As the weather warmed and grass turned from dormant brown to more eye-catching green, golf courses stood ready for players to tee it up and hit the links, and, in some cases, had participants smack golf balls down the fairways for a few days in early-spring play.

However, that abruptly changed when Maine Governor Janet Mills issued a "Stay Healthy at Home" order on March 31, which deemed golf courses as a non-essential business, and the clubs were not allowed to open, or, perhaps more disappointing, were forced to close.

That negated an opportunity for many courses, due to a mild winter and better-than-usual early-spring weather conditions, to open early and get a jump on the season in March or April.

Not so fast.

A month later, Mills extended the stay-at-home order to May 31, part of a four-stage economic reopening plan for Maine due to the continued health concerns over the COVID-19 (coronarvirus) pandemic, but courses found positive news as they were among the first businesses allowed to open as part of "Stage 1."

Despite the good news, for golfers across the region and state, there are restrictions. Golfers can only play on a course in the county they reside, unless they are a member of a course outside their resident county, according to the Covid-19 Prevention Checklist Industry Guidance for golf and disk golf courses released on April 29.

"This is a huge step forward for all golfers in the state, but at the same time it's a real test in terms of following correct guidelines, and making sure that we don't get in a situation where we have to go back to where we don't have golf," said Alex Plummer, head pro at Goose River Golf Club in Rockport. "We are going to open May 1, but our course is more susceptible to the wet weather, so we will probably open walking only."

"It's about time," said Terrell Whitney, a member of the Northport Golf Club board of directors. "We've been working on it with the [Maine State Golf Association] for the last several weeks with restrictions. This is going to be a new normal right now, and there's going to be many restrictions. The public has to know we are doing it the right way and the safe way."

"I think the opening of golf courses is overdue," said Jim Murphy Jr., president of Union Country Club. "Golfers rarely get within six feet of each other. I see more six foot infractions in the grocery stores, and certainly less often than what I have witnessed with other outdoor activities that were allowed. The closing of golf courses was not necessary for the entire month. Golfers tend to play by the rules with a lot of courtesy, and the new rules are just the new common sense in the current health emergency."

"Golf courses throughout the state of Maine I think are in a unique position right now to help show people that certain activities can take place given social distancing restrictions and precautions that align with CDC procedures," said Karl Enroth, general manager and golf pro at Megunticook Golf Club in Rockport. "People want to get outside, put their minds off things and escape a little while getting some exercise. To that point, I believe golf courses here in Maine are taking their role seriously to be open in safe responsible ways while providing a valuable resource for people to get outside and enjoy life in these difficult times."

"Our number one goal is to keep the customers and the employees safe during this worldwide pandemic," said Keenan Flanagan, Professional Golfers of America pro at Rockland Golf Club. [We ask for you to] please work with us to be leaders in the industry of playing golf in a safe environment."

In the Midcoast, Rockland Golf Club, Northport Golf Club, Goose River Golf Club, West Appleton Country Club, Country View Golf Club in Brooks, Searsport Pines Golf Club and Samoset Resort Golf Club in Rockport are open to public/transient play, with restrictions here and there. Union Country Club and Megunticook Golf Club are private and only allow members and their guests to play the courses.

"Park, Play & Go Home"

The Maine State Golf Association has put forth "Park, Play & Go Home" guidelines for courses and members to abide by when courses reopen.

The MSGA instructs players to reserve tee times in advance "then arrive at the golf course 10 minutes ahead of time ready to play, tee off and enjoy your round of golf employing social distancing at all times," then, "leave the golf course immediately after you're done playing to eliminate congestion at the club."

A portion of a statement on the MSGA website read, "It is our job as members and employees at all Maine golf courses to all do our part to ensure that golf remains an acceptable activity. It is up to us to adhere to the 'new normal' as the season resumes, following all protocols that have been put in place behind the scenes to make golf an appropriate recreational activity in the eyes of the state government. Any disregard for these procedures or social distancing at one club could have adverse effects on golfers all around the state."

To read the full MSGA post click here.

"We are encouraging people to call ahead and reserve times," said Plummer. "Walk-ins will be allowed, but people need to temper expectations and know if they show up that may have to wait to get out onto the course. Like I told my membership, if we come together and work with these guidelines the better it will be for everybody."

Despite Goose River Golf Club open to guests, Northport Golf Club has taken the opposite approach.

"We are going to be members-only, which will be easier for us to control," said Whitney. "It is a problem financially because we don't get the money from outsiders, but we feel it is the best way to do it at this time. This will allow our members to get out and enjoy [the course] a little bit."

Rockland is taking tee times online or by phone, with no personal interaction. The clubhouse will not be open for the foreseeable future.

Social distancing is the premise of the MSGA guidelines, which means clubhouses will be closed, only single riders in a golf cart, no bunker rakes or ball washers.

Removing the ball from the cup after a completed hole also takes on a new look. Some course have rubber/plastic plugs in the hole and when a ball hits that barrier or stick it is deemed in the hole. No need to touch flag sticks, which must be kept in holes

"Different golf courses have instituted different methods in terms of removing the ball from the cup," said Plummer. "We are going to turn the cup upside down, which allows the ball to enter the hole, but stops it from going all the way down."

Northport has closed its putting greens and driving range. Some have not opened their clubhouses which limit human-to-human interactions.

April's missed opportunities

With Mills' initial stay-at-home order Midcoast courses missed on valuable time to open, despite a couple days of snow fall and the usual April rain, which affected some courses, but not others.

Financial gains that aid the bottom line of courses always seemingly trying to make the numbers work were lost.

"[It affected us] no question about it," said Whitney. "We had such a great spring and the golf course is in such wonderful condition, and we could have been open and going right along."

"This didn't really affect us," said Plummer. "If this had gone further into May, or June, it definitely would have affected us."

"Other than frustrating there were not a lot of issues," said Murphy. "Our single employee has gotten ahead of course maintenance and cleared the course of all the tree damage that came down in the winter, and from the April snowstorms. Ed Christensen is our treasure and treats the course right in a personal way. We are very lucky to have him on our team."

"When things start to re-open more and hopefully life becomes more normal again, I think there will be some advantages for local golf courses," said Enroth. "People will be cautious and reluctant to travel initially, so there are more opportunity for the local golf clubs to be the first choice. Golfers and members are going to want to feel that home away from home trust, safety, and security that golf courses can provide.

"Golf courses are well positioned to be at the front line given the game of golf being conducive to social distancing, outdoor setting, and appeal to people of many ages. Golf being a non-contact sport with possible changes in consumer behavior due to the COVID-19 virus could make the game more appealing for young kids, beginner and casual golfers."

For more information on each local course around, or to book a tee time, click on the course name: Rockland Golf Club, Goose River Golf Club, Northport Golf Club, Samoset Resort Golf Club, Union Country Club, West Appleton Country Club, Country View Golf Club, Searsport Pines Golf Club and Megunticook Golf Club.