CUMBERLAND — When talking about a golf course, the membership and the golf pro who oversees the operation are just as important as the layout.
Val Halla Golf Course, run by the town of Cumberland, has all three going for it – diverse holes, an active membership, and in pro Brian Bickford a man who successfully wears many hats, one being the town’s recreation director.
“Brian is so involved and always has a smile on his face,” said Sally Williams, the women’s Val Halla player of the year for the last three years.
Bickford left as finance director at Mercy Hospital 10 years ago to become Val Halla’s pro.
“I may be the only golf pro in the country who can tell you how to hit a 5-iron and also help you with your health care bill,” he joked.
Val Halla always has had the reputation of being a player’s club. It has enjoyed strong representation in the state’s major amateur tournaments, and was the first golf course in the state to install GPS devices in golf carts. It also serves as the headquarters of the Maine State Golf Association.
But mostly at Val Halla, it’s the people.
“It’s kind of blue-collar, regular folks,” said Scott Stone, a four-time club champion who has played at Val Halla since he was 8 years old. “They aren’t pretentious.”
Val Halla offers tight-driving holes, more spacious ones, challenging and scenic par 3s, and par 5s that can be reached in two shots if you have the game to go for it.
“The course makes you hit every club in your bag,” Stone said. “There are reachable par 5s, which make it fun. They put in a watering system about 15 years ago and it got lush. It’s made it a tough track. The course plays a lot longer than it used to.”
The nines were reversed a few years ago, which made the newer holes the front side. You better hit it straight on the par 4s on the front or you could look at double or triple bogeys.
“The front nine is the harder-driving side,” said Stone, “but you have a couple of par 5s where you have a good chance of making birdie.”
The first hole is 375 yards from the white tees and 385 yards from the blue. For women, it’s 330 yards from the gold tees and 240 from the green.
The second hole is also tough, measuring 400 yards from the blue tees and 350 from the whites. For women, it’s 275 and 200 yards from the different tees.
A culvert runs across the fairway in the landing area so club selection off the tee is crucial. Then the front nine eases up with a relatively easy par 3 and the back-to-back par 5s before another tester with the challenging par-4 sixth. The ninth hole, the No. 1 handicap hole, is a 400-yard par 4 that bends right. The second shot, which can be a long one, is over water.
Stone has long been in favor of clearing more of the underbrush on holes 1, 2 and 9 to make them more golf-friendly.
“If you hit the ball in the woods, you could have trouble finding it,” he said. “Clearing it out more would help you play recovery shots.”
During weekend play, members start on both nines. A lot of them don’t mind starting on the back nine.
“It’s an easier start than the front nine, which can help you ease into your round,” said Chris King, a two-time Val Halla men’s player of the year. “There are a couple of good birdie holes on the back nine.”
The 10th hole is a straight par 4 that narrows in the landing area as a grove of trees on the right comes into play. The course is in good condition after starting the season with four temporary greens. All the greens are in operation.
Bickford, the golf pro, started playing as a youngster at the course and is part of a strong contingent of golfers who have come out of Val Halla.
“When I was younger, you could push your drive to the right (10th hole, formerly No. 1) and hit your second shot over the trees to the green,” said Bickford.
Those trees have grown up, so a drive to the right could be blocked out.
The 11th hole, a 160-yard par 3, is one of the most picturesque on the course. The tee is elevated and you hit across a ravine with water below to the green, which is also elevated but not as much as the tee. The green is the largest on the course. Pine trees provide a scenic backdrop.
The 12th hole, a par 5, is the longest on the course, measuring 595 yards from the white tees and 610 from the blues. The hole turns right and is a birdie possibility with two good shots to get in position. The next four holes are all par 4s and offer good birdie chances.
“If you can get through the front side with a half-decent score or even if you struggle, you have a chance to make up some ground on the back nine,” said King.
Holes 17 and 18 offer a great close to the round. The 17th is an uphill par 3 between 180 and 190 yards.
“You have to hit a long, straight iron to reach the green,” Stone said.
The 18th is a tree-lined par 5, measuring 480 yards from the white tees and 490 from the blues.
“There are some guys in the club who can reach 18 in two shots, but I don’t have the length to reach it now. You have to hit the ball straight,” Stone said.
With the clubhouse porch overlooking the 18th hole, it’s a great place to watch club tournaments come to an end. Williams said it can be a little unnerving if you’re in contention with a crowd watching from the clubhouse.
Bickford’s junior program has 260 kids from ages 5 to 18. There’s something going on every day of the week from men’s and women’s twilight leagues, to weekend sweeps to the regular tournaments.
Val Halla has 390 members, including Dave Cowens, the former Boston Celtics great who has a place on Sebago Lake. Bickford said there’s about a 50-50 split in terms of membership play and from off the street. Members get preferred weekend morning tee times.
“It’s like a private club on the weekends,” said King.
Val Halla is a source of pride to the town.
“It’s really developed into a four-season facility,” said the town manager, Bill Shane.
“Val Halla is more than a golf course. We have tennis courts. There’s cross-country skiing in the winter and this winter we’re adding ice skating on the tennis courts. We have indoor golf during the offseason. The growth of women’s golf at the course has been huge.”