Every golfer has one thing in common: The love of a birdie putt.
It can be a tap in or a hundred feet of undulation and slippery slopes, but if it’s a birdie putt, it means you did something right to give yourself a chance at breaking par on that particular hole. Which is why I’m such a fan and advocate of short courses.
Before we get to the essence and value of a short course, a better understanding of what they are: A short course is never more than 6,000 yards, they usually have more than four par 3s, they rarely have 18 holes and they are almost always relatively affordable. You get around in closer to two hours than four hours, and even the most beginner of beginners, at some point in the round, usually has at least one putt for a birdie. There are exceptions to any one of those parameters, but I’ll now assume you’re clear as to what is the subject of this post.
I can’t help but think that if golf had a mulligan, more than 10 to 12 percent of the 5,000 or so courses built since 1990, would have been short courses. If only some of those housing developments—built around unforgiving courses thoughtlessly routed through a generic piece of land—were instead, built around short courses that had a broader park-like appeal to a community and not just a championship golf course serving an older male-centric and wealthy clientele.
“Short courses are important for so many reasons,” says John Ashworth, who rallied the community of Oceanside, Calif., to save Goat Hill Park, which is 18 holes, a par 65, that tips out at 4,454 yards and it’s $32 on weekends. “A short course is playable for everyone and it takes less time to get around. It costs less to build, less to maintain, less to operate, and therefore, it costs less to play.”
To Ashworth’s point, if golf is to get out from under the labels of being too hard, takes too long and it’s too expensive, then of course short courses should be celebrated, cultivated and cared for.
“Short courses are a fabulous introduction to golf,” says Bill Coore, who, along with his partner, Ben Crenshaw, has one of the most popular design portfolios of the modern era of golf architecture. “Ben and I both played golf as kids on nine-hole short courses. By eliminating physical demands of length, they appeal to all levels and ages. They’re generational and cyclical. The same place you learned how to play can be the same place you teach your kids to play, or your grandkids to play.”
Josh Lesnik, President of Kemper Sports, which manages over 100 golf courses all across the country, grew up playing Vernon Hills, a nine-hole, par 34, 2,836-yard course in a suburb of Chicago. “I think we’ll see more short courses,” says Lesnik. “It’s not going to be a crazy trend, but they’re more relevant than ever. It’s time to get more creative with the game.”
An innovative idea, such as Top Golf, which has revolutionized a trip to the driving range for all ages, shapes, sizes and skill levels, has had immeasurable success at getting a club in people’s hands. And those people, based on witnessing four-hour waits for a stall, are all having fun.
But what’s next? If those Top Golfers then accept an invite, or are inspired to go play a championship routing, and get embarrassed or discouraged, then they’re inclined to go back to Top Golf, and abandon the idea of real golf. If those same people went out to a short course, and stood over a birdie putt or two, or ten, then they might actually try real golf again. And again.
“It’s very important to us that it’s playable, accessible and affordable to everyone in the community,” says Matthew Hegarty, a colleague at the Golf Channel, who, along with the city of Winter Park, Fla., is working to restore Winter Park Country Club, a nine-hole short course that—for over 100 years—has weaved its way through town and into the hearts of the locals. “We think of it as a city park. That’s our mission statement,” says Hegarty. “Hopefully it continues to be a place where young and old and everything in between can pick up a club and play the game in not such an intimidating environment.”
To the thought leaders of the game, The Mission seems clear. And, once again, I’ll use a skiing analogy to help explain: Golf needs to continue to bridge the gap between a bunny slope (a traditional driving range) and a double diamond (an 18-hole “championship” course). Whether that’s Top Golf, and/or some combination of short courses, it doesn’t matter. What matters is a greater appreciation and recognition that golf is hard. So what can we do to make sure anyone and everyone can get down the slopes and want to go right back to the top again?
