Short Courses May Be Golf's Long Game
Learning to play golf sucks. Every golfer reading this has survived, is in recovery from, or is currently knee deep in the indelible boot camp of block-slicing drives, shanking wedges, and leaving one-foot putts short, all to get better at the game. We didn’t pursue golf because it’s easy, though. On the contrary, a masochist lives deep within the soul of each golfer, who understands that within the pain—the deep, searing pain of losing six balls in as many holes—lies an opportunity to get better.
This is the breaking point for beginning golfers. If you’ve got the money or the time to keep trudging along, you stick it out. But the funnel cracks for many and they pour outward, leaving their clubs behind to collect dust in the basement, or to be pawned for a yard sale fiver in a couple years. If we actually want these beginners to stick around, let’s give them a golf-themed amuse-bouche: shorter courses.
By the stroke of some eighteenth century Scotsmen, developing eighteen-hole golf courses arbitrarily became the norm, and one that prohibits beginners from getting off the ground. Short courses, on the other hand—nine holes, twelve holes, anything shorter than the stock eighteen, and typically composed of par-threes—can wedge open an otherwise sticky door for new players.
Resorts like Bandon Dunes and Pinehurst have helped popularize short courses in recent years. But while these spaces showcase how short courses can enrapture the most experienced players, they require an insatiable golf itch to get to their middle-of-nowhere grounds—beyond the reaches of most beginners. We need more short courses in urban areas, and thankfully the blueprints for their success already exist.
Jefferson Park Golf Course is a pride and joy in the Seattle area, and even where a young Fred Couples would tee it up after school to workshop his game. The property hosts a short course, which is successful because it’s easy—and brings all skill levels together. Taking just over an hour to play for most, and running $7.50 for adults, Jefferson Park’s short course is dedicated to beginners, members of its youth First Tee program, foot golf enthusiasts, and seasoned players looking to play a quick nine with just a few wedges in-hand.
“One of golf’s biggest drawbacks for beginners and experienced players is how long it takes to go out and play,” said Andrew Soderberg, General Manager and Head Golf Professional at Jefferson Park. “It’s a lot to ask of family-oriented, or otherwise busy people to come out for a full day and play 18 holes. Our short course is a great alternative, and can help younger people develop a serious interest in golf.”
Similarly, LaFortune Park Golf Course in the heart of Tulsa, Oklahoma has figured out how to make golf more accessible via a shortened option. The public course broke ground on a lighted eighteen-hole par-three track on its property in 1961, allowing beginners and experienced players alike to play at night. Patrick McCrate, Director of Golf for Tulsa County, said that the lights were a necessity to scale the high volume of rounds the short course was getting throughout the 70’s and 80’s: a whopping 40,000 rounds per year.
McCrate issued a jolt back into LaFortune’s par-three track in 2018, with revamped course architecture and design, and the crew have their sights set on 25,000 rounds on the short course this year. What’s more, LaFortune charges a modest $16 to walk for adults—a welcomed fee compared to many other full-sized public courses of its ilk.
Short courses like Jefferson Park and LaFortune can get away with cheaper greens fees because they’re inherently more efficient than large-scale operations. In addition to occupying less space, small tracks often spend less time manicuring precise fairways, use less water, and require fewer maintenance staff to keep the course in playable condition.
Even the private club I grew up caddying on had a nine-hole course with a smattering of short par-fours, a healthy dose of par-threes, and a 450-yard par-five that gave aspiring players a glimpse at an all-too-rare birdie opportunity. On Monday’s—when the club’s main course was closed to members for maintenance—the nine-hole “Highland” course was the caddies’ domain. Loopers from every walk of life descended on the course like termites on a wood pile, creeping out from the trees to join up midway through the third hole. Some of the caddies had game, most didn’t. The Highland course didn’t mind either way.
Being new to golf can beat you down quickly with the eighteen-hole model. On top of shooting 110, you had to drop 60 bucks on a weekend afternoon tee time, the only time you can make time for. So you lumber back to your car at the far end of the parking lot, defeated and poorer than you were five hours ago, and for what? Did you get better? Maybe a little, but you’re sure as hell not breaking 90 when you come back next weekend to do it all over again.
Introducing more short courses is not a silver bullet for accessibility and diversification of golf. Those problems have deeper roots. But to introduce and retain more people—those from more diverse and less advantageous backgrounds—to the game, stunting the financial and emotional whiplash of playing golf as a beginner is a good place to start. Constructing or reinvigorating short courses in high-density urban areas offers a new equalizer for beginning golfers, and keeps them engaged for the long-run.