Children watch the ball’s trajectory after a putt by Arnav Thakker, third from right, during a youth golf program at Val Halla Golf and Recreation in Cumberland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Declan Frueh gathered some old clubs, gathered some friends and headed out to the golf course. When the group got to Riverside Golf Course in Portland, they went up to pay for their round.

Frueh paid $30. His friends paid $5.

“I’m like ‘What is happening?'” said Frueh, 17, who will be a senior this fall at Falmouth High. “I was like ‘You guys are lying. No way can you play nine holes … for five dollars.'”

Frueh’s friends were members of Youth on Course, a national nonprofit program that allows junior players to play golf for only $5 a round. Motivated by the experience, Frueh signed up himself.

“It is 100 percent (what got me playing). In the 2021 season, I golfed three times. … I’d say I’ve already been about 15 times this year,” Frueh said. “It’s a great resource. … If you can use a hand-me-down set of clubs and you’ve got $5 golf, it’s really not a high-class sport anymore.”

In just two years, the program has attracted more than 800 golfers in Maine between the ages of 6 and 18. Players pay an annual fee of $10-$30, depending on the course, to take advantage of the $5 rounds of up to 18 holes. They must bring their own clubs.


Maine Golf – formerly the Maine State Golf Association – has been eager to get more children from kindergarten to high school playing golf in hopes of fostering a lifetime interest in the sport. Maine, like many other states, has seen several golf courses close over the past five years or so because of dwindling memberships.

“Historically, junior golf used to start when kids got to middle school,” said Brian Bickford, Maine Golf’s executive director. All other sports start when kids are 5 or 6 years old. So we need to start when they’re 5 and 6 years old.”

Max Metivier, center, 9, of Falmouth swings on the driving range alongside fellow campers in a youth golf program at Val Halla Golf and Recreation in Cumberland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine began offering the Youth on Course program in 2021. The number of members in the state has risen from 600 last year to 850 this season, Bickford said, and the number of courses offering Youth on Course discounts is up from 16 to 22 over the past year.

Maine Golf, with help from the national organization, subsidizes the difference between a course’s regular junior greens fees and the $5 fee the course charges Youth on Course members. Typically, fees for juniors can run up to $40 for nine holes.


Youth on Course is just one of the ways that Maine Golf is trying to grow the sport at the junior level.


The organization took over the former Freeport Country Club in April and renamed it the Maine Golf Center, with a focus of making it a base for youth play and instruction. The center holds junior golf programs on Sundays, as well as Youth on Course during the week.

“We’re looking forward to the future,” said A.J. Simokaitis, the director of the Maine Golf Center and the golf coach at Falmouth High. “Being an older state, older demographic, we’ve got to really lean on the youth and get them hooked early so that we’ve got lifelong golfers.”

Bickford said Maine Golf’s mission has been to give kids opportunities to play at all ages and at every step of their development.

Maceo Nteta of Northampton, Massachusetts, putts on a practice green during a youth golf program at Val Halla Golf and Recreation in Cumberland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“If you start really young, then that’s great but it’s 10 years before they graduate. And if you just run a high school league, then you’re just getting kids that are already in the game,” he said. “It’s making sure you’ve got touches all the way from 6 to the age of 18. … It’s keeping the kids engaged, so when the time is right they select golf.”

Maine’s youth golf boom has been mirrored throughout the country. Adam Heieck, Youth on Course’s CEO who has been with the organization since its beginning in 2006, said the program had 70,000 members at the start of 2020. Now, the number is up to just under 135,000, and the number of affiliated courses has risen from 1,200 to 1,830 in two years.

Heieck said the program has brought golf to families across the economic spectrum nationally.


“From an income perspective, I would say definitely,” he said. “We haven’t seen a direct correlation in terms of race or gender. But in terms of income from families, we’re serving tens of tens of thousands of lower-income families, for sure.”

Heieck said he’s been impressed by the growth just in Maine, which had seen 1,598 rounds of Youth on Course golf played in the state compared to 692 at the same point last year.

“We’re scratching the surface,” Heieck said. “We’re just getting started.”


Youth golf got its biggest boost from the pandemic. COVID’s arrival forced many outlets for recreation to close, allowing golf to pick up new players – and, as a result, more kids.

