A lot can happen in 40 years.
The first time Brian Bickford set foot on the rolling, tree-lined fairways at Val Halla GC in Cumberland, Maine, he was nine years old and didn’t know a bunker from a beach. He shot 81 – for nine holes – but the golf bug had bitten. Bickford became an avid player, and his fondness for the game grew thanks to the caddying he did for some of Val Halla’s pioneer members.
“I had a blast caddying for guys like Bob Darling Sr. and Dave Moody,” Bickford said. “I learned to love the game caddying for them, and I learned a lot about playing the game from them, too. It was a great place to grow up. You had a lot of eyes on you, so it was a safe place to be, but you also had a lot of freedom.”
Bickford would go on to become not just one of Val Halla’s more accomplished players, but eventually its guiding light. Today, a Class A PGA Professional as well as the Recreation Director for all of the town’s recreational complexes, he oversees everything at the course, which has become one of Maine’s busiest – and best. The Maine State Golf Association and Maine Golf Foundation moved into quarters at Val Halla last year. This year, the First Tee of Maine will join them. For Bickford, it’s been rewarding to see all the positive developments at what’s been his home club since he was old enough to swing one. But he’s determined to keep aiming for the next level – something that the club’s members and visitors should be thankful for.
“We’re trying to improve things every year. A lot of the courses that were built in the late 80s and early 90s are starting to age. And as the economy is sinking a little bit and golf is trending down a little bit, they’re not reinvesting because they have debt to service. What we’re trying to do is buck the trend as much as we can and put money into our course. So we’re able to attract people from those courses that were new and shiny 15 years ago but aren’t presenting themselves quite so well today.”
Fifteen years ago, Val Halla was a lot like those currently troubled courses that Bickford alludes to – only it wasn’t shiny, it was pretty scruffy around the edges. Bunkers had become rock-strewn. Fairways were either muddy or weedy or baked dry. The greens suffered from snow mold and other ailments. And while there had always been a coterie of dedicated die-hards in the membership, all of them yearned to see their beloved course in better shape. That wish is slowly but surely coming true. With the support of Cumberland’s Town Manager, Bill Shane, and the rest of the town council, a systematic upgrade of the course and facilities at Val Halla began. Double-row irrigation was put in. Drainage projects sprang up. Several new tees were built and fairways reseeded. Bunkers got new sand. Cart paths appeared. In what seemed like a short period of time, Val Halla went from being a loveable disappointment condition-wise to a championship-caliber track that might host the Maine Open some day. Last season, the greens were as good as any in the state.
“When somebody said ‘Hey, Brian, what would you think about hosting the Maine Open in a couple years,’ I was like, ‘ah, I’m not sure we’re there yet, but give us some time. That might be fun.’ It was one of those compliments that means, you’re getting there. You’re not quite there yet, but you’re getting there.”
An improved course is only one aspect of what has made Val Halla successful since Bickford took over six years ago. Having worked as a bean-counter in the hospital administration world, Bickford knew well the importance of identifying goals and creating programs to achieve them. Today, he’s applying his management and marketing skills to growing Val Halla’s business and broadening participation in the game. To give women more ways to enjoy playing and more opportunities to utilize the facilities at Val Halla, he created a “Wine & Nine” program that brings players out for a little early-evening instruction, followed by nine holes, followed by a little friendly socializing. He had hoped to get a dozen players to sign up when he began the program. He got 73. This year, “Wine & Nine” has three different levels of players coming out on three different weeknights, with over 240 women participating. In combination with the Wednesday-night women’s league, it means a lot of gals are teeing it up at Val Halla. In fact, three of the club’s top-10 players in terms of total rounds played in 2010 were women, something that Bickford is understandably proud of.
“They went from not playing at all to playing more than 90 rounds each in a summer,” he said. “Imagine that! We all wish we could play that much!”
The Maine State Golf Association’s Executive Director, Nancy Storey, spent many of her formative years at Val Halla, too, and shares Bickford’s love for the place. To have the Maine Golf House at Val Halla now seems like a natural to her.
“As someone who grew up in Cumberland and worked at the snack bar here all through high school and college, this has really felt like coming home for me personally,” said Storey. “For the MSGA, it’s been wonderful to be involved with a community that is so positive toward golf and the values it represents. Everyone that we’ve dealt with from the town, especially Town Manager Bill Shane, has really worked to make us feel at home and to see that the move continues to be a win-win situation for the golf associations as well as the people from the town.”
Bickford agrees. “Our mission statements are similar. The mission of the MSGA and the Maine Golf Foundation is to promote amateur golf within Maine and at Val Halla we’re doing our best to promote amateur golf, too. We’re here to grow the game and make it fun for people just like they are. We see eye to eye on a lot of things. There’s a lot of synergy there and it’s been, I’d say, a pretty easy marriage.”
Maine’s Golf House didn’t happen overnight. But now that it’s found a home at Val Halla, it’s full speed ahead.
“As the E.D. of the MSGA, I’ve had the golf house ‘dream’ for about 15 years. I wasn’t sure it would ever come true. Now that it has, I really feel like golf is going where it needs to go in Maine. The game has so many positive aspects, I’ve seen so many kids saved by it, and I’ve seen so many people engaged by it that I swear its extends your life expectancy. I know of no other activity that can be enjoyed so thoroughly by so many. To be here at Val Halla, where Brian Bickford brings 200 new women through the game through the ‘Wine & Nine’ program every year, and has almost 500 kids in the junior program, who will all be able to enjoy the sport for a lifetime, ensures the future of our organization.”
