VASSALBORO — Natanis pro Dick Browne remembers when coaches and media crowded into the course’s tiny clubhouse each October to find out who won the state’s high school golf tournament.
With the wood stove often burning in the background, officials sorted out results. Although the tournament began at 10 a.m. in those days as it does now, play ended around twilight and golfers usually rode home in the dark. A lot has changed since then.
Natanis has expanded from 27 holes to 36, a new clubhouse was built in 1995 and just a few years ago a structure was built on the site of the old clubhouse to accommodate tournaments. Now the expansive parking lot is empty and golfers are on their way around 4 p.m.
“We’re still making improvements,” said Browne, who will run the team tournament this Saturday at Natanis and the individual tournament the following Saturday.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the Browne family’s commitment to high school golf. Dick Browne estimates Natanis began hosting the tournament 30 years ago and there are no plans to move it. It began with Dick’s parents, Paul and Lucy Browne, both deceased, who owned and operated the course for years.
“My mother and father were huge advocates of junior golf,” Browne said. “My dad used to do free junior clinics. He always said kids are the future of the game.”
Natanis has many things going for it. It’s the only course in the state with 36 holes and it’s centrally located. And both the Tomahawk and Arrowhead courses are good tests of golf and in excellent condition.
“Their hospitality is as good as anywhere and they manage this course very well,” Telstar coach Jim Lunney said. “It’s a very nice layout here, both sides.”
Natanis’ commitment to high school golf extends far beyond two Saturdays in late fall. The course hosts three teams — Cony, Winslow and Erskine — for regular-season matches as well as several conference tournaments, including the Southern Maine Activities Association (SMAA), the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference (KVAC) and the Mountain Valley Conference (MVC).
“It’s really good to have one place where the kids can come in and play their playoffs and come back here for the states,” Lunney said.
Any high school golfer can play as many practice rounds in the fall at the course as they wish. The cost is $20 and includes anyone who accompanies them.
“It’s $20 for anybody associated with a kid playing with them,” clubhouse manager Rob Browne said.
Rob Browne admits holding the state and conference tournaments each year is good publicity for the course. He said he hears from people all the time who recall their high school tournament at Natanis.
“You get people from The County, you get people from southern Maine, you get people from the coast,” Rob Browne said. “They might not be here otherwise.”
The Brownes also own Lakewood Golf Course in Madison, home to three high school teams and junior high teams. It’s operated by Kevin Browne, son of the late Jim Browne, Dick’s brother.The commitment to junior golf is the same at Lakewood, too. In fact, the course employs several team members from Madison and Skowhegan, who can play for free there and at Natanis during their summer employment.
“If kids want to play golf at Lakewood, the Brownes will find a way,” Madison coach Heath Cowan said. “Money won’t get in the way.”
Improvements are still being made for the high school tournament. Scores are now available on the Maine Principals’ Association website as they come in and there are plans to stream play live from the 18th hole. But for the most part everything runs smoothly. Dick Browne has several volunteers, led by Teddi and Don Doyon, and has worked closely with the MPA’s Jerry Durgin for several years.
Browne, who played high school golf at Waterville, was coached by his older brother Bill. Both men coached teams — Dick coached Winslow — to state titles and were fervent advocates of the junior game. Dick Browne said the quality of golf is better today because there are more kids playing. But the thrill of a state tournament remains the same.
“For some kids it’s just a once in a lifetime experience,” he said. “I love having it at Natanis. I like to run it, I like to see the kids out playing.”
Gary Hawkins — 621-5638