Short and stout: Trend for Par-3 courses grows

With the recent addition of The Chain, Streamsong Resort‘s 3,000-yard short course, a growing trend toward such layouts has fed golfers craving for alternatives.

Like a bell that can’t be unrung, the short course isn’t exactly a new epiphany. Traced to golf’s adolescent years, the concept has undergone evolving ideations that, like a surfboarder, ride the crest of demand and changing appetites. 

At North Berwick Golf Club, in East Lothian, Scotland, the par-3 Webb Club was first established in 1888 and known as the Ladies Links. Today, the 13th oldest club (1832) in the world manages the layout, now called The Wee Course. This is just one example of the short course’s historical tentacles. 

Aerial view of The Hay at Pebble Beach Resorts.

Since the 1950s, short courses have presented another option to long, laborious 18-hole rounds that sometimes emphasize all 14 clubs and invite physical and mental fatigue. 

Soon executive courses, or shorter par 3s, popped up abundantly like fescue at Chambers Bay, catering to those who wanted to save time or had different goals. Perhaps more important, the condensed courses were a way to sharpen short-game skills. After all, more than 75 percent of shots are taken 150 yards and in, so such designs accentuated premiums placed on the wedge and putter. 

Not to be undone, shorter courses also appealed to novices. They were nonetheless intimidated by behemoth-long treks and wanted to get a better feel for fundamentals without disappearing into frustrated rabbit holes, never to be seen with club in hand again. 

Related: Coore & Crenshaw’s The Chain breaks with convention

Not to be confused with pitch and putts, the latest short-course trend favors those that promote a relaxed setting and one that doesn’t so much focus on par as it does the experience. The traditional nine- or 18-hole format also takes a respite (The Chain, for example, is 19 holes broken up into two loops with no par.) Unlike pitch and putts, most every club in the bag can still be utilized. 

“The whole short concept is fun,” says Kevin Kennedy, Streamsong’s general manager. “This concept is even more fun because you can drop where you want to and not where the tee marker says you must play from. My wife commented — and I think this hits home — you’re simply playing and there are no rules. There is no par. There are no tee markers. It’s just fun.”

The Chain (Bowling Green, Florida) followed in the footsteps of standouts such as Pinehurst Golf Resort‘s The Cradle (Pinehurst, North Carolina), Bandon Dunes Golf Resort‘s Bandon Preserve (Bandon, Oregon) and The Nest (Cabot Cape Breton, Novia Scotia) as surrogates to longer, championship-style designs. 

Over the past decade, architectural sages have taken notice. Their names attached to a short course have helped buoy appeal. 

When the likes of Tom Doak, Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, Gil Hanse, Jack Nicklaus and Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw entered the arena, it only raised the cachet and playability. How could it not when design disciplines and principles found on their more expansive layouts were compressed into shorter treks? Who wouldn’t want to play?

In the grand scheme, environmental factors serve a function, where even a smaller land tract — maximized or close to it — leads to benefits such as less water and pesticide requirements. A smaller piece of land, in this case 60 acres, of which 39 can be irrigated, is also how Coore and Crenshaw were able to carve out 19 strong holes. They took what the land offered. 

The Chain was added to the growing list of their extolled short courses, such as Bandon Preserve and The Sandbox at Sand Valley Golf Resort (Nakoosa, Wisconsin).

“We are quite fond of these shorter courses,” Coore told Golf Digest. “When you take strength and length out of the equation, golf becomes much more fun for a vastly expanded group of players. And from an architectural perspective, we can do more interesting things, particularly on the greens and around the greens.”

Even Tiger Woods threw his chips into the pot, leading TGR Design and revamping The Hay, a short par-3, nine-hole trek in 2021, located across the road from Pebble Beach Golf Links. The course was named after longtime Pebble Beach head professional Pete Hay. Yet the project got Woods’ juices flowing because of the outreach he felt it could achieve. 

“Peter Hay’s founding vision for this course aligns perfectly with TGR Design’s ideals – introducing new players to the game, bringing families together and providing a fun golf experience for players of all abilities,” said Woods before the project.

Which is an important distinction. In an age when golf entertainment areas have blossomed — think Callaway purchasing Topgolf for $2.66 billion in 2021 — the kernel of truth has always been twofold: how to attract more golfers to the game and how to make it fun? It’s been a decades-long puzzle the U.S. Golf Association has been trying to solve. 

With life speeding up over the past two decades, golfers have clamored for options. Golf communities have been adding more dots to maps. The Cliffs and Kiawah Island in South Carolina have attracted younger residents, who have in turn taken to more relaxed playing parameters. In other words, the appetite exists for short courses.

In The Chain’s case, it might advertise as a golf resort destination, but it’s an amenity that opens the doors for everyone. Management hopes that The Chain can serve as a warm-up before golfers head to one of its three championship-style courses. Or maybe even as a complementary comedown after lumbering through, say, the Black course’s eight-and-a-half-mile walk. More than anything, it’s about the fun factor. 

“I think you’re going to see more of [them],” says Keith Hanley, KemperSports’ senior vice president of operations, when asked whether the short-course desire might fade. “They can range from 13 to 19 holes, and even a 21-hole course is coming soon. But it’s also about doing the best with what you can with the land.

“But I can also tell you that I’ll be sitting my office and I hear a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ [on The Chain] going on. It’s fun. Eight buddies can be out there at one time just having the time of their lives.”