I’ve never seen a list like this. And, trust me, I’ve searched, looking for anything and everything from miniature golf to Bandon Preserve and everything in between. In short, I love “short” courses (anything under 4,444 yards).
Sure, you’ll find clickbait posts about the 10, 20 or 25 “Best in America” lists that exhaustively replicate the same collection of short, executive or non-regulation courses, but exactly zero of those lists include options in Minnesota or Illinois or any of 27 other states.
That’s a lot of exclusions for an increasingly “inclusive” sport — too much short-changing (so to speak) of some pretty great golf states. To the quality diminutive designs I myself missed in this venture, I apologize and welcome readers to make a pitch to add them to the list.
And to the stellar short sets included in a national golf story for the very first time: Welcome to the Party! We’re proud to beat our “little” drum for you.
Part 1: Alabama to Georgia
This is the first of a six-part series — five alphabetical 10-state collections covering 100 short courses across the United States (and one final piece covering 20 of the better short tracks throughout the rest of the world). Some states and countries will get more love than others because (let’s face it) some states and countries have a lot more golf than others. For example, California had 16 short courses I considered, but it took me almost three weeks to find a single worthy nine-hole course in Mississippi.
I sent out inquiries to 177 writers, photographers, architects and fans on favorite holes and hidden gems, and received nearly 100 replies. Then I took every responsive thought and course candidate seriously in an attempt to make this the most accurate, comprehensive and longest “Best SHORT List” in golf history. (Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Great, he gives us 100 of the best short courses arranged by state — why couldn’t he have ranked them No. 1 to No. 100?” Well, I did that too. You just have to wait until the very last post to find out where your favorite short course stacks up to the rest.)
So as the legume-loving lyricist William Adams famously urged back in 2004: “Let’s Get It Started.”
The Short Course at Silver Lakes: The nation’s original, most massive and most impressive golf trail — the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail — offers seven short courses at its 11 statewide sites. My favorite is Silver Lakes, 75 miles northwest of Birmingham. The intimidating names of the property’s three other nines (Backbreaker, Heartbreaker and Mindbreaker) deceive you into believing The Short isn’t as strong. Au contraire. Short muscles up just fine — the Trail’s strongest visual nine-hole set — wrapped around a lake, bridge and waterfall setting.
The Short Course at Cambrian Ridge: Also on the RTJ Trail, this similarly stunning nine, near one of Alabama’s 13,800 Waffle Houses (give or take a few), sits just 50 miles south of Montgomery, and offers even more lakeside leaps and laps. With water carry after water carry and more water to your every left and right, be sure to bring along enough golf balls and a camera (in case you run out of balls and need something else to get you through the round). Stay at the Marriott Capitol Hill and add the 36 holes here to the 54 Trail holes there for a 90-hole stay-and-play.
The Short Course at Grand National: This 18-hole collection (again on the RTJ Trail) in the southeast corner of the state, near Auburn University, doesn’t quite present the flair and fun of the aforementioned short courses, but it’s my favorite course on property and not just because I recorded my first ace there (yes, I have more than one). Of all the courses Robert Trent Jones Sr. built in Alabama, Grand National was his favorite building site, with more than two dozen of the 54 holes touching Lake Saugahatchee. Stay at the adjacent Marriott and play all three.
The Short Course at Magnolia Grove: Golf Digest once called this RTJ Trail gem, a half-hour west of downtown Mobile, the “Best Par 3 Course in America.” While I do love it and the many forced carries over wetlands to challenging bulkheaded greens, it’s a bittersweet pick, as my son lost his favorite wedge there. We had every member on staff out looking for that club and two sweet old ladies wearing matching shoes. No luck, but nice shoes and stellar course. Stay at The Battle House Renaissance Hotel & Spa downtown, and take advantage of their rooftop pool.
