The number of girls playing high school golf in Maine has doubled over the past 15 years, bucking a decline in boy golfers and participation in high school sports overall.

“And I would state that the overall quality of golf with those girls is significantly higher,” said Brian Bickford, head pro at Val Halla Golf Course in Cumberland and the golf coach at Greely High.

On Saturday, several of Maine’s top young female golfers will play a significant role in determining the outcome at the state team championships at Natanis Golf Course in Vassalboro – while playing alongside the boys.

Last season, 130 girls played high school golf in Maine, accounting for more than 11 percent of all participants. Sixty of the state’s 99 teams had at least one girl, and 36 teams had two or more.

In 2002, only 68 girls played golf, making up 4.5 percent of all high school golfers. Since then, participation by boys is down by 27 percent, mirroring a decline in most sports as high school enrollments have dropped in Maine.

The growth among female golfers has been spurred by local, state and national efforts to encourage girls to take up the sport.

“I think they’re making more of an impact now because there’s more opportunity for them to learn and play in the summertime,” said Sue Wootton, who chairs the junior golf committee for the Women’s Maine State Golf Association.

The number of golfers in the United States has dropped from a high of 30 million in 2003 to roughly 25 million in the past few years, according to annual surveys conducted by the National Golf Foundation, prompting national organizations to try to bring more women to golf.

“As an association, meaning the PGA of America, we’ve understood that the men have stayed steady and they’re still going to play, but if we are going to grow the game, we are going to grow it on the female side,” said Abby Spector, a four-time state girls’ champ at Waterville High (1995-98) and the director of instruction at Riverside Golf Course in Portland.

Elizabeth Lacognata, left, and Jordan Laplume talk at Sable Oaks before the start of the SMAA tournament. Laplume, a senior and Thornton Academy’s No. 1 player, started playing competitively before high school and believes that more girls will continue joining the sport.

When Spector was in high school, the Maine Principals’ Association changed a rule regarding where girls tee off in matches. Previously they had used the forward or “ladies tees.” But Spector was such an accomplished player that she had what was perceived as an unfair advantage, especially on par 5s and par 3s.

So from the mid-90s through 2013, the “Abby Spector” rule called for girls to play from the same tees as boys.

The MPA reversed that rule in 2014. Girls now tee off from the forward tees.

“From there you can see the interest has gone up,” Thornton Academy golf coach Jeff Camire said.

Bailey Plourde, the girls’ individual high school champion in 2014-16, played from the back tees as a freshman at Lincoln Academy. Now a freshman at Centre College in Kentucky, she said the rule change “definitely got more girls playing because they were not intimidated by playing against the boys.

“I personally know girls that quit because they did not want to play from the back tees since the guys were getting such a huge advantage. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if I was a beginner playing against a guy that could hit the ball 200 yards more than me. It would have been such a mental block.”

Elizabeth Lacognata, second from right, gathers with her teammates before the SMAA Championship at Sable Oaks Golf Course. Maine has about 400 fewer boys playing high school golf than in 2002, but girls’ participation is on the upswing.

Jordan Laplume, a senior, is the No. 1 player at Thornton Academy, which won the SMAA Central Division regular-season title. She started playing competitively before high school and as a sophomore was part of Thornton’s 2015 championship team.

“Starting young, playing all the (Maine State Golf Association) tournaments, I got a really good group of girl friends playing golf. The MSGA was a huge part of that,” said Laplume, who finished third at the 2017 Maine Women’s Amateur.

“I’ve loved to see the girls’ golf growing. I think the Maine Women’s Amateur is huge, too, because there are a lot of older ladies who love supporting all the younger girls who play.”

Scarborough High, another top contender in Class A, features long-hitting senior Elizabeth Lacognata as its No. 2 player. Her first competitive golf experience came at the high school level.

“There’s such a great group of girls, and we’ve all grown (from) being really good friends and also the competition between each other,” said Lacognata, who finished fourth at the Maine Women’s Amateur in July. “Obviously we all have that urge to win. So every time we go and play, we all try to bring our best game and try to beat each other, and slowly it just made us rise to the top of both boys and girls.”

The increase in girls playing golf runs counter to several state participation trends. There are nearly 400 fewer boys playing high school golf now than in 2002. In the past decade, many high school sports in Maine – including autumn staples football, soccer and field hockey – have seen overall participation decline by several hundred students. The statewide enrollment at public high schools has decreased by nearly 11,000 students – or 16.2 percent – over the decade.

Nationally, girls’ participation in high school golf has grown by 22 percent, while boys’ participation has dropped by 13 percent.

Laplume believes the growth of girls playing high school golf in Maine will continue. She is trying to do her part to encourage the next wave.

“Every year in the MSGA events there are a couple of new girls that play and I’ll try to introduce myself every time,” she said.

Teaching pros such as Spector and Bickford are growing girls’ golf at the club level by promoting girls-only programs.

“Girls get other girls into the sport. It has to be a social thing,” Spector said.

“They don’t want to be the only girl with a bunch of boys,” Bickford said. “Here at Val Halla I try to hire the high school girls to run the girls’ program so you create that mentorship, and that works well.”

With more girls playing, the level of play has improved, prompting the MPA to lower the score needed to enter the girls’ individual tournament from 110 to 100 (the boys’ qualifying standard is 90).

“We have more and more girls qualifying than we’ve ever had,” said Gerry Durgin, a former MPA assistant executive director who oversees the state golf tournaments. “This is the first year we dropped it to 100, and again that’s a compliment to the young ladies.”

Steve Craig can be contacted at 791-6413 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveCCraig

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