Golf is supposed to be fun, a romp in the park, a chance to beat your smooth-swinging buddy out of five bucks. But as participation numbers continue to sag and well-meaning students of golf architecture wail about par 5s no longer challenging the men of steel on the PGA Tour, it seems something is sometimes missing.
Too many courses were built in recent decades to challenge, not invite. There are too many long par 4s meant to knock recreational golfers to their knees, to repel shots instead of receive them. Too many five-hour rounds across the traditional 18 holes. The game is often too much quest, not enough quip.
Thankfully, a handful of folks are working coast-to-coast to put the giggle back in hit-and-giggle. Their efforts include reversible 18-hole courses, nine-hole courses that beg for another loop, par-3 courses that take less than an hour and offer some of the most fun greens in the game, even a 7-hole hilltop course that redefines rustic and offers goats as caddies. Different can be good … very good.
The best part of my year in golf was getting to visit a few of these spots. From Florida to Oregon with stops along the way, there were several new layouts, or even recently redesigned and repurposed spots, that eschew the traditional 18-hole, par-72 layout to offer breezy, engaging and different opportunities to swing a club and prove that the game can be more than the same old same old.
Starting in the West with one of the most obviously different destinations you can imagine, Silvies Valley Ranch in eastern Oregon is less a traditional golf resort and more of a working cattle and goat ranch. The most talked-about holes at Silvies are the seven par 3s and short par 4s (plus a bonus par 2) of McVeigh’s Gauntlet, a hilltop setting where goats can carry the bags – yes, real goat caddies. Down below, architect Dan Hixson fashioned a remarkable pair of reversible courses that utilize many of the same fairways and greens. It’s twice the golf at not much more in cost of resources than one course, with imaginative routings that have golfers’ heads on swivels comparing multiple approach shots to the same putting surfaces.
“I think the reversibility of the course, being able to have two courses for slightly more than the price of one, is brilliant,” Silvies co-owner Scott Campbell said during my late-summer visit. “You can come closer to capacity if they are reversible, because they’re different and they’re more fun. Golf needs to be fun.”
Silvies added a nine-hole par-3 course to round out its golf, giving the new facility 52 holes of high-desert fun that has avid golf-architecture fans lining up.
Par-3 courses and nine-hole courses are a big part of the trend in fun. Bandon Dunes in Oregon elevated the concept of destination resorts offering such amenities with its 13-hole par-3 course, Bandon Preserve, which opened in 2012 atop cliffs above the Pacific Ocean. The setting is awe-inspiring, and also architect-inspiring. Facilities around the country have rushed to follow suit with their own fun and frolicking short courses.
Designer Gil Hanse opened just such a facility, the par-3 course named the Cradle, in 2017 at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina. I was there to play Hanse’s recent redesign of the resort’s No. 4 course, which is spectacular, but I made more loops around the Cradle. The $60 green fee allows for free same-day replays, and golfers can dizzy themselves romping round and round the 10-acre layout – as well as at the on-course bar fashioned from a tiny, silver travel trailer.
Take three or four clubs, one or two balls and have at it. The Cradle’s greens are fantastic, and because none of the holes are longer than 130 yards, Hanse was able to fashion slopes and approach shots that just wouldn’t work on a longer, traditional layout. It’s the rarest kind of golf, challenging low-handicappers with devilish attempts at lob-wedge birdies while being short enough to keep even beginners in the game.
But nine-holers don’t have to be all par 3s. Some 450 miles east of Pinehurst in Tennessee, two courses have drawn acclaim without offering back nines. Sweetens Cove in rural South Pittsburgh, Tenn., and The Course at Sewannee 30 minutes farther north, are ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on Golfweek’s Best list of public-access courses for the state. Even in an unseasonably chilly drizzle and then with light snow on the ground, I went around both tracks more than once in March.
Sweetens is 3,300 yards with a par of 36 and greens that defy imagination – the putting surface of one par 3 stretches almost 100 yards, making for a tee shot that ranges from wedge to 5-wood depending on pin placement. Humps, bumps, hollows, run-offs and bank shots – designer Rob Collins knew he had to build something fun and different, and it is mission accomplished. He took many of the classic green shapes in golf and turned them sideways, sometimes literally. It’s a fusion of classic design and quirky creativity that should have any player signing up for a same-day replay.
The nine-hole, par-36 Course at Sewanee is similar in that you will want to go around it more than once. In his 2013 redesign of a century-old layout, Hanse incorporated various tee boxes to present a different look for many holes on a second trip around. It’s a perfect example of a community course serving its community, making great use of its elevated setting with views over a fertile valley. Sewanee is stout enough to challenge college golfers from its owner, the University of the South, while providing a quick and fun golf opportunity to players of any level.
Closer to home in Orlando and along the same vein, I’ve made dozens of trips around the Winter Park Golf Course, also known as WP9. Shorter than Sweetens or Sewanee, the century-old 2,470-yarder was reinvigorated by architects Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb in 2016 and offers perhaps the most fun and challenging greens in Central Florida.
WP9 is on a dead-flat site – usually anathema to great golf – but the new putting surfaces are perched above the fairways with run-offs in every direction. Choose anything from a putter to a lob wedge to try to get the ball close to the hole – the challenge is all in the greens. The par 4s are short and many of the greens are small, with sometimes extreme slopes and mounding that can confound even great players yet are in perfect scale to their environment.
You can catch me there on many Friday mornings. Even with plenty of championship-caliber courses around Orlando, WP9 is just too much fun to pass up.