Black Diamond Golf Course: Yes, they have golf way up in Alaska. Bears too I’ve been told. And ice, almost year-round. (And I thought my Minnesota golf season was short.) One of America’s northernmost golf courses, Black Diamond’s nine-hole routing in Healy is just up the road from the Denali National Park entrance, has majestic mountain views, frozen tundra and a fox on hole No. 2 famous for stealing golf balls. Bad foxy. (My new favorite line in a golf story.) It also features possibly the only hole in America (No. 9) where you can play your approach off an abandoned rusty Jeep guarding the green. If you want to hear more about Black Diamond and Alaska golf and travel, check out Episode 85 of the “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast.
The Bad Little Nine at Scottsdale National: One of only two short courses on my global “Bucket List” (with Sweetens Cove, pinned to my Twitter profile for those who are interested) is the Jackson Kahn-built thriller at GoDaddy and PXG founder Bob Parsons’ home. Golf News Net owner Ryan Ballengee described it as “the most fun (butt)-kicking you’ll take this side of Dublin.” It’s a nine-hole course so tough that Parsons offers $1,000 to anyone who can break par (seriously).
Li’l Wick at Wickenburg Ranch: With music streamed around the course and the last four holes physically “lit,” this “under the radar” nine-hole short course at a “somehow still under the radar” golf destination, 75 miles northwest of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, is definitely worth the drive, for 27 (in all) superbly designed golf holes.
The Short Course at Mountain Shadows: An oft-overlooked gem surrounded by all of Phoenix-Scottsdale’s elite rounds, this 18-hole par-3 “resort” course designed by Forrest Richardson is the perfect complement to any metro “long” round. For more about Mountain Shadows’ course and resort experience, listen to Episode 111 of the “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast with Darin Bunch and Mitch Laurance.
Lakeside Country Golf Club: It was the words “a mini Tot Hill Farm” that turned my focus to this nine-holer in Hot Springs designed by Shook Wilson (and built in his yard). It’s a bit of a stretch to compare this to Tot Hill, or any of Mike Strantz’ work for that matter, but the double-green par-3 third hole with a windmill is definitely memorable.
Ben Brown’s Golf Course at The Ranch at Laguna Beach: My “California favorite” nod goes to the only one of the six listed that I’ve had the privilege to play. Ben Brown’s has nine holes only six miles from my favorite Chinese restaurant in America — Peking Dragon in Dana Point. Flooding during heavy rains in February 2019 prompted a temporary closure and some cleanup work, but the nine-holer, routed through the canyons, is a serene experience. Tip: If you’re looking for a different sort of Southern California getaway, you can rent the Treehouse accommodations at The Ranch.
The Links at Terranea Resort: This nine-hole par-3 cliffside gem (just up the road from Trump National Los Angeles) peers across the Pacific toward Catalina Island. Designed by Todd Eckenrode, the views and variety of short holes make it a perfect quick-play resort amenity. Treat the round as an appetizer to dinner at Nelson’s overlooking the water — an unforgettable spot.
BTW, that island you see from The Links or Nelson’s is Catalina, and there’s a nine-hole golf course out there as well. It didn’t make our 100 list, but Catalina Island Golf Course claims to be the oldest operating course west of the Rocky Mountains (not so sure about that). However, I am sure that it has a really annoying tree in one fairway. Also, it technically counts as “island golf” — and Tiger Woods played in a tournament out there when he was 4 years old.
The Challenge at Monarch Dunes: Architects Damien Pascuzzo and Steve Pate are highly underrated, just like their 12-hole, par-36 collection of one-shotters in Nipomo. The team built this Challenge — a complement to Monarch Dunes’ 18-hole Old Course — without any outside materials, merely shaping the sand for course dynamics. Some say the 198-yard fifth hole, which plays from an elevated tee to a semi-island green, might be the best hole on the entire Central Coast. “Almost every shot on the Challenge is fun,” says a trip leader who takes his large group to Monarch Dunes every year, “and every swing feels like a hole-in-one waiting to happen.”
