Maine sees spike in younger golfers: ‘It’s really not a high-class sport anymore’

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Children watch the flight of the ball after a putt by Arnav Thakker, third from right, during a youth golf program at Val Halla Golf and Recreation in Cumberland. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

Declan Frueh gathered up some old clubs, gathered up some friends, and headed to the golf course. When the group arrived at the Riverside Golf Course in Portland, they went upstairs to pay for their game.

Frueh paid $30. His friends paid $5.

“I’m like, ‘What’s going on? “Said Frueh, 17, who will be a senior this fall at Falmouth High. “I was like, ‘You’re lying. Can’t play nine holes… for five dollars.’ »

Frueh’s friends were members of Youth on Course, a national nonprofit program that allows junior players to play golf for just $5 a round. Motivated by the experience, Frueh signed up himself.

“It’s 100 per cent (which made me play). In the 2021 season, I’ve played golf three times. … I’d say I’ve been there about 15 times already this year, Frueh said, “It’s a great resource. … If you can use a set of used clubs and you’ve got $5 worth of golf, it’s really not a high-class sport anymore.”

In just two years, the program has attracted more than 800 golfers to Maine between the ages of 6 and 18. Players pay an annual fee of $10 to $30, depending on the course, to enjoy $5 rounds up to 18 holes. . They must bring their own clubs.

Maine Golf — formerly the Maine State Golf Association — has raced to get more kids from kindergarten through high school playing golf in hopes of sparking a lifelong interest in the sport. Maine, like many other states, has seen several golf courses have closed in the past five years or else because of the decrease in membership.

“Historically, junior golf started when kids entered college,” said Brian Bickford, Maine Golf’s executive director. All other sports start when children are 5 or 6 years old. So we have to start when they are 5 and 6 years old.

Max Metivier, center, 9, from Falmouth swings on the driving range alongside other campers as part of a youth golf program at Val Halla Golf and Recreation in Cumberland. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

Maine began offering the Youth on Course program in 2021. Membership in the state has grown from 600 last year to 850 this season, Bickford said, and the number of courses offering Youth on Course discounts has grown from 16 to 22 over the past year.

Maine Golf, with the help of the national organization, subsidizes the difference between a course’s regular junior green fee and the $5 fee the course charges Youth on Course members. Typically, fees for juniors can go up to $40 for nine holes.

PLAY AND INSTRUCTION BASE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

Youth on Course is just one of the ways Maine Golf is trying to grow the sport at the junior level.

The organization took over the old Freeport Country Club in April and renamed it Maine Golf Center, with the goal of making it a base for youth play and instruction. The center runs junior golf programs on Sundays, as well as Youth on Course during the week.

“We look forward to the future,” said AJ Simokaitis, Maine Golf Center manager and golf coach at Falmouth High. “Being an older state, older demographic, we really need to lean on the youngsters and hook them early so that we have lifelong golfers.”

Bickford said Maine Golf’s mission is to give children the opportunity to play at all ages and at every stage of their development.

Maceo Nteta of Northampton, Massachusetts putts on a practice green during a youth golf program at Val Halla Golf and Recreation in Cumberland. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

“If you start very young, that’s great, but it takes 10 years for them to graduate. And if you just run a high school league, then you only get kids who are already in the game,” he said. “It’s about making sure you have 6 to 18-year-old contacts. … It’s about keeping the kids engaged, so when the time is right, they choose golf.”

Maine’s youth golf boom was mirrored across the country. Adam Heieck, CEO of Youth on Course, which has been with the organization since its beginnings in 2006, said the program had 70,000 members at the start of 2020. Today, the number is at just under 135,000. and the number of affiliated courses has increased. from 1,200 to 1,830 in two years.

Heieck said the program has brought golf to families of all economic backgrounds nationwide.

“From a revenue perspective, I would say definitely,” he said. “We didn’t see a direct correlation in terms of race or gender. But in terms of family income, we serve tens of tens of thousands of low-income families, that’s for sure.

Heieck said he was impressed with the growth in Maine, which has seen 1,598 Youth on Course golf games played in the state, up from 692 at the same time last year.

“We’re scratching the surface,” Heieck said. “We’re just getting started.”

