By Drew Bonifant
Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel
AUGUSTA — It was a sunny, warm day, so Robert Berube did Monday what he often does on such an afternoon.
He grabbed his clubs and hit the links at the Augusta Country Club in Manchester — even as courses across the state were closed April 2 per an executive order from Governor Janet Mills in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“They didn’t say we couldn’t,” added Berube, a club member. “[The] mandate clearly did not apply. No one was conducting business. No one was profiting.”
Governor Mills mandated that Maine residents should stay at home unless participating in essential business or activities, a decision that effectively halted through April a golf season that was enjoying one of its best starts in years, with mild temperatures and dry grounds bringing players before the spring officially began.
The Maine State Golf Association appealed, hoping that the measures courses were taking to limit contact and assist in social distancing — such as raised cups, no carts, no clubhouse access — would allow the sport to continue under the order’s fifth criteria for essential activities, which allows for “engaging in outdoor exercise activities, such as fishing, walking, hiking, running or biking, but only in compliance with the gathering restriction.”
But Mills’ decision to close golf courses still stands.
Berube said he played Monday while keeping distance from his playing partner, and added that he saw board members on the course walking their dogs. Berube acknowledged that the order prevented public courses from collecting greens fees, but said that private courses, like the Augusta Country Club — where membership fees have already been gathered — is a different situation as there is no longer business being conducted.
“Walking a course with a club in your hand isn’t business. I wasn’t charging money, I wasn’t being charged,” he said. “I was walking on the golf course. That’s all I was doing. The Governor didn’t say I couldn’t walk on the golf course. She said I can’t run a business on the golf course.”
However, Augusta Country Club General Manager Dave Soucy said the club is closed, including to members.
“We are not allowing golf at this time,” he said. “We are not policing the parking lot, but we are closed. If someone went out, they snuck out on their own. We are closed.”
The decision to close golf courses drew mixed reactions.
“I understand the decision. I do. This is something that’s a lot more serious than golf or any kind of sport,” Natanis Golf Course head pro Dick Browne said. “I can’t really disagree with that. We were doing all that we could prior to being shut down.”
“We asked for clarification. We had not been identified on either list, whether it was essential or nonessential,” MSGA Executive Director Brian Bickford added. “Golf courses had taken many steps to not be public-facing. … We thought that, even up until the day before she announced we were nonessential, we were going to be able to operate under the outdoor activity exception.
“We found ourselves on the wrong side of the list, so that was disappointing from the standpoint of the hard work we had done.”
Some golfers have accepted that the ruling means the end of playing on the course until at least the end of the month, and though they understand the Governor’s need for action, that doesn’t make losing the game during one of the best Aprils in recent memory any easier.
“Certainly, I get it. There’s part of me that gets it, the rational adult,” said Heath Cowan, a member of Lakewood Golf Course in Madison and an annual Maine Amateur competitor. “But the golfer in me is like, ‘This has got to be one of the sports that we’ve got to be able to get out and play.’ I understand the social distancing, I get that. I get what everybody’s trying to do to stop the spread. But we can play four guys in a group and not talk to each other, much less touch each other.”
Christian McCrory, the director of sales at Dunegrass Country Club in Old Orchard Beach, organized a petition to Mills for golf to be included as an essential business. As of early Wednesday morning, the petition had gathered 5,425 signatures.
“We’re a little frustrated that people are being encouraged to go out and hike, to bike, to walk, to do things to get exercise that, in all reality, you could come into closer contact with people than you would on a golf course,” he said. “You could have an acre or two per person on the course, whereas if I’m walking the sidewalk out in front of my home, my sidewalk’s 3 feet wide. What am I going to do when I come up to someone else who’s walking in the opposite direction? There’s a lot more contact there.”
There are also the business ramifications involved. For southern Maine courses, which open regularly in March, taking April off the books is a blow.
“This is not a sport where people are raking in the cash,” McCrory said. “When you’re able to open in mid-to-late March, losing the month of April is huge.”
The order is easier to handle further north into central Maine and beyond, where April is always a toss-up. Hancock County golf courses include Grindstone Neck Golf Course in Winter Harbor, Lucerne Golf Club in Dedham, Bucksport Golf Club, Blue Hill Country Club, Castine Golf Club, Blink Bonnie Golf Links in Sorrento and Kebo Valley Golf Club, Northeast Harbor Golf Course and The Causeway Club on Mount Desert Island.
“Last year, we weren’t able to open with carts until June 1, maybe later. So as of right now, if it doesn’t get any worse, we’re not really looking to be in that bad of shape,” said Gavin Dugas, a playing and teaching professional at J.W. Parks Golf Course in Pittsfield. “I’ve talked with my dad, [owner and pro Mike Dugas]. He thinks if we can get people out by the first of May, then we’ll be doing all right.”
Browne at Natanis likewise said the problem would be if the order extends into the late spring.
“We got three weeks in in March that we don’t normally get,” he said. “If we miss just April, the financials will be minor. … If we continue to have tournaments canceled, which we rely heavily on, that’s where we’re going to start getting into some issues.”
Bickford is optimistic that the order will be lifted as expected by the start of May, allowing the MSGA tournament season to proceed as scheduled.
“You plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he said. “We know what’s at stake, if you will, and we’re trying not to overreact if we don’t need to.”
Update: This story has been amended to include a list of Hancock County courses.