Why We Need More Par-Three Courses

Mike Keiser, who commissions everything at the Bandon Dunes complex in Oregon as a golf purist’s fantasy, is building a fifth course to add to his famous four.

It’s something you don’t hear about much anymore‚a par-three. Construction on the 12-holer, tentatively called “The Bandon Preserve,” starts in February.

“The baby boomers are getting older,” Mr. Keiser said, “and the older they get, the less willing or maybe less able they are to play 36 holes in a day. But with a par-three course on the ocean as an afternoon activity or as an alternative to 18 holes‚people say to me, hurry up and build it.”

The golf industry is struggling, and many people in the game cite the same reasons: a round takes too long; the game is hard; maintenance budgets are through the roof; there are no places for beginners to play while they learn.

One remedy: more short courses. For the experienced player, 18 holes on a par-three or “executive” course‚a slightly longer version that usually includes a few par-fours of less than 300 yards‚provide a great practice session under game conditions. Improving your game around the greens is the best way to cut five strokes from your score; two or three hours at a short course is more valuable than whaling away with your driver on the range.

For the beginner, the shorter holes mean less frustration and more success. The golf bug bites only on the course; the reward for a good shot on the range is the chance to do it again, not a memorable par or birdie.

Yet short courses have struggled in the marketplace recently. According to the National Golf Foundation, executive and par-three layouts make up 9% of the nation’s courses but accounted for 22% of course closings in 2009.

I learned the game at a nine-hole course surrounding a driving range. I spent many hot afternoons going around and around the place, even playing through a partial solar eclipse one summer. The course is long gone, but some of my lost Top-Flites are surely still there, quietly testing the half-life of Surlyn.

Such courses dotted the landscape in the 1950s and ’60s, providing entry-level golf after a period when few 18s were built because of the Depression and two wars. Geoffrey Cornish, the 95-year-old dean of American golf architects, owned a flood-lit pitch-and-putt course in Shrewsbury, Mass., and laid out and built a slew of them for clients up and down the East Coast. Then the boom stopped, Mr. Cornish recalled: “As the use of golf carts became universal, par threes lost their major appeal‚shorter walking distances.”

Short courses can be public‚or oh-so-private. Augusta National built its par-three course in 1958; it’s the favored spot for older members who no longer want to take on the big course, and has served as a testing ground for turfgrass experiments. Pine Valley added a 10-hole short course in 1992; eight of the 10 holes replicate approach shots on its famous 18, providing a second round of sorts for visitors and members when tee times are at a premium. At the Olympic Club in San Francisco, the par-three Cliffs Course has the only holes among the club’s 45 where you can hear the Pacific below.

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw will be designing the new short course at Bandon in an area of large sand dunes. “There won’t be a giant fluctuation in distances,” Mr. Coore told me. “The longest hole will be about 160 yards, maybe up to 190, and the shortest around 100‚but they go in all directions. With the way the wind blows, that creates a lot of interest.”

Messrs. Coore and Crenshaw have done short courses at Friar’s Head on Long Island, Colorado Golf Club, and Austin Golf Club, Mr. Crenshaw’s home club. This will be their first for a public facility.

“With a short course, you’re eliminating the longest and most unpredictable shots,” said Mr. Coore. “It frees you up creatively, and lets you put in something that might be right on the edge of unfair, something you wouldn’t put into a big course…because a big score on one hole might affect how a golfer thinks about his whole round and the course. But most people play short courses for fun, or at match play, and that allows you to create something the golfer might never be able to experience elsewhere.”

James Viras, golf operations manager at Harbor Links Golf Course in North Hempstead, N.Y., thinks he knows why his regulars flock to the regulation course without ever trying the excellent nine-hole executive course next door. “You know golfers,” he said. “They think it will be too easy.”

That may be, but usually it’s not the first 300 yards of a hole that kill you.
‚Sportswriter Jeff Neuman is co-author of “A Disorderly Compendium of Golf.” John Paul Newport is on vacation. Email:

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