The Cliffs Course at Olympic Club: The only holes west of Skyline Boulevard at this private club known for its U.S. Open pedigree, 11 miles south of the Golden Gate Bridge, are the nine holes built by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish on the “executive” Cliffs Course, with panoramic views of the Pacific and its own “Lone Cypress” on the stunning par-3 No. 4.
The Loma Club: This nine-hole par-3 walking-only course dates to the early 20th century and was called the Sail Ho for many years during its time on the San Diego Naval Training Center base. Now, thanks to gentrification of the Liberty Station area after the base closure, The Loma Club embodies a cool new personality with renovated facilities and tasty food-and-beverage options. The greens are slick and subtle yet tricky, and the view from No. 4 takes in much of San Diego, from the downtown skyline to the harbor and Coronado Bridge beyond. Loma Club is in the flight path of nearby San Diego International Airport, which can make for some interesting flyover photographs.
Goat Hill Park: Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella raves about Goat Hill Park in Oceanside, just off Interstate 5. Saved from bulldozers thanks to a community effort led by Linksoul’s John Ashworth, Goat Hill Park has been revitalized into a locals-friendly 18-hole course that bills itself as “not an executive course, not a regulation course.” One thing is sure: Goat Hill Park’s collection of eight 3-pars, nine 4-pars and just one 5-par is fun and friendly (even dog-friendly). Check out Mitch and Darin talking all things Goat Hill Park in Episode 95 of the “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast. Disclaimer: At 4,454 yards from the back tees, GHP stretches 10 yards beyond my “short course threshold” but those 10 extra yards are worth a 100-mile drive. (And maybe even a groovy goat-logo T-shirt for the mention? Hook a “Soul Brother” up, Matt!)
Lake Estes Golf Course: I once elected to take an unplayable lie instead of trying to hit a ball imbedded between the legs of a bull elk on this scenic nine-hole riverside course that I consider “best in state” mostly because it exists at the doorstep of Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, my favorite town in America, and just down the street from The Stanley Hotel (see Stephen King’s “The Shining”) and Munchin House’s superb ice cream. The Big Thompson River (and many herd of elk) cut through the course that seemingly no one other than Feed the Ball podcast host Derek Duncan and I play.
Mulligan Course at Ballyneal: It doesn’t seem right to call a course that is “so good the first time around” a “Mulligan” but it makes more sense when you learn that Tom Doak’s 12-hole track at this private destination club in the Chop Hills was built in honor of the club’s original caddie, Charlie Mulligan. “The Mulligan might be the funnest course I’ve ever played,” says photographer Jason Liebert. (And I’m a big fan of funnests.) Some non-members who have made the trip out to Holyoke, in the state’s extreme northeast corner, believe the original 18 at Ballyneal might be Doak’s finest course, hole-for-hole, anywhere in the United States. (Better than Pacific Dunes? Really? An investigation is in order.)
Pelican Falls at Pelican Lakes Golf Club: I was told I deserved to die if I excluded this quirky par-34 nine-holer designed by Mike Hines in Windsor, part of a 27-hole facility (Ted Robinson Sr. is responsible for the 18-hole Pelican Lakes course). And since I don’t want to die just yet, it has made the list. The island-green par-3 No. 9 is hyped as the “most iconic golf hole in all of Northern Colorado.”
Fenwick Golf Course: Fenwick’s idyllic nine-hole setting on a peninsular tip of the Connecticut River next to the Outer Lighthouse (shown on many Connecticut state license plates) has the beauty of Long Island Sound behind it and a uniquely cheap green fee for “holes on the ocean.” The course, a collection of randomly mowed holes with tomato cans and makeshift flags before “going official” in 1896, is now a more manicured playground that feels like U.K. links-style golf without the dunes.
BTW, just a mile from Fenwick, separated only by a bridge, is another course with an idyllic setting on the peninsular tip of the Connecticut River. I said in the intro that mini-golf would have a (small but just as valuable) place on this list and the Mini-Golf Course at Saybrook Point is one of the most scenic, fun, creative and well-run putt-putt courses I’ve ever played, making for a low-cost high-value 27-hole day when paired with Fenwick. (Plus Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough is only a short 27 miles away. Do NOT overlook that delicious fact!)
