PORTLAND, Maine – Ask most golfers about the Maine State Golf Association and you can expect one of two answers. “They run tournaments” or “They manage our handicaps”. Both of those answers are true, but MSGA is a lot more.
The web site www.mesga.org is still the place to go for tournament schedules such as the MSGA Play Days, weekly events at member courses throughout the state that run through the end of October. Information on registration is also on line and member players can look up their handicaps.
One of the most important programs is the MSGA Scholarship Fund. Started as a Caddie Fund in 1950 this program has grown to a $1.2 million endowment that awards thousands in scholarships each year. To date more than 530 Maine students from all 16 counties have received a total of over $1.7 million to advance their education. Details on how to qualify for the scholarships and to donate can be found on the web site.
We talked with MSGA executive director Brian Bickford about how the role of the organization has expanded since he took office in 2018. Bickford brings a near perfect background to the job of handling the new roles of MSGA. Before becoming a full time golf pro he worked in Health Care finances serving as CFO at several hospitals. Add 15 years as Director of Golf at Val Halla the popular muni owned by the town of Cumberland and Bickford is well prepared to work both the golf and business side of the association.
The first year or two, he was occupied with adding women’s golf to the schedule. Previously the ladies had their own organizations, the Maine Women’s Golf Association and the Southern Maine Women’s Golf Association, both operating their own tournament schedules and crowning their own champions. The success of that merger is evidenced by the full list of activities for Women’s Golf Week, provided here recently.
“MSGA was already at a crossroads when I took over and the pandemic accelerated the process,” said Bickford from his office in Center, Maine. “We took a close look at the numbers and could see areas that needed attention. One number was the total impact of golf on Maine’s economy, $325 million annually. That’s on a par with skiing’s impact.”
Unlike skiing where the major impact is obvious from the thousands of beds filled by the state’s two largest ski resorts, Sugarloaf and Sunday River, golf courses are scattered throughout the state. Maine’s ski industry has long worked with Maine Tourism and MSGA has joined up as well.
Bickford noted that Maine Tourism had some 2000 email contacts inquiring about golf. It was also learned that with the pandemic, many visitors were moving inland from the coast for perceived safety reasons. Courses looked to MSGA for input on setting up safety precautions such as cart use and spacing. It was certainly easier to have golfers change shoes at their cars than it was to have skiers boot up in the parking lot. Golf turned out to be an easy way for people to get outside with little risk and it was reflected in the numbers. There was also an increase in off course activity such as driving ranges and miniature golf. Indoor golf has also shown an increase. Bickford is involved with an indoor set up in Westbrook where he says they have over 220 golfers in a league. One concern is time. An 18 hole round indoors can be played in one hour.
MSGA’s Executive Director feels there is a lot of room for growth in Maine golf and he cites many positives. Ninety percent of Maine’s courses are public and competitively priced, especially to golfers from more heavily populated areas in southern New England and beyond. Golf is also a key supporter of charities adding to the game’s financial impact in the state.
For Brian Bickford the challenge is a matter of reaching out to golfers and potential golfers. A new website is a start of this rebranding with more general golf information. Watch the website for details on more promotions, of which should be popular in this state with close to 130 golf courses and seemingly as many micro breweries, will be called Tap and Tees.