Club. The company then bought Wilson Lake Country Club in Wilton last year and kept it from being turned into a development.

“Martindale [Country Club in Auburn] was sold to a private group, but it’s still going to be a golf course,” added Storey.

And Falmouth Country Club has also reportedly been sold.

She sees the trend of large management companies operating clubs continuing for sound economic reasons.

“They can buy everything in bulk like golf carts, chemicals, golf balls,” she said.

“We’re very lucky here in Maine that a company with local roots is here,” Storey said. “People appreciate what they’re doing.”

Part of what Harris Golf is doing is opening up some of the clubs to more play by nonmembers, including hosting a number of MSGA championship tournaments such as the Two-Man Championship, the B & C Championship (for players with handicaps of about 7 or higher), the New Eng-land Junior Championship, a Maine Amateur qualifier and the Mid-Amateur (ages 25 and older) this year.

In other years, its clubs have hosted the Maine Amateur in addition to the Paul Bunyan Amateur, which Harris Golf has also taken over.

Another way that clubs are trying to generate interest is interclub competition.

PVCC participates in the Four-Club Challenge with Old Marsh, Bath and Waterville Country Club in Oakland.

It’s a Ryder Cup-style event of 12-man teams with each club a month hosting a leg.

“The club waives the course fee, but you must take a cart and you must have dinner,” said Chappelle. “It means you patronize the restaurant and the course.”

PVCC won by half a point.

“It’s a hell of a concept; it’s a different niche to golf,” Chappelle said.

PVCC also has its women taking on Bangor Muni in the annual Tee Cup, with the competition alternating between the courses each year. They field as many as are willing to play.

The future

While there has been a slight drop in weekend play, where teams of amateurs compete at a particular club or two each weekend from April into November, Storey has not seen a dropoff in participation in the championship events.

Also, the MSGA’s senior tour schedule for players 55 and up will double from six to 12 in 2010.

“The players love it,” she said.

Storey, characteristically, is upbeat about the future.

“I see more people [playing] who have never played before,” she said. “And I see it becoming more of a family sport.

“It’s a form of recreation anybody can do.”

Rees isn’t sure what will happen to the “Tiger Effect” since his car crash last month and the revelation of his marital infidelities.

“Golf is bigger than one person, it always has been,” said Rees. “Even if it doesn’t seem that way.”

In the end, the game will continue.

“Golf’s not going to go away,” Rees stated.

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