“Golf saw a resurgence across the board, but especially junior golf,” said Jason Cox, executive director of the HV3 Foundation, a national effort started by PGA Tour golfer Harold Varner III that aims to ease the registration and equipment cost of sports for children. “A lot of the other junior youth programs, whether it’s baseball, football, basketball, whatever, they had to shut down and weren’t able to go. Golf was able to, and we saw a big surge in participation.”


Bickford said Maine Golf had a perfect opportunity to ramp up the youth game.

“I watched the pandemic fill almost every golf course south of Augusta … (but) there wasn’t as much room for (juniors), because the adults were playing,” he said. “All of a sudden, we heard that Freeport (Country Club) was going to become available. … (Maine Golf) thought that the time was now.”

Maine Golf reached out to Eli Spaulding, a junior at Freeport High this fall, and other junior golfers for input on how to cater the sport to young players. “The key is, one, to have places to play around you, which we do have in Maine, and then having affordable prices is another big thing,” Spaulding says. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In 2020, Maine Golf set up a youth committee of some of the top juniors in the state, including Eli Spaulding, Ruby Haylock, Jade Haylock, Connor Albert, Cole Binette and Mick Madden, to elicit input on how to best cater to the sport to young players.

“The key is, one, to have places to play around you, which we do have in Maine, and then having affordable prices is another big thing,” said Spaulding, 16, a rising junior at Freeport High who won his second straight Maine junior title in July. “A third big thing is just having a community of people around you that you already know to go out and have fun with when you go out and play.”


Abby Spector, the seven-time Maine Women’s Amateur champion, was hired at Riverside in 2016 as the director of instruction, with a task of revamping the youth golf program.


“For the past three years, we’ve had around 100 kids in our clinics in the summer. … (In 2016) we had 50 kids in our program. We’ve doubled since then,” said Spector, a former Waterville High star whose clinics have players between 8 and 16. “It’s always full, with kids on the waiting list, which is awesome. … I like the way that it’s growing, and that we are paying attention to it.”

The same is true at Val Halla Golf and Recreation in Cumberland, where a youth program that Spaulding used to participate in now has 36 players largely between 7 and 14. On a recent Wednesday morning, those young players gathered first for a morning putting contest, and then broke into different groups, some going to the practice green and others going to the driving range before rotating. In the afternoon after lunch, they went out to play on the course.

“It’s a mixture of playing golf and doing fun activities,” said Noah Baril, 13, an eighth-grader from North Yarmouth. “A lot of kids enjoy it.”

Andrew Berg, director of junior golf at Val Halla Golf and Recreation, gives instruction to Michael Geoghan, 12, of Falmouth on the course’s driving range. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Andrew Berg, 26, is in his second year running the program, which features instruction along with games like chipping and long drive contests

“We can’t make it really, really golf-heavy,” he said. “We have it so the kids can enjoy their time out here, and hopefully if they’re having fun … they’ll come later and do more then. This is to get them into the game and enjoying it, more than making tour professionals out of them.”

Michael Geoghan, 12, a seventh-grader from Falmouth, is in his third year with the Val Halla program.


“A couple of years ago I was here and there were only like 20 kids, and now there are like 40,” he said. “I think the fun part’s good, because a lot of kids if they go out and play, they’re like ‘I don’t really like this,’ and they start to not want to do it anymore. But if you add some fun into that, they’ll be like ‘Oh, this is fun,’ and keep wanting to do it until you can have them go on a course and keep going with it.”

The cost is helped by programs like the HV3 Foundation and Youth on Course. Simokaitis, the Maine Golf Center director, said the cost had been an impediment to expanding youth golf in Maine.

“We looked in-depth at some of the junior rates around the state, and we were kind of surprised to see $35, $40 for nine holes for kids to go play golf. It’s not really that feasible for the majority of parents in our state,” he said. “With Youth on Course, they can just go play and play with their buddies.”

Bickford, Maine Golf’s executive director, used to run the Val Halla program and hopes a new crop of golfers is being born.

“(Players would) come up to me and say ‘Hey coach, I have to leave early to go to baseball.’ And I used to say ‘Someday, I want you to leave baseball early and go to golf,'” he said. “If we’ve got more rounds being played, more members, it’s just trending the right way.”

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