AUGUSTA — It was a sunny, warm day, so Dr. 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 Gov. 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.”

Dr. Robert Berube hits out of a sand trap Monday at the Augusta Country Club in Manchester. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Gov. Janet 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.

Nicholas Pelotte, general manager of the Waterville Country Club, said his facility is adhering to the governor’s guidance to not operate amid the virus outbreak.

“It’s important for the Waterville Country Club to know our stance is we are taking the direction from the state leadership very seriously and they are the most informed people in the situation,” Pelotte said. “We’re going to support them, if they don’t think golf courses should be open right now.”

Nicholas Pelotte, left, and Chris Warren ride with Irish Setter Rogan while towing a greens mower Monday at the Waterville Country Club. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

Pelotte also said staff have planning how to make the best of the situation at the Waterville Country Club, which is a nonprofit 501c7 organization with about 400 members and six employees working currently. If courses can’t reopen until May, the club is looking aerate its greens in mid-April instead of mid-May, to be prepared for quality golfing next month.

“We want nothing more than members and guests to be able to play here, so we’ve been brainstorming for a month now what do at the club to be a safe place to play golf,” Pelotte said. “We’re doing a lot of work here and we’re hopeful. We’re trying to make the best of it.”

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.”

A six pack of Miller Lite sits in an empty golf cart at the Augusta Country Club in Manchester on Monday Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

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 Am 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.”

Meadows Golf Club superintendent Paul Richmond surveys the empty course while mowing a green on Monday. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

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 Tuesday afternoon, the petition had gathered over 5,000 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 three 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.

“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 JW 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 over-react if we don’t need to.”

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