A guy like Mike Keiser, who built Bandon Dunes in Oregon, understands life at the top of the mountain. In 15 years, he pieced together one of the most popular and purest golf destinations in the world. He has four championship courses at Bandon Dunes, and three short courses. “As we’ve seen with Bandon Preserve, short courses are becoming increasingly popular with a premium on fun golf in a shorter time frame,” says Keiser. “Given the economics of land availability and price, water usage and environmental concerns, I believe short or alternative courses will only become more and more popular for future golf developments. We are even thinking about building a fourth short course at Bandon Dunes as we speak.”
Mind you, Keiser’s clientele is mostly male who are avid about the game and they walk the course. (There are no carts at Bandon Dunes.) And yet, Keiser is on the verge of a 1 to 1 ratio of championship golf to short courses.
Meanwhile, at a place like Reynold’s Plantation in Georgia, where they have a clientele of predominantly couples or families, their golf portfolio consists of six championship courses. And there was talk of a seventh championship course, which would be built by Pete Dye.
Tom Pashley, President of Pinehurst, which has ten courses (counting Thistle Dhu, the putting course), admits a true short course is a hole in the glove of what’s considered The Cradle of American Golf. “We don’t have that offering. A true short course,” says Pashley. “Courses 1 and 3 are shorter courses. And we sometimes play all of the holes on those courses as par 3s. And that’s always popular. Maybe that’s something we do more of in the future.”
And maybe. Just, maybe—this future that Pashley speaks of—is filled with more birdie putts. No one has ever complained about having too many birdie putts.
My Top 10 Public Short Courses in America
No. 10: Poxabogue, Sagaponack, NY. ($46)
A reprieve from Hampton’s pretentiousness, I usually play “The Pox” in bare feet.
No. 9: Winter Park Country Club, Winter Park, FL. ($12)
On the heels of their 100th anniversary, Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns, who recently worked with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw at Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, are renovating WPCC. (Cliffs debuted at No. 19 on Golf Digest’s ranking of the 100 Greatest Golf Courses in the World.)
No. 8: Peter Hay, Pebble Beach, CA. ($30)
It’s directly across the street from Pebble Beach, the No. 1 public course in America, and kids 12 and under play Peter Hay for free.
No. 7: Northwood, Monte Rio, CA. ($28)
It’s an Alister Mackenzie original. Mackenzie built Augusta National and Cypress Point. Nuff said.
No. 6: Spring Creek, Hershey, PA. ($14)
Milton Hershey built what was originally called the Juvenile Course in 1932. It was a course specifically and to scale for kids. The only way an adult could play it was as a guest of a kid. Now it’s a parade of generations and the portrait of all that’s great about short courses.
No. 5: Palm Beach Par 3, Palm Beach, FL. ($49)
With memorable holes and a variety of shots, mostly along the coastline, it’s no wonder Golf Digest frequently ranks the Ray Floyd design as the best Par 3 course in the country.
No. 4: Threetops, Gaylord, MI. ($38)
Made famous by the million-dollar ace by Lee Trevino on ESPN’s “Shootout” in 2001, Threetops is the perfect complement to the four other championship courses on property.
No. 3: Top of the Rock, Branson, MO. ($135)
As host of Bass Pro Shop’s Legends of Golf, built by Jack Nicklaus and with infinity vistas of the Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake, it’s no wonder Top of the Rock is the most expensive green fee in public short courses.
No. 2: Goat Hill Park, Oceanside, CA. ($25)
Goat Hill Park has been saved. Thanks to John Ashworth and the passionate and committed community of Oceanside, “The Goat” is benefitting from a $2.5 million renovation in which they removed turf and became more cost efficient and sustainable. Having reopened in February to rave reviews, Ashworth’s vision for The Goat is a lot more than just golf. As a park, Ashworth is planning on concerts, community functions, caddie programs and alternative forms of a very traditional game.
No. 1: Bandon Preserve, Bandon, OR. ($100)
“I don’t care how many holes you build,” said Mike Keiser, when commissioning Bill Coore to build Bandon Preserve, the 13-hole par 3 course at Bandon Dunes. “Use the land to build as many fun and interesting holes that you can find. Make them interesting enough that we could pick any one of them up and they would be worthy of being dropped into any one of the other courses on property.”