Golfers play a round at Natanis Golf Course in Vassalboro on Wednesday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Golf courses in Maine now are closer to operating at full capacity.

The state’s COVID-19 guidelines for golf were updated Wednesday with several significant changes. Courses were allowed to reopen May 1, but at that time, golfers had to play only in the county where they lived or at a private club in which they held membership; driving ranges, putting greens, clubhouses and pro shops were closed; and golfers were strongly encouraged to arrive just in time to play and then leave promptly.

Wednesday’s updates allow courses to open their driving ranges and pro shops for retail sales. Golfers who are Maine residents can now play any course in the state. Out-of-state golfers must continue to self-quarantine for 14 days before playing. Also removed from the guidelines were previous stipulations that golfers stayed in their car until 10 minutes before their tee time, and a mandatory 12-minute wait between groups teeing off.

“We’ve had a good month and I think golf course owners and operators have done a really good job abiding by the guidelines, and as a result the state is working with us on a couple of the restrictions that we think we can manage,” said Brian Bickford, the executive director of the Maine State Golf Association.

Removing the county residency helps courses that are near county borders, in particular, and will allow courses to host MSGA weekly events.

“Our members have been able to play and we’ve had plenty of business, but I’m happy we won’t have to stress about that anymore,” said A.J. Kavanaugh, the director of golf at Brunswick Golf Club. “We’re set to host an MSGA play day on June 5 and 6 and a qualifier for the Maine State Amateur the next week, and as far as I’m concerned, now we’re good to go.”

Bickford confirmed that the Maine State Amateur will be held July 7-9 at Biddeford-Saco Country Club. Four qualifying tournaments will be held between June 9-18.

Bickford said other key changes to the state’s COVID-19 regulations involved opening up the driving range and putting greens and allowing courses to set their own tee time intervals.

For some courses, that will mean a return to having groups tee off eight minutes apart. That could increase golfer volume by 50 percent over each two-hour window, from a maximum of 40 players (10 foursomes) to 60 players (15 foursomes).

Opening driving ranges adds revenue to the courses.

“It was very nice to see people hitting balls and practicing their putting and chipping,” Kavanaugh said. “We expanded our practice area a few years ago and it’s become a very vital part to our revenue stream, and to have that closed for a month and a half … has been tough.”

Another change made was to the rule of one golfer per golf cart. Earlier this month, that was amended to allow two people from the same household to share a cart. Going forward, two people who are not household members can share a cart if the course installs a plexiglass barrier between the driver and the rider. Kavanaugh said he plans to outfit all of Brunswick’s carts with the plexiglass divider.

Both Kavanaugh and Bickford said the demand for golf has been high during the pandemic.

“Most courses are reporting (an increase) between 30 and 50 percent over last year. But, in fairness, last year was a terrible spring,” Bickford said, adding that courses with an established junior golf program have also seen a spike in younger players.

Further, golf courses can open up their restaurants as long as they meet the regulations set within their county. For courses in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin, that means indoor dining remains closed, but patrons can be served at outside seating. For the rest of the state, the dining room can be opened if social distancing guidelines are met.

“It used to be park, play and go home,” Bickford said. “Now it’s basically, park, play, and social distance with no big gatherings.”

There are still accommodations that golfers and course managers will have to make because of the pandemic.

Players will still be strongly encouraged to reserve their tee time and pay in advance. Touchable surfaces on the course, like sand rakes, ball washers and water stations, will continue to be removed. Signs, posters and markers will encourage social distancing. But those are minor inconveniences that people have been living with on and off the golf course since the middle of March.

Bickford said the current restrictions on gatherings, which will increase from 10 to 50 people on June 1, still will make it difficult for courses to hold larger events, like weddings and charity golf tournaments.

Similar to many other businesses, some golf courses also rely on summer tourists to fill their fairways.

“The 14-day quarantine is a crusher for many of our daily fee courses that rely on a lot of out-of-staters to play,” Bickford said.


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