Short Courses May Be Golf's Long Game
//As published in The Fried Egg//
Learning to play golf sucks. Every golfer reading this has survived, is in recovery from, or is currently knee-deep in the boot camp of block-slicing drives, shanking wedges, and leaving one-foot putts short, all to get better at the game. We didn’t take up golf because it’s easy, though. On the contrary, a masochist lives deep within all of our souls. We understand that beyond the pain—the deep, searing pain of losing six balls in as many holes—lies an opportunity to get better.
For beginning golfers, this can be a breaking point. If you’ve got the money or the time to keep trudging along, you stick it out. But for many, the funnel cracks, 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 of years.
We need to do a better job of getting these beginners to stick around. So let’s give them golf’s version of an amuse bouche: shorter courses.
By the whim of some 18th-century Scotsmen, 18-hole golf courses became the norm—one that now prohibits many beginners from getting off the ground. Short courses, on the other hand, can wedge open an otherwise sticky door for new players. Nine holes at a par of 27, or even 12 holes at a par of 54, or really anything shorter than the typical 18-hole, par-72 layout, can offer a friendlier welcome to those who are still struggling to get the ball airborne.
In recent years, resorts like Bandon Dunes and Pinehurst have helped popularize alternative short-course formats. But while the likes of Bandon Preserve and the Cradle can enrapture a broad range of players, they sit on middle-of-nowhere grounds—places that only the most avid golfers are likely to seek out. We need more short courses specifically in urban areas. Thankfully, blueprints for these kinds of facilities already exist.
Jefferson Park Golf Course is the pride and joy of the Seattle golf community. The property has not only a full 18 but also a nine-hole par-3 course. Most of the time, Jefferson Park’s short course takes just over an hour to play, running $7.50 for adults. It accommodates a clientele that ranges from pure beginners to members of the First Tee program to foot-golf enthusiasts to seasoned players looking for a quick nine. Even a young Fred Couples teed it up here after school to hone his wedge game.
“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, seeks to make golf more accessible via a shortened option. Back in 1961, just after its championship 18 opened, LaFortune Park broke ground on a lighted 18-hole par-3 course. To this day, beginners and experienced players flock there for a chance 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 1970s and 80s: a whopping 40,000 rounds per year.
In 2018, McCrate oversaw a renovation of the par-3 course at LaFortune Park. He now has his sights set on 25,000 rounds at the revamped course this year. Each of those rounds will come at a modest rate of $16 for walking adults.
Short courses like those at Jefferson Park and LaFortune Park can get away with cheaper green fees because they’re more efficient than large-scale operations. In addition to occupying less space, they require less fairway maintenance, less water, and less labor to keep conditions playable.
But it’s crucial to the success of a short course that it’s actually designed and built well. This is where Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley, Pinehurst, and Gamble Sands can have a positive influence. The top-notch par-3 courses at those resorts can set a benchmark for short-course architecture to which local and municipal facilities can aspire.
As of now, however, most short courses treat design as an afterthought, which is too bad. So here’s an idea.
Think about that ramshackle 18-holer down the road from you. Why not hack off a few holes that never made sense in the first place, and hire an up-and-coming designer to find 12 strong holes. Now you have extra land and a lot of possibilities. You could build a killer short-game area. Or, to keep the Gladwellian anti-golf advocates at bay, you could restore some of the natural landscape or help create a mixed-up public park. Throw in a few eclectic food trucks near the clubhouse, and you’ve got a cultural beacon where once stood a tired golf course.
If you’re new to golf, the 18-hole model can beat you down quickly. On top of shooting 110, you have to drop 60 bucks on your one free weekend afternoon. Afterwards, you haul your clubs back to your car at the far end of the parking lot, tired 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.
Granted, short courses are not the silver bullet for combating the lack of accessibility and diversity in golf. Those problems have deeper roots. But if we build or reinvigorate short courses in high-population areas, we will give golfers of all abilities a place to land and lessen the sticker shock of taking up the game. That has to be a good place to start.