What can people do in a pandemic for a little fun and recreation?

For many Mainers of all ages, the answer has become play a round of golf. For golf course managers, that’s meant a boon for business that has helped offset being closed in April because of the pandemic. And, the influx of new and younger players could lead to some becoming hooked on a sport that lends itself to social distancing.

One example is Ayden Marini, 14, a soon-to-be freshman at Brunswick High.

“Oh yeah, the pandemic was a big factor. I would have been doing spring lacrosse and the summer would have been full of other sports, but I realized it’s a pandemic,” Marini said. “The golf course was open. So where else am I going to go?”

Ayden Marini, 14, of Brunswick has become an avid golfer this summer. He plans to play in the Maine Junior Championship this week at Gorham Country Club. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

A year ago, Marini’s mother, Samantha, joined Brunswick Golf Club and played occasionally with Ayden and his brother Bo, 13.

This summer, “we’re taking advantage of our membership and playing every single day, and once this pandemic hit, all we’ve been doing is golf,” Ayden said.

In his first year taking the game seriously, as he put it, Marini has his handicap down to 13. His goal is to make the Brunswick High varsity golf team. He’s played in three New England PGA-Maine Chapter one-day events for juniors, with a best finish of seventh in the 14-15 age group.

And, he’s planning to play in the two-day Maine Junior Championship for the first time, which tees off Tuesday at Gorham Country Club.

Marini said at Brunswick Golf Club alone, there are “about four or five of us who are pushing to get better. We’re here every day.”

This year’s Maine Junior Amateur has an expected field of 100 players, compared to 68 and 67 the past two years. Most of the growth is among boys, but a few more girls are also expected.

It’s not just the kids who are playing more this year.

“Play is up, some clubs I’ve talked with are even 30 to 50 percent above on average, across the state, and that’s a phenomenal number,” said Brian Bickford, the executive director of the Maine State Golf Association. “It’s one of the few sports, with other adult sports or junior sports not being active, and golf has become one of those sports they can play.”

Bickford said there are exceptions in Maine, particularly at resort-style courses that rely on tourists staying in their hotels to fill the course.

“But the public golf courses, which are the majority of courses in Maine are seeing that, 30- to 50-percent increase,” Bickford said.

“We’re seeing more junior play and seeing more of the millennial play,” said Dan Hourihan, the general manager and owner of Nonesuch River Golf Club in Scarborough. “You can just tell, people in their 20s that are athletes who obviously can’t play other sports, so they’re playing golf.”

Golf courses were among the first nonessential businesses allowed to reopen by Gov. Janet Mills after being forced to close during April. Golf courses did have to adapt. For most of May, money-making add-ons like the driving range, the pro shop, and food and beverage service had to be closed. But people could go out and play.

Once on the course, the game was virtually unchanged. Yes, flag sticks stay in all the time, and there are no sand trap rakes to reduce the risk of touch-point virus transmission. But leaving the flag in probably speeds up play incrementally, taking a preferred lie in the trap is no longer cheating, and it’s very easy to stay more than 6 feet away from anybody on a golf course.

“I think what we’re seeing is people are comfortable playing golf. There’s not much stress about getting in contact with someone else, and the courses are seeing more member play, and more daily fee play,” Hourihan said.

In addition to running Nonesuch, Hourihan owns a management company that oversees operations at Sanford Country Club, Fox Ridge in Auburn and Bridgton Highlands Golf and Tennis. He said average daily rounds are up at all four courses, reflecting a national and regional trend.

Golf Datatech, a market research firm based in Orlando, Florida, has tracked rounds played at 2,500 courses, both public and private, across the nation since 1999 to help gauge interest in the game.

“It is an accurate reflection. We monitor it closely,” said Tom Stine, Golf Datatech’s co-founder.

Stine said golf’s growth rate has been flat for several years, but nationally rounds were up 6.2 percent in May compared year-over-year, despite steep declines in tourism-dependent golf destinations like Hawaii (down 51 percent) and South Carolina (down 15 percent).

Play in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont (treated as a single entity) was up 10.2 percent in May.

A golfer putts on the practice green at Biddeford-Saco Country Club. Brian Bickford, executive director of the Maine State Golf Association, says many courses in the state are seeing a 30- to 50-percent increase in rounds this year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Stine added that increased play has led to increased sales for equipment (clubs, balls, bags, gloves, shoes), but apparel is lagging, in large part because of the closure of pro shops. The National Golf Foundation reported that Google searches for “golf balls” and “golf clubs” are up 20 percent over the previous five-year high.

The rounds played in June have not been released by Golf Datatech, but area golf course managers said the combination of significant COVID restrictions still limiting other activities and dry, comfortable weather had produced near-capacity play.

“We have been very busy. All of our tee times have been booked pretty much every day,” said Ryan Scott, the general manager for Riverside Golf Course’s 18-hole North and nine-hole South courses.

“I’ve never seen demand like this,” said Dave Pollard, the co-owner and course manager at Spring Meadows Golf Club in Gray, where play “for the months of May and June, we were certainly up in excess of 15 to 16 percent.”

Pollard said total “starts,” the term for both nine- and 18-hole rounds, were almost 8,200 per month, compared to 6,900-7,000 in 2019.

The virus outbreak has forced many people to work from home. Pollard thinks that creates greater schedule flexibility, making it easier to work in a round of golf.

Pollard said Spring Meadows does not traditionally have a lot of junior players, but he has seen an increase in youth play, even within his own family.

“I’m heading out to play with my (12-year-old) grandson, who has pretty much been taken up with soccer in past years,” Pollard said.

Brunswick Golf Club already had a strong prepandemic batch of junior players, led by 2018 and 2019 Varsity Maine Golfer of the Year Caleb Manuel of Topsham.

“But our junior membership is up probably 20-25 percent, easily,” said A.J. Kavanaugh, the course’s director of golf. “This pandemic has created a newfound passion for golf in our area.”

Brunswick, a member-owned, public-play course, was already busy with more than 30,000 total rounds in 2019. Kavanaugh expects to easily surpass those numbers in 2020, partly because he has more than 400 members for the first time in at least 12 years and he’s booking tee times as late as 6:30 p.m., on a routine basis.

“Yes, we’re getting new golfers, but even the diehard golfers are playing more,” Kavanaugh said.

Nick Plummer, the head professional at Val Halla Golf Course in Cumberland, said junior membership is “almost double” that of 2019. He attributes it directly to parents seeking an outlet for their children while schools were forced to go to remote learning in the spring.

Gorham Country Club, a roughly 100-member club that is also open to the public, has been routinely seeing 170-200 players on a daily basis.

“We have seen a significant increase because people have a lack of other opportunities and they feel this is a safer thing to do,” said Kathy Hawkes, the club’s general manager.

Golf’s challenge will be to turn the short-term, pandemic-fueled growth into continued play. Kavanaugh admits some of the new faces, particularly at the junior level, were initially playing golf just as a way to get out of the house.

“But I’m seeing them getting hooked and getting much better. I can tell you Brunswick High School’s prospects for their golf team got dramatically better,” Kavanaugh said. “They’re working hard and practicing and playing almost every day.”

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