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April 2018

Let the (Short) Games Begin

By Trent Boutsshort.jpg‭

Short courses fill the gap between mini-golf and the traditional 18-holes, where newcomers can test the waters and just play the game.
 
Every marketing picture you’ll ever see from Bandon Dunes harmonizes peace and nature along with a pure golf experience. The walking-only, five-course facility on Oregon’s windswept North Pacific coast prides itself on delivering “golf as it was meant to be.”
 
What you don’t see, but might hear, before you go is the eight-some cheering and jeering from the 13th – and final – tee of the Bandon Preserve short course, whose longest hole stretches just 150 yards.
 
Running adjacent – at least for its entire 100-yard length – to the par five 18th on the regulation Bandon Dunes course, the closing hole on Bandon Preserve drops about 40 feet to the green. It has become tradition – partly because of those winds and partly because of the inviting runway mowed tee to green – to use a putter off the tee.
 
“At times you’ll hear a lot of hooting and hollering as the ball Plinkos its way to the green,” says Bandon’s Director of Communications Michael Chupka, a PGA pro. The noise vacillates between glee and groaning depending on the favorability of the bounces and from the numerous humps and mounds.
 
Raucous eight-somes putting from the tee? Hardly fits the generally accepted notion of the way golf was meant to be.
 
Consider then the 12-some dinking its way around on the new nine-hole short course (longest hole 128 yards) known as The Cradle at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina. The registered “Home of American Golf,” Pinehurst has hosted men’s and women’s U.S. Opens, a Ryder Cup and a PGA Championship, among others. It is arguably more deeply steeped in tradition than any other facility in the country. But on The Cradle, “It’s kind of no-holds-barred,” chuckles Bob Farren, the resort’s director of golf course and grounds management.
 
At Bluejack National in Montgomery, Texas, Tiger Woods’ first U.S. design, there is a 10-hole adjunct known as The Playgrounds with its longest hole measuring 102 yards. Touted as an “unstructured golf experience,” the course is so popular there is talk of installing artificial turf to cope with the traffic. There are drink holders at every tee box, just as there are at Thistle Dhu, Pinehurst’s 18-hole putting course off the clubhouse porch right alongside The Cradle.
 
Out of the flood of grow-the-game initiatives, short courses, with convention set aside, are rising above the wash. In the process, they are framing a broader and more inclusive perception of the way golf is “meant to be.” By occupying the ground between putt-putt and regulation length courses, short courses are presenting golf as a spectrum where newcomers can make a climb, instead of having to leap.
 
It’s a spectrum with room for families, as Gary Player explained when promoting Mountain Top, a 13-hole short course he designed at Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri that opened last fall. Between the back tees at 1,927 yards and the forward tees at 1,091 yards, there are also “Player’s Choice” options where golfers can hit from where they’re comfortable.
 
“What I would like to see is families get together again,” Player said. “Mothers working, fathers working: (they) don’t see each other. Get together and spend a little time together to build a bond and improve their personality and character for the future.”
 
Big Cedar already had Top of the Rock, a nine-hole par three that plays host to the PGA Tour’s Champions Bass Pro Legends of Golf tournament. Now, Tiger Woods is on the books to design a third short course for Big Cedar, along with the lodge’s second regulation course, Payne’s Valley, honoring Missouri native and three-time major champion Payne Stewart, set to open in 2019.
 
The emphasis on fun and socializing on the short courses far and away supersedes much of the formality newcomers find off-putting.
 
During early meetings when Pinehurst’s golf professionals raised the prospect of rating The Cradle for handicapping purposes, the conversation ended abruptly with the response: “Handicapping? That’s not what this is about. Quit over thinking it.” Instead, Pinehurst is preparing to install hidden speakers in the bunkers (music to blast out by) and a beverage cart will be parked on the course full-time this summer.
 
“It’s been over the top for us,” Farren says of The Cradle’s impact in little more than six months. “It’s enhanced the activity level. We’re focusing on the fun factor. It’s right at the front of the clubhouse with Thistle Dhu, and together they create a real sense of arrival. You walk out and there’s a lot of activity with a broad range of people having fun. It sets your expectations, a tone. It tells you that your visit is about being active, happy and having fun.”
 
The first hole-in-one at The Cradle was posted by an 84-year-old. Two days later, a 14-year-old recorded the next. At $50 to play all day and free for kids under 17 with an adult, there’s an awful lot of potential business in the demographic between those two aces, particularly when you include those short on time and, it must be said, ability. The course takes about an hour to play and while there have indeed been 12-somes, most of the 8,000-plus rounds in three months before winter took hold were played by couples or foursomes.
 