Apple Nine at Lyman Orchards: “Don’t forget about the Apple Orchard,” says Anthony Pioppi, author of “The Finest Nines” (available on Amazon). “Playing 1,556 yards from the back tees with a par of 29, this nine-hole Mark Mungeam design (opened in 2012) should be a template for every short course built from then on,” Pioppi says. “Mungeam harkened back to the Golden Age of course architecture by designing Redan, Biarritz and Punchbowl green complexes to go with his own intriguing works.” Nice. (I can’t resist the Bostonian in me: How you like them apples?)
American Classic Golf Course: What’s not to love about the red, white and blue emblazoned carts at a hybrid nine-hole course in Sussex County (with an island green on No. 6) that can become 18 when played from an alternate angle set of tee boxes? (Seriously, why don’t more nine-hole courses do this?)
The Palm Beach Par 3: One of Florida’s most fun golf experiences has 18 holes ranging from 81 to 211 yards (par 54) pinched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, only an hour north of Miami. The 1961 Dick Wilson-Joe Lee design was renovated in 2009 by Raymond Floyd and features great views, lakes, a full-length driving range and a descriptively awesome URL: golfontheocean.com.
Winter Park 9: Another “community golf” success story that deserves to be applauded (also championed by Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella, who hosts a regular skins game at the nine-hole track). Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns revived the ailing design (which dated back to the early 1900s) and the result is “pure fun,” according to Golf Trip Experts’ Mitch Laurance, who has called it “one of his favorite and most memorable golf experiences.” And if that, plus a 10,000-square-foot putting green, isn’t enough, Winter Park also offers Night Golf with glow balls on Tuesday nights from November through March. Hear more of what Mitch has to say about Winter Park in Episode 95 of the “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast.
Links at Fisher Island: Guests at the Inn at Fisher Island can play this otherwise very private P.B. Dye nine-holer, assuming it’s open. On a visit for a luxury magazine I write for in Florida, the course was closed for some reason, so I touched the grass and took pictures but (sigh) didn’t get to play it. Fisher Island is a barrier island with only 218 houses and the highest per capita household income of any metro area in the United States. That should tell you how much money is poured into maintaining the beautiful course and how much great Atlantic scenery is out there, especially the seventh hole on the shipping channel, running just south of Miami Beach.
Par 3 Course at Augusta National: I cannot in good conscience omit the course even if most of us have a better chance of donning a green jacket than playing it. Paul Azinger once called the short course (not the big course) that hosts the annual Par-3 Contest at The Masters, “the best golf course in the world.” While golf legend Bobby Jones objected to it ever being built, club co-founder Clifford Roberts fought for it and helped architect George Cobb bring it to life in 1958, and then Tom Fazio improved it (adding two new holes around Ike’s Pond) in 1987. Jimmy Walker holds the course record of 19 on the Par 27.
Great Dunes Course at Jekyll Island Golf Club: “Only nine holes of the original Walter Travis design remain after Hurricane Irma (2017),” Anthony Pioppi told me of the nine-holer hyde-ing on Jekyll Island, one of the Golden Isles of Georgia’s barrier islands, “but the completely restructured and rerouted course features a number of seaside holes and is a rare opportunity for the general public to experience a Travis layout.” Founded in 1898, Jekyll Island Golf Club is the state’s largest public golf resort, and the Great Dunes course gives the player ocean views and a history lesson through descriptive signage.
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Part 1 Summary (Alabama to Georgia): 10 States. 26 Courses. 2 Matt Ginella name-drops. 1 Linksoul Goat Hill Park T-shirt request.
Thank you to the many writers, photographers, architects, course shapers and golf-travel enthusiasts who answered my inquiries and generously contributed to this project.