BOOST PROVIDED BY THE PANDEMIC

Youth golf has received its biggest boost from the pandemic. The arrival of COVID has forced many recreational outlets to close, allowing golf to bring in new players – and, as a result, more kids.

“Golf has seen a resurgence in all walks of life, but especially junior golf,” said Jason Cox, executive director of the HV3 Foundation, a nationwide effort started by PGA Tour golfer Harold Varner III that aims to alleviate the costs registration and sports equipment for children. . “A lot of other junior junior programs, whether it was baseball, football, basketball, whatever, they had to shut down and couldn’t go. Golf was able to do this and we saw a big increase in participation.

Bickford said Maine Golf has a perfect opportunity to step up the youth game.

“I saw the pandemic fill almost every golf course south of Augusta … (but) there wasn’t as much room for (the juniors) because the adults were playing,” he said. . “All of a sudden we learned that Freeport (Country Club) was going to become available. … (Maine Golf) thought the time was right.

Maine Golf reached out to Eli Spaulding, a junior at Freeport High this fall, and other junior golfers for information on how to adapt the sport to younger players. “The key is, first, having places to play around you, which we have in Maine, and then having affordable prices is another big thing,” Spaulding says. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer

In 2020, Maine Golf established a youth committee comprised of some of the state’s top juniors, including Eli Spaulding, Ruby Haylock, Jade Haylock, Connor Albert, Cole Binette and Mick Madden, to get feedback on the best way to respond to sport. to young players.

“The key is, first, having places to play around you, which we have in Maine, and then having affordable prices is another big thing,” said Spaulding, 16, a rising junior at Freeport. High who won his second straight Maine. junior title in July. “A third big thing is just having a community of people around you that you already know how to hang out with and have fun when you go out and play.”

DOUBLE PARTICIPATION SINCE 2016

Abby Spector, a seven-time Maine women’s amateur champion, was hired at Riverside in 2016 as director of instruction, with the task of revamping the youth golf program.

“Over the past three years, we’ve had about 100 children in our clinics over the summer. … (In 2016) we had 50 children in our program. We’ve doubled since,” said Spector, a former Waterville High star whose clinics have players between the ages of 8 and 16. “It’s always full, with kids on the waiting list, which is great. … I like the way it develops and that we pay attention to it.

The same is true at Val Halla Golf and Recreation in Cumberland, where a youth program Spaulding used to attend now has 36 players between the ages of 7 and 14. then split into different groups, some going to the practice green and others to the driving range before spinning. In the afternoon after lunch, they went out to play on the course.

“It’s a mix of playing golf and doing fun things,” said 13-year-old Noah Baril, an eighth grader from North Yarmouth. “A lot of kids enjoy it.”

Andrew Berg, Junior Golf Director at Val Halla Golf and Recreation, instructs 12-year-old Michael Geoghan from Falmouth on the course’s driving range. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

Andrew Berg, 26, is in his second year at the helm of the program, which offers instruction as well as games like chipping and long drive contests

“We can’t really, really golf it,” he said. “We have it so the kids can enjoy their time here, and hopefully if they’re having fun… they’ll come back later and do more. It’s to get them into the game and enjoy it, more than making them tour professionals.

Michael Geoghan, 12, a seventh grade student from Falmouth, is in his third year with the Val Halla program.

“A few years ago I was here and there were only 20 children, and now there are 40,” he said. “I think the fun part is good, because a lot of kids if they go out and play they’re like, ‘I don’t really like it’ and they start not wanting to do it anymore. But if you add a little fun in it, they’ll say “Oh, that’s fun” and keep wanting to do it until you can get them to take a class and keep going.

The cost is helped by programs like the HV3 Foundation and Youth on Course. Simokaitis, the director of the Maine Golf Center, said cost has been a barrier to expanding youth golf in Maine.

“We looked in depth at some of the junior rates in the state and were a little surprised to see $35, $40 for nine holes for the kids to play golf. It’s not really feasible for the majority of parents in our state,” he said. “With Youth on Course, they can just go play and play with their buddies.”

Bickford, executive director of Maine Golf, ran the Val Halla program and hopes a new generation of golfers is being born.

“(Players) would come up to me and be like, ‘Hey coach, I have to leave early to go to baseball.’ And I used to say, ‘One day I want you to quit baseball early and go golf,'” he said. “If we have more rounds played, more members , it’s just the right trend.”


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