High school golfers observe social distancing etiquette during a match Monday at Natanis in Vassalboro. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

 

AUGUSTA — It’s going to be the same game it’s always been. But that doesn’t mean high school golf won’t be a little different this fall.

The season, already a sprint each year, is now even shorter. Teams that played full conference schedules last season are confined to three-team pods. And the state championships, normally a two-day event, will now be packed into one afternoon.

It will be different. But, as coaches are quick to point out, at least it’s something.

“We’re just happy that we’re going to have a season,” said Khristian Clement, the coach of a Waterville team that should be among Class B’s top teams this fall. “We feel pretty lucky to be able to play.”

It wasn’t a given, as concerns about COVID-19 transmission had all fall sports in danger of cancellation. Golf eventually got the green light, but delays to the season meant the first matches, which normally come at the end of August, were instead held Sept. 21.

And for players hoping to qualify Oct. 5 or 6 for the state championships on Oct. 9 or 10, that means there won’t be much time to find their game out on the course.

“Only having six matches, that really brings it out,” Erskine sophomore Joe Lemelin said. “It definitely makes you want to play better, because you know you don’t have as many opportunities, and you know states are only in two weeks. You just have to hit the ground running, and you have to play at the highest caliber you can, or you’re done.”

The shorter season isn’t easy for coaches either, who have to adjust how they work with their players. Gardiner coach Chad Hopkins, a PGA professional, can rebuild a player’s swing with a month and a half at his disposal. With two weeks, however, broad strokes and slight tweaks are the way to go.

“I’ve spent a week long (before) just on putting,” he said. “Now it’s more CliffsNotes version. … If I took my No. 8 player and in theory rebuilt his swing, it would be all the way until the last day of our roughly two-week season until it even felt somewhat comfortable to him. So I can’t do that.”

For coaches of deep teams with parity in the middle of the roster, a shorter schedule makes it harder for the ladder to crystalize, and therefore makes it harder to be certain that the six best players represent the team come championship day.

“I’m going to have to make a tough decision as to who I think is playing the best golf at the time,” Clement said. “They’re really close, and golf is such a fickle game. You can be playing well, and all of a sudden lose it for a little bit. … That’s going to be my biggest challenge, if we do qualify for states, is figuring out who’s going to be the fifth and who’s going to be the guy who gets left out. I could make a mistake there, take the wrong person and it could cost us a good finish.”

High school golfers look for the ball during a match Monday at Natanis in Vassalboro. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Even the matches making up that shorter season will be different. In the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, COVID concerns prompted member teams to opt for three-team pods to minimize exposure. That means Cony, Gardiner and Maranacook play each other all season. As do Waterville, Lawrence and Erskine. And Nokomis, MCI and Mount View. And Messalonskee and Skowhegan (Mt. Blue, which canceled fall sports, was going to be the third).

“I feel like it’ll get annoying at a point, playing just those two teams,” Cony senior Quincy Tobias said. “But it is what it is. You do what you can do to play.”

Gardiner senior Darien Jamison put a brighter spin on the situation.

“I definitely feel like for this first week it’ll be fine, because we’ll switch courses, which will play a little differently to people’s strengths,” he said. “My thing is, if you go and lose to a kid, then you’ve got Wednesday, Thursday, you can win. You can go back and forth.”

In the Mountain Valley Conference and East/West Conference, regular season match play will look like it always has. That doesn’t mean, however, that those teams aren’t facing their own challenges. Monmouth coach Don Flanagan said it might be tough for his team to find time to play Natanis before heading there for the state qualifiers on Oct. 5.

“Everything’s so condensed,” he said. “We’re playing matches Monday, Wednesday, Friday, from the start of the season to the postseason. There’s not a lot of spare time.”

Championship day will have its wrinkles as well. According to Erskine coach Mark Bailey, whose team won the Class B title in 2016, combining the individual and team championships in one round will shake up how coaches and players alike approach the tournament.

“When we were successful in 2016, we had definitely a different approach team day vs. individual,” he said. “As far as a team, we had total different approaches on which holes we were going to hit driver, and where we were going to take our risks. When they’re out as an individual, I put more of that responsibility on them, give them a little more leeway to say ‘Hey, this is your score. If you want to take a risk here, go ahead.’

“When they’re playing that score for a team, it’s like ‘No, no. I’m going to tell you which risks we’re going to take, because the rest of the guys are counting on you.’ ”

Flanagan agreed that the days normally had their own unique strategies.

“As a team approach, in our program, we’ll be a little more conservative so we stay away from the big number, because you’re playing for teammates as well as your own score,” he said.

Gardiner’s Hopkins, however, sees a positive to the new setup.

“In a way, it might be beneficial,” he said. “I’ve had kids that, when it’s the team, they played well that day to qualify. And then the three kids made the individuals, one of them played OK and the other two completely bombed, because they maybe thought of it more so like ‘Well, this is individuals, so all eyes are on me.’

“Now, maybe they can be more relaxed. ‘It’s one time. I’m going to give it my all today, and if I have a great day it’s going to be great, and if I don’t, it is what it is.’ “

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