With hundreds of kids in its junior program – getting instruction, learning about etiquette, and just having fun playing golf all summer long – Val Halla is indeed a place with a youthful feel to it. Bickford’s daughter, Meghan, added her own USGA- and LPGA Foundation-certified “girls only” golf camp to the junior lineup in 2010, and it will be up and running again this year. Designed to be instructive but also fun, it features fun theme weeks like “Crazy Sock Week” and “Pink Week.” This year, “Munchie Mondays” will be added to the lineup with unique food themes, as will a trip over water to the classic nine-hole course on Chebeague Island. A trademark of Meghan’s Golf Camp participants is the Daphne’s animal headcover that each of them sports on her driver. It’s all about fun – and that’s why it’s helping to grow golf amongst a new group of young players.
Then there’s the junior golf room – the only one in the state as far as Bickford knows. The idea for it came about when local resident and golfer Morris Fisher retired from CB Richard Ellis/The Boulos Company, a commercial real estate firm, and founder Joe Boulos made a sizable donation to the club’s junior program in Fisher’s name. The junior room, which is located on the club’s lower level, offer the club’s young set a place to get together after events and just be kids (under adult supervision, of course). There’s a flat-screen TV, a Wii for playing indoor golf, and even an outdoor area beneath the club’s second-floor deck. Bickford also uses part of the club’s downstairs area to show kids how to regrip and reshaft clubs. It’s all part of the program.
“My training in health care showed me that it pays to look at things programmatically,” said Bickford. “We’re looking for areas where we can grow, whether it’s juniors or ladies or whatever and we figure if we can get the programs right, we’ll get the volume and the positive marketing spin and word of mouth that will lead to us getting our share of members and repeat players.”
This year, Val Halla will serve as a course affiliate for The First Tee of Maine, and with that honor come some new responsibilities. The First Tee, which will be overseen by the Maine Golf Foundation, is all about growing the game, too – but with a wrinkle. It promotes the learning of nine core values that extend well beyond sportsmanship – and, Bickford adds, it recently joined forces with an Annika Sorenstam-led program that encourages healthy lifestyles for kids through its “nine healthy habits.”
According to Storey, having The First Tee at Val Halla is a great fit.
“As I mentioned, Brian had nearly 500 kids in his junior program last year,” said Storey. Five hundred! That’s more than are in any five other junior programs combined! That Val Halla has the reputation for being kid-friendly is undisputed. This goes back to the course’s beginnings. It’s always been kid-friendly, which makes it a natural place for a First Tee program. I know that the First Tee will also still be looking to run programs in Portland, too. But to have one site where all programs can run out of is more efficient – just like the Golf House will be for all seven golf associations. I can envision beginner programs at a number of sites, with kids being able to come together to compete at other sites. What it will do for The First Tee is facilitate the opportunity to go statewide sooner. And the kids can be guaranteed that they’ll be getting the best overall golf experience available anywhere. It’s very exciting!”
With all this talk about juniors and women, you might think that Val Halla has only set its sights on serving special-interest groups. Not so. While Bickford and the town agree that the facility has to serve people of all ages and genders, traditional male players feel very much at home at the club. The Val Halla men’s association fields strong events almost every weekend, and in addition, the club’s Thursday-night Coke Scrambles are hugely popular, both with members and with players from other clubs who are looking to cash in either week-to-week or during the season-long challenge that was added to the Scramble last year. The club boasts a large number of single-digit handicappers, and last year Val Halla teams finished first and second in the Maine State Club Team Championship.
It’s the kind of course that breeds good golfers. Many of the fairways are tree-lined, particularly on the opening nine, which encourages control from the tee. And while the greens are not wildly undulating by any means, when they’re rolling fast they have subtle breaks that have been known to confound more than a few players. The course’s 9th hole, a sharp dogleg-right that plays over water on your second shot, is one of the area’s most challenging par 4s. It used to be the course’s finishing hole, which meant that it ruined many a good round; now, it’s just another tough hole you have to negotiate on your way to the turn. The back nine presents some challenges, too. The long par-5 12th hole can be a bear, while the dogleg-right 16th and long par-3 17th have been known to scorch their share of rounds, too. It’s not surprising that Val Halla players have games that seem to travel well.
What’s up for Val Halla in 2011? More course enhancements are in the works, as the club considers some strategic tree removal and other future upgrades. New electric carts will replace the old gas ones, too – something that’s sure to add to the peaceful ambience at the club. And the Viking Grill will be under new management, with Mike Smith (formerly of The Cumberland Café and Toddy Brook) leading the effort to feed and water all the players and visitors. Expect changes to the menu there, with breakfast service a possibility. It’s all in support of the game and the people who play and love it.
“It may sound kind of corny, but the part of my job I love most is seeing people love the game,” said Bickford. “It could be any aspect of the game, whether it’s being out on the driving range, hitting a good shot, buying a new club, or posting a personal-low score. I love the Sunday events, too, I really get into those. And I really enjoy the junior golf aspect. But I guess I have to say that thing I like most in general is change. With Val Halla being a municipal golf club, things change from day to day and week to week in ways they never could at a private club that has longstanding traditions and such. If every day were the same, I’d go out of my mind. Change is good.”
In the context of what Bickford has accomplished in his tenure at Val Halla, truer words have never been spoken.