Given that golf industry research also screamed that the product took too long to consume, it would be easy to classify the surge in short courses as a new solution to the time crunch. Today’s parents are more consumed by family, kids’ sports and their jobs than their own parents’ generation. But really, new short courses are more a case of rediscovery than discovery. After all, they’ve been around as long as the game itself.
 
In fact, up until the modern era — roughly the time when Arnold Palmer electrified the masses — nearly a third of the courses in the U.S. were nine-holers. On a recent list of favorite short courses by Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella, seven of the 10 were built prior to 1962, the earliest being Winter Park Country Club in Florida in 1914.
 
An argument could be made, for all his benevolence on behalf of the game, that Arnie was the butterfly whose wing flap initiated the storm that hit golf when the economy crashed in the 2000s. He so popularized the game that Nicklaus, Miller, Woods and others lent steam to that the industry eventually built itself beyond its market. With television taking over, all “real” golf became perceived as an 18-hole affair and a boom in full-length course construction diminished the percentage of short courses.
 
One exception over that period was Crosswinds Golf Club, an 18-hole par three on 30 acres, at one end of the downtown airport in Greenville, South Carolina. There, in the late ’90s, paper product salesman Sam Pate, opened a course that he would come to find was, if not recession proof, at least recession resistant. When business declined at country clubs in parallel with dips in the economy, Pate says Crosswinds held steady.
 
“People who dropped their country club memberships came and played our course,” he says. “It helped that we kept our green fees affordable. They went up a little over the years but only ever as far as the market would bear. I always took the view that we wanted to appeal to the 12-year-old kid starting out as we did your good golfer. That kept our customer base very broad.”
 
At Wellesley Country Club outside Boston, Massachusetts, a new six-hole short course is appealing to a similar breadth. Aging members for whom the full course, originally designed by Donald Ross, became too taxing can now play again and do so with their grandkids.
 
Indeed, creating opportunities for juniors was the catalyst for the short course. Amid heavy demand from paying members, Wellesley, like many clubs in a region plush with private golf, was finding it difficult to create space for youngsters.
 
“There’s always the sense that you want to see juniors playing and learning the game, just not in front of your group,” laughs head professional Jeff Phillips. “We have a very strong family membership and we had some land (an eight-acre triangle between existing holes) that we wondered what we could do with. We decided a short course would give us a way to develop juniors and grow the game and provide an option for people with time constraints, which is an issue more and more.”
 
While the course is a homerun with those groups, Phillips says the club didn’t quite anticipate the response from older members. “Last year we had a longtime member organize a tournament on the short course called the Golden Ball, for members 80 years and older,” he says. “Of course, it’s a walking course and there was one player who was 95. So, there’s another demographic being served. These are people who want to remain active and social because, as longtime members, the club is part of their identity.”
 
Phillips says the short course also provides a “good introduction” to Wellesley for guests who might not be comfortable stepping out onto the main course. At Bandon Dunes, The Preserve is also serving as a kind of introduction or warm-up. Because of its relatively remote location, many guests arrive at the resort on the end of a lengthy trip. So, they may not have the time or the energy for a full round but can work out some cobwebs and get themselves acclimated in two hours on a course where they’re less attached to their score.
 
“It’s usually quiet in the mornings,” Chupka says. “But after 2 p.m. it’s usually a fairly busy spot.”
 
In addition to new arrivals, The Preserve is also popular with those who play a full 18 early but don’t want to exhaust themselves with 36 regulation holes in a day.
 
 
Just last year, Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri opened the Gary Player-designed Mountain Top 13-holer with a longest hole of 221 yards. A new par three course by Tiger Woods is supposed to follow next year, along with a regulation course to be known as Payne’s Valley in memory of Missouri native and three-time major champion Payne Stewart.
 
For an industry whose research said the product takes too long to consume, shorter courses present a logical, even obvious, response.
 
Bandon Preserve typically consumes less than two hours and most players can get around The Cradle in somewhere between and 60 and 90 minutes – depending on how many there are in the group in front of course. Stack that up against four and a half or five hours, or more, and there is suddenly more time in the day for those other things cited in the industry research: family, kids’ sports and the fact we’re working longer hours than our parents’ generation.
 
But simple answers rarely satisfy the entire question. It’s one thing to get people playing your short course but it’s another if it means they’re no longer playing your long course. For one, they don’t pay as much for the abbreviated version.

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