[Ed. This piece from 1998 was assigned and purchased by, but to my knowledge never appeared in, Downeast Magazine. At that time, the U.S. was opening 400 new golf facilities every year. When I moved to New Gloucester that same year, only Fairlawn GC and Poland Spring existed nearby. In 2-3 years, Fox Ridge in Auburn (pictured above), Spring Meadow in Gray, and Toddy Brook in North Yarmouth all opened for play. Heady times, as the story below relates. The correction arrived in 2008, when the U.S. golf course stock began to suffer a net loss of some 150 golf facilities each year. That annual trend slowed somewhat during Covid, but not much.]
Developers of water parks don’t venture into the amusement industry because they’re particularly enamored of sharing flume capsules shaped like giant logs with so many screaming adolescents. Nor do hoteliers invest in that business because they “have a thing” for walking down antiseptic hallways looking for ice machines. It’s understood these business decisions are calculated — based on demographics, market niches, the potential for profit and perhaps a paucity of existing competitors. Romantic notions don’t often enter into feasible commercial equations.
Golf is a different animal, an arena where the line between work and play has always been somewhat blurred. While “business” conducted on the golf course remains a genteel hybrid of recreation and vocation, data gatherers at the National Golf Foundation (NGF) — the industry’s research and information organization based in Jupiter, Fla. — are continually amazed at the scads of starry-eyed golf devotees who fund/build their own facilities because it’s always been their dream. “It’s sort of like, ‘What do I want to do when I grow up?’ ” said Barry Frank, a vice president at NGF. “Unfortunately, a great number of shirts have been lost in this process.”
Even so, new golf construction continues to boom nationally and Maine’s dreamers have proved no less fanciful in their ambitions. An astounding number of golf course projects, many spearheaded by first-time golf developers, are now underway here in Vacationland. A dozen new 18-hole layouts have just opened or remain in some phase of construction while another 10 facilities are adding nine. When Point Sebago Golf and Beach Resort opened for play in 1996, it was Maine’s first new 18-hole course since 1988. This sort of inactivity won’t characterize the next eight years.
“As a former banker, I know golf construction in Maine has lagged in past years, especially compared with national growth patterns,” said Arnold Roy, a Turner resident whose development syndicate, Fox Ridge Partners, will soon break ground on an 18-hole course in Harmon’s Corner, on Auburn’s south side. “We know there’s another golf course going in 15 miles down the road in Gray, but in the last 20 years there have been no new golf holes built within 20 miles of our site. And the interest in golfing has never been higher, as far as I can tell.”
Following another national trend, Fox Ridge will be laid out on former farm land — so will the Gray course [Spring Meadows], a project developed by the owners of Cole Farms Restaurant on a fallow parcel directly across the street. Agricultural pursuits have also given way to golf down in Berwick; father and son Tim and Tom Flynn obviously believe their 160-acre parcel will prove more fertile when Outlook Farm Golf Club opens for play there next summer.
“I think what we’re seeing is pent-up demand,” said Brian Silva, the course architect who designed Outlook Farm. “Maine has been underdeveloped, in terms of golf for some time now. And the state certainly has its share of farmland which has seen better, more productive days.”
A Massachusetts resident who has summered in Ogunquit for 35 years, Silva has a unique perspective on the state’s golf growth. It was he who laid out Sable Oaks Golf Club in South Portland and Falmouth Country Club — both opened in 1988, the last two courses to come one line before the wheels fell off Maine’s economy. “A large percentage of Maine’s courses have always been mom and pop operations,” continued Silva, whose design firm — Cornish, Silva and Mungeam, Inc. — is also adding a new nine at Cape Neddick Golf Club in York. “Prior to 1988, the state was playing catch-up in terms of developmental sophistication. So the situation hasn’t improved over the past eight years. I’m of the opinion that Maine needs more golf courses of any kind.”
It’s difficult to develop an 18-hole golf course these days for less than $3 million, according to Frank. In even-keeled economic times, lending sources often provide golf course developers, first-timers and veterans, a dose of reality. However, with the Maine economy hitting on most every cylinder, there are fewer deterrents.
“There is definitely excess capital in the marketplace; there is a lot of money chasing relatively few deals,” said Field Rider, a senior vice president at Androscoggin Savings Bank, which is financing the Gray project. “I think this is a function of low interest rates and a stock market that is performing very well. Golf start-up is a risky thing and, traditionally, banks have not been terribly interested in that sort of risk. But if you want money in something that will perform as stocks have, you have to find deals that involve a higher element of risk.”
