Josh Small of South Portland putts toward a PVC pipe that fills the hole while Matt Burgess of Scarborough looks on at Nonesuch River Golf Club in Scarborough on Saturday. The course is prohibiting golfers from touching the flags on all the greens and has covered the holes to protect patrons against the spread of coronavirus. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

It was different, but it was still a round of golf.

For Joe Alvarez, that was exactly what was needed. Smacking the ball around for 18 holes provided welcome mental and physical relief from the coronavirus outbreak.

“I think it lets us keep our sanity a little bit,” said Alvarez, 39, after finishing his round Friday at The Links at Outlook in South Berwick. “Staying inside all the time and not getting out and not getting that exercise and not being able to have at least some social interaction is something you miss. I think it’s invaluable to have an outlet to be able to go do something.”

The mild March weather has allowed about a dozen southern Maine courses to open, said Brian Bickford, executive director of the Maine State Golf Association.

Coronavirus has forced the courses to make significant modifications, however, essentially creating a whole new set of rules.

At both The Links at Outlook and Nonesuch River Golf Club in Scarborough, golfers must walk and carry their own bags. There are no carts available.

“We’re not putting carts out. I don’t see how we can properly disinfect them, and our driving range is not open,” said Dan Hourihan, the owner and general manager at Nonesuch.

A fleet of golf carts is parked behind the clubhouse at Nonesuch River Golf Club on Saturday. “We’re not putting carts out. I don’t see how we can properly disinfect them,” says Dan Hourihan, the owner and general manager. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Food and beverage service at both courses were shut down even before Gov. Janet Mills ordered all restaurant dining rooms and bars to close in Maine. Golfers are being asked to book their tee times before they come, and to pay only by credit card. Nonesuch has set up an online prepay system.

“Our goal is just if we can get people out onto the course without them even coming in the building, that’s great,” Hourihan said.

Upon arrival, golfers are told not to touch the pins. No trap rakes, water coolers or ball-washing stations are in use. The space between tee times has been lengthened to keep groups of players farther apart. The cups are raised an inch or two above the green’s surface to keep a putted ball from actually dropping into the hole.

“That’s the big one, because if you’re playing with three different people, and everyone goes to the hole to get their ball out, you kind of congregate,” said Jeff Maldonis, the director of golf at The Links at Outlook.

Fox Ridge in Auburn opened Saturday with a modified nine-hole course, while employing many of the same precautionary strategies. Dunegrass in Old Orchard Beach is allowing carts, but only one rider per cart.

At The Links at Outlook, Maldonis is keeping the doors to the bathroom and pro shop open at all times, so people won’t have to even touch a doorknob. He and Hourihan both said they want golfers to touch nothing but their own clubs, bag and balls – and they added that the courses will be thoroughly sanitizing all surfaces anyway.

Maldonis is also acutely aware that all of his cautionary practices, which include doubling his normal tee time stagger from eight to 16 minutes, adding hand-sanitizing stations, wearing protective gloves while he works, and limiting the number of people allowed in the pro shop at one time, might not be enough to keep golf courses in Maine open.

“Our operation is day-to-day. We meet every day,” Maldonis said “So, if we meet tomorrow and say ‘shut it down,’ that’s what we’ll do. If you were to call for a tee time for tomorrow, I’ll book it, but I would say, ‘Call me tomorrow morning to make sure we’re open.'”

Social distancing is important, even at the golf course. Joe Doucette, left, and Josh Small walk a path at Nonesuch River Golf Club on Saturday after teeing off. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But while the courses are open, they do offer what many people are looking for. A break. A sense of normalcy. Even a little bit of fun.

“Just from what I’ve heard when people finish up, and I’ve never heard this from other seasons, they’re saying, ‘Thank you for being open. I really need this, to be able to walk around and through the woods,'” Hourihan said.

Alvarez, one of Maine’s top amateur golfers, works as a financial adviser. As the coronavirus spread from a faraway threat to a global pandemic, the stock market suffered its worst losses since the 2008 recession.

“I’ve been on the phone for about three weeks straight, watching the stock market and trying to help my clients navigate the situation,” Alvarez said. “I needed (golf) mentally for myself, to take a break from it.”

The golf industry as a whole has been dealing with economic challenges for several years, causing a 7 percent decline in golf courses in the U.S. between 2006 and 2017, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Locally, Twin Falls Golf Club and Rivermeadow Golf Club, two nine-hole courses in Westbrook, closed in 2016. In early 2019, the 18-hole Sable Oaks in South Portland closed.

Now comes coronavirus, and it has hit at a time when many golf courses could have increased their early-season rounds because of the mild weather.

“Trust me, it’s ironic,” said Hourihan. “The greens are in great shape and here we are, operating day-to-day.”

How much longer golf courses will remain open is anyone’s guess. Several states, not including Maine, have issued “shelter at home” edicts. But Mills, in her weekly radio address on Friday, encouraged residents to recreate outdoors – albeit at a safe distance from others. “Enjoy the outdoors,” she said, “keeping your social distance.”

On Friday, the MSGA held a virtual “town hall” with representatives from roughly 30 courses to talk about appropriate coronavirus precautions and best practices.

“We’re looking to the south, to places like Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) and Florida, to see what they’re doing,” Bickford said, adding that all modifications are being made with the purpose of keeping both golfers and staff safe.

A bottle of hand sanitizer rests next to a sign of recommendations for golfers to stay safe at Nonesuch River Golf Club. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As a general guideline, Bickford said golfers should be thinking about “minimizing all the touches and to treat the golf course like a park instead of as a place to socialize.”

Alvarez said that’s how he and Neil Angis approached Friday’s round. The two have been best friends since their junior high days in Eliot.

“I played with my best buddy and we didn’t high-five once and we weren’t in close contact, and that’s a little weird, but we were both doing what we enjoy doing,” Alvarez said. “It’s important in these times to realize there’s an outlet, and hopefully it stays open and we’re able to continue to do it, because a lot of people would benefit from it.”

Alvarez doesn’t think playing a round of golf, with precautionary steps, puts either himself or others at risk.

“I almost feel like it’s more risky to go to the grocery store, to be honest,” he said.


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