by David DeSmith
It’s the summer of 1962. JFK is in the White House. Chubby Checker ‘s hit song “The Twist” is tantalizing teenagers (and horrifying parents). Johnny Carson has relieved Jack Paar as host of The Tonight Show. And a blonde-haired kid named Nicklaus has just embarked on his professional golf career. The post-war economy is going full throttle in America, leaving people more leisure time than they know what to do with. But up in Maine, a group of friends know very well what they want to do: play golf. The problem is, there just aren’t enough courses.
One day, after waiting for hours to tee off at a city course in Portland, the four friends—Ralph Bernard, Bob Darling, Dave Higgins and Ted Lauritzen — decide they’ve had enough. “We went down to Coyne’s Sandwich shop at Woodford’s Corner after that round and had something to eat and a few beers,” said Darling, who passed away in 2007 but left a wonderful written history of the club’s early years. “The other guys, who were serious golfers, were complaining about how long it took us to play. On the way home, I said: ‘If you’re that fired up about it, why don’t we build our own golf course?’”
Within 24 hours, things were moving. Bernard, an avid hunter, said he knew of several parcels of land in Cumberland that might be suitable. The group met at Higgins’ house at 10 a.m. the next morning and, as Darling writes, “By 2 p.m. we had 150 acres under option with nothing in the bank.” Bob Leighton, a basketball coach and athletic director at a local high school, and Andy Bunker, a serious golfer, joined the original group. And then the work began.
Blessed with enthusiasm but little else, the original six planned and plotted how to get their golf course off the ground. The land they bought was densely wooded, with several ravines and a small pond. At the time, there was no cleared road into the site. Starting in the fall of 1962 and continuing for three years, the group staged what came to be known as “work parties.” Families and friends were recruited to begin the backbreaking work of clearing the land.
“Every weekend we were down there cutting and clearing,” Darling wrote. “If we had hired somebody it would have been quicker, but we didn’t have any money. The wives used to bring down sandwiches for lunch. We’d be there all day. I don’t know how we did it.” Though they knew enough to cut and hack at stumps and clear land, the club’s founders had no idea how to design a good golf course. But Bunker knew of Phil Wogan, a golf course architect based in Beverly, Mass. Wogan had designed many courses around New England and his father Skip had been a well known architect, too. Wogan agreed to lay out nine holes—and later designed the course’s second nine. Both nines offer prodigious challenges—especially when it comes to reading Val Halla’s subtle and vexing greens.
In the fall of 1963, construction began on the clubhouse, and again, it was a labor of love for those early members, who all pitched in to help—either with manual labor or donations of furniture, carpeting and other clubhouse essentials. Whenever they encountered obstacles, determination and teamwork overcame them. After two and a half years of hard work characterized by trial-and-error, Val Halla officially opened for play in the summer of 1965.
Today, Val Halla is one of Maine’s best—and busiest— courses. Owned and operated by the Town of Cumberland since the early 1970’s, it keeps its 400-plus golf association members busy. “Our members are crazy about golf,” said Brian Bickford, PGA professional at Val Halla. “They play about 50% of our rounds here and it’s a tight-knit group. On tournament weekends, the club has the feeling of a private club because the guys and women just love playing here and being here.” The course also offers a full slate of programs designed to introduce new players to the game, including three nights of
“Wine & Nine” events for ladies, another night of “Stein & Nine” for men, and a full season of junior camps and clinics. Val Halla was chosen to be one of just 16 clubs in the country to host a PGA Junior Golf Camp this summer, and signups for that camp have outpaced every other PGA Junior Camp location—tribute to Bickford’s years of work with the area’s junior players. Bickford himself grew up playing golf at Val Halla, and he’s seen the club grow from a cute little muni into one of the state’s most important courses.
“Sometimes it seems like I’ve spent half my life here. But it’s a great place to be.” Today, Val Halla is also the home of the First Tee and Maine State Golf Association. Like Bickford, Nancy Storey, Executive Director of the MSGA, played her junior golf at Val Halla. When the organization went looking for a place to locate its new headquarters a few years ago, her home course fit the bill perfectly. “It’s a natural home for us,” Storey said. “They really get what municipal golf is all about. It’s about growing the game, making it fun for all and spreading the values and traditions that the game represents.”
To commemorate its 50th, the club has a whole slew of special events planned, including a “Town of Cumberland Day” on July 5th, where there will be music and revelry and games of all kinds for town residents. A “Garlic & Gaelic” golf event has also been scheduled. And in recognition of Val Halla’s 50th, the MSGA decided to host its 2015 Mid-Amateur at the club. Val Halla is a much beloved club with a rich history—and the future looks brighter than ever. All of which, undoubtedly, is a legacy that Bob Darling and the other founding members of Val Halla would be very proud of. www.valhallagolf.com