Finding the right golf course for you

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Is there a golf club for you in the Greater Portland area?

Definitely. Which club is best depends on the heft of your wallet and personal expectations.

With course supply exceeding golfer demand here and most elsewhere in the country, golf is very affordable these days, at least compared to the boom times five to 10 years ago. But just as important as price is knowing where you want to play and what to expect.

Accomplished players tend to seek the best-conditioned putting surfaces they can find. Others are less selective regarding course conditions and may be more interested in the social atmosphere and draft beer selection.

Take the case of Tim Walsh, a 50-year-old electrical contractor and 4-handicap from South Portland, who has changed with the times.

For 28 years, he was part of a close-knit band of young players with low handicaps at Cape Elizabeth’s Purpoodock Club. He was comfortable at the private facility but left the club in 2008, along with his brother Steve and other “rebels,” when they disagreed with a majority of members who voted in favor of clubhouse renovations costing $2.6 million.

With the improvements came higher annual dues – at the time $2,635 for a single membership, $3,950 for a family. There were also monthly assessments of $77 for an irrigation system installed earlier and the clubhouse improvements.

“My decision to leave Purpoodock was based more on principle than money,” says Walsh. “Forty-five percent of the members voted against the improvements, which I agreed were needed, but not in the way they were proposed.”

Walsh and his comrades made Riverside Golf Club their first stop ($715 single membership for Portland residents at the time). The municipal layout generally gets passing grades from players, except on weekends when it is a challenge to find a parking spot, much less a tee time. The club had 570 members in 2009, down from a peak of 800 several years ago.

Walsh said his group eventually left Riverside in mid-2009 primarily because of considerable tournament play and course conditions Walsh described as “worn.”

The group members next joined Toddy Brook in North Yarmouth, where they worked out a partial-season membership. Annual memberships at semi-private Toddy Brook are mid-range for public-access courses in Southern Maine. (See rates at bottom.)

“Toddy Brook’s greens are gorgeous, much like Purpoodock, although the ones at Purpoodock are softer,” Walsh said.

Which brings us to 2010. What’s next for Walsh and his regular playing partners? “I want to go back to Purpoodock someday, but we just bought a new home and business needs to get better,” he says. “It’s also a group decision, so we’ll wait and see what happens.”

It’s generally accepted in Southern Maine golf circles that the premier private-club membership resides at Portland Country Club in Falmouth, where the initiation fee is $15,000 and a single member pays $5,000 annually. Assessments there are dispatched without a loss of members, the most recent big-ticket item a $1.7 million irrigation system in 2009. Nearby is The Woodlands Club, also private, which boasts 12 months of swimming, tennis, and fitness. After a $9,500 initiation fee, The Woodlands members pay $4,285 (golf only).

Over-building of courses took a toll on Falmouth Country Club, also private, where members recently sold the golf operation (the 18-hole course belongs to the homeowners) to Harris Golf for a reported $2.5 million. Harris immediately waived initiation fees (for 2010 season), assessments and food-and-beverage minimums. Golf member dues now begin at $2,000. Some tee times are available to the public, and in a weighty promotional message, a Falmouth membership earns you free play at any of the half-dozen Harris-owned courses.

Green and membership fees vary widely within a 30-minute drive from downtown Portland. Following is a list of some Greater Portland clubs with public access, phone numbers, and basic, 18-hole weekday fee and power cart rental. Fees vary depending upon month, day of week, and time of day.

• Biddeford-Saco – 282-5883; $45, $15.

• Brunswick – 725-8224; $45, $15.

• Dunegrass, Old Orchard Beach – 934-4513; $59 cart included.

• Fox Ridge, Auburn – 777-4653; $38, $17.

• Gorham – 839-3490; $30, $17.

• Nonesuch River, Scarborough – 883-0007; $32, $16.

• Point Sebago, Casco – 655-2747; $65 cart included.

• Poland Spring Resort, Poland – 998-6002; $40, $15.

• Riverside, Portland – 797-3524; $30, $16.

• Sable Oaks, South Portland – 775-6257; $40, $15.

• Spring Meadows, Gray – 657-2586; $36, $16.

• Toddy Brook, North Yarmouth – 829-5100; $38, $18.

• Val Halla, Cumberland – 829-2225; $30, $12.50.

Peter Blais is a freelance writer who lives in North Yarmouth. Blaine Davis is a golf marketer and occasional writer who resides in Yarmouth.