Cole Farms owner Brad Pollard said he talked to five banks regarding his project; all five were willing and eager to provide funding. It’s worth noting that Pollard’s group already owned the land, a fact that significantly reduced its borrowing needs. While Pollard and his brothers — who will manage the golf facility themselves — have no golf-specific operational track record, their food and beverage expertise should prove useful in the new clubhouse, a barn which, for the past 11 years, had been used to cook up the restaurant’s renowned salad dressing; formulation of the closely guarded sweet-and-sour recipe will be moved south to a facility in Boston, Pollard said. So, employment gains in terms of course-construction activity offset losses in the salad dressing-manufacturing niche. In Maine’s current golf-friendly climate, this is progress.
Of the 400-plus golf course which open across the United States each year, the NGF classifies more than 80 percent as “upscale daily-fee” facilities — meaning they’re public but they attempt to replicate the private, country club experience with manicured course conditions, fancy clubhouses and aggressive customer service, including an army of cheerful young men charged with ferrying golf bags to and from the parking lot. Of course, premium green fees of $50 to $100 are required to pay this sort of freight. Until recently, Sugarloaf Golf Club in Kingfield and Samoset Resort in Rockport had been Maine’s only two examples of the genre. They have been joined this year by the tony duo of Dunegrass Golf Club in Old Orchard Beach and Belgrade Lakes Golf Club. Les Otten’s American Ski Co. (ASC), which owns Sugarloaf, will soon break ground on a second, upscale 18 in Kingfield, and the Samoset — looking to keep up with the Jones — recently underwent a significant renovation and is mulling a new, par-3 layout.
“Tourists might drop $80 to play those courses, but as far as the natives are concerned, Maine remains a $25 state,” warns Ralph Noel, the general manager at The Meadows Golf Club in Litchfield, an 18-hole facility that opened its first nine last year; the second was christened this spring. “I think the state is in danger of being over built. I’m not certain of that, but I have serious concerns. The growth of golf has been tremendous, but all this new construction may be overdoing it a bit.”
Noel’s perspective is more telling than that of your typical golf course general manager working in an ever-more competitive market. He was president of the Maine State Golf Association (MSGA) from 1983-84 and served as the organization’s first executive director from 1989 through 1997. His in-state golf experience stretches back to 1949, when he started caddying at Martindale Country Club in Auburn, and he’s never seen anything like the recent spate of golf development.
“Heavens no! This is unprecedented,” explained Noel, who added that Maine’s short playing season — typically April to October — puts new developments further behind the eight-ball. “I worry for the smaller facilities. Most of us away from Portland probably aren’t charging enough; our [The Meadows’] green fees are $12 for 9 holes, $18 for 18 holes with no added bump on the weekend. At that rate, doing 25,000 rounds a year, we’ll make our target and serve our debt in three years… I think anybody who gets into the golf business these days has to be fairly prudent. Golfers simply have more options, with more on the way. “
While Maine’s tourism office estimates that 6.7 million people visit the state each year, it’s not clear how many are golfers. MSGA Executive Director Nancy DeFrancesco believes the figure to be approximately 20 percent. Let’s be conservative and say its 15 percent: That’s 1 million golfers to complement some 60,000 resident players — enough to convince some observers that Maine’s current development frenzy might not even meet demand.
“We need all the facilities we can get,” said Peter Webber, who developed the first Sugarloaf course; he’s consulting to ASC on its sister facility. “The smaller projects perform a vital function; we need more of them for beginning and junior golfers. It’s very similar to local ski areas: We need that feeder system. Not everyone can afford to come to Sugarloaf; this is a resort course, even for Mainers. We’d love to have them three times a year but we don’t expect them every week. These feeder courses provide the chance to learn the game and play it consistently.”
Indeed, Kyle Evans — a partner in the Belgrade Lakes venture and the facility’s general manager — sees the smaller facilities rounding out the state’s golf offerings. “Maine is getting close to being a true golf destination,” Evans said. “People said it was crazy to build all those courses in Myrtle Beach [S.C.]. They’ve got 100 now, but they’re still building five a year. Florida is busy all winter and no one plays there all summer. Why can’t we get a piece of that?”