As golf courses get longer and longer to keep up with balls that go farther and farther, someone had to throw up a big “STOP” sign, and go the other way. Marquee golf destinations like Bandon, Pinehurst and Sand Valley have done just that, legitimizing “short courses” (anything under 4,444 yards) as “real golf” and fueling the flame for other developers to add them. Whether it’s configurations of 6, 7, 9, 13, 17 or even 18 shorter holes, these abbreviated options are becoming better built and more fun to play — and the national sentiment seems to be, “Where are the best short courses?” and “Why aren’t more people talking about them?” We hear you and we’ve listened, from Alabama to Georgia in Part 1, and now …
Part 2: Hawaii to Maryland
This is the second of a six-part series. The first five parts cover 100 American short courses in 10-state sections (listed alphabetically) and then the final section will cover 20 favorites from the rest of the world. When it’s all said and done, I’ll reveal my Top Short Courses ranked 1 to 100 the most comprehensive long “SHORT List” in existence. This project took five full months of research and hundreds of interactions with passionate fans and industry experts. Some states and countries will get more coverage than others because some states and countries have a lot more golf than others. The states with less coverage should take that as a challenge: Produce more short-course golf!
The Short Course at Kukio: With all the amazing aqua-volcanic scenery, and the premium money spent on Hawaiian real estate, you’d think nine-holers would dwarf regulation-length courses in numbers since they fit better into development plans. But that’s not even remotely the case. Instead, there are very few decent public “short stops” on any of Hawaii’s islets, seamounts, atolls or 137 recognized islands. This Tom Fazio 10-hole course on The Big Island (that I’ve seen but not played) dances around the lava rocks and along the ocean, and would be a must play … if you had any chance of playing it. Sadly, it is very private (sigh). Playing to par 33 and capped at 2,261 yards, keiki today would describe what I call “Little Kukio” as “sick, brah.”
Cavendish Golf Course: Larry Nelson owns 97 percent of the “Pineapple Island” of Lanai, including the only 18-hole course — the “bucket-lister” Manele. The golf course Mr. Nelson doesn’t own is on the 3 percent of the island he doesn’t own, and it’s maintained and operated by the locals and available to play for free. Golf in Hawaii for free? Wouldn’t that have to be the best golf experience in the world? I mean … you have to get there first, which isn’t all that easy or inexpensive, but yeah, it’s pretty great if you like golf with no restrictions, scorecards, clubhouse or tee times. After poking your way around the golf course, through all those cool tall trees, head into Lanai City for great poke at Richard’s Market or breakfast at the Blue Ginger Café restaurant and bakery.
Ironwood Hills: Nobody visits Molokai for the golf (and few even know it exists), especially since the island’s picturesque 18-hole resort course on the west end was closed many years ago as part of a dispute between residents and a foreign investor. But nine holes still remain atop Molokai in the form of Ironwood Hills, built for Dole executives in the pineapple heydays (the company ceased operations there in 1975). Nowadays it’s friendly, walkable and locally run. It’s nothing special, but in the best of ways — a pure island-life experience. And you’ve never truly tasted Hawaiian bread until you’ve stood in a dark alley with the locals behind 80-year-old Kanemitsu’s Bakery to buy a hot loaf stuffed with cinnamon sugar and other sweet toppings.
White Clouds Course at Sun Valley Resort: Golf photographer extraordinaire Brian Oar sent me the link to his photo shoot there and I nearly fell out of my chair. “Is it really that great?” I asked, figuring every element of each stunning mountaintop picture had to be altered somehow. “The pictures don’t do it justice,” he replied. Google Maps said I was 1,318 miles away, so a visit wasn’t quite logical, but a couple finger clicks led me to the surreal hole-by-hole flyover on the Sun Valley website (seriously, check it out). If the par-5 No. 4 and par-3 No. 7 — and as many as five other holes — don’t make you say “wow,” I’ll send you a written apology.
Woodside 9 at Cantigny Golf Center: This KemperSports-managed 27-hole facility has a 5-par on the Woodside called “Double Jeopardy” and a 3-par called “Castle Keep” that place it above the other two (still superb) nines. Any time I can heap praise on Josh Lesnik and the exceptional management tree at KemperSports, I do, and Cantigny affords me the perfect opportunity. There’s a level of customer care and genuine concern at this property that exceeds most other top-tier facilities in the Chicago area. I appreciate that and figured you would too.
Pottawatomie Golf Course: 30 miles due west of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (which feels like about 6.5 hours during rush hour), snugly tucked along the beautiful Fox River sits a pretty little Robert Trent Jones Sr. design (1939) whose website features lots of golf swings poses and almost no course pics (shame). It has a cool bridge though. A great golf value, it is worth the visit to St. Charles just to play the riveting third and fourth holes out in the river — one of them being RTJ’s first-ever “island green” design.
BTW, the Chicago suburbs have one of the coolest but worst managed mini-golf courses in all of America. Cash only with archaic rules, I was essentially turned away with my 3-year-old daughter because they wanted full-fare for her (even though she wasn’t playing) just to be carried around the course. And then two years later, I was shunned because the same daughter (who was there to play this time around) wasn’t tall enough. No joke. The course itself is good enough to make this Top 100 list. The management is bad enough to make sure that it doesn’t deserve the free marketing.
Buffer Park Golf Course: I can’t drive through Indiana without thinking of Hoosiers, missing high school sports and feeling really old. That’s a broad spectrum of emotions, I assure you, similar to the range of emotions expressed by Indianapolis native Charles Tucker who told me, “Buffer is my favorite course in the entire metropolis (his word, not mine). But I’ve lived eight miles from it for 11 years and didn’t find it until last summer. That’s vexing.” True. (And that’s why I’ve created this “Short” Guide.) This super-scenic nine-hole set is blessed with well-defined fescue, thick rough, water in play on almost every hole and tree-lined fairways, placing accuracy off the tee at a permanent premium. Vexed as Chuck Tucker might have been, those driving on Foltz Street to the right of the first hole should be even more so if I’m up on the tee. Apologies in advance, and … “Fore!”
Stone Creek Golf Club: Previously named Sport Hill Country Club, D.A. Weibring’s 2000 redesign of the nine-holer near Iowa City likes to hang its hat on the fact Golf Digest ranked it one of the “25 Best Nine-Hole Course in America” back in 2010. The parkland layout with five sets of tees, and two brilliant 3-pars at 5 and 7, is still really good, but like so many Midwest golf courses, kills its marketing potential by not having decent website photography. Literally every golf course in Iowa should pool together and hire Brian Oar (golf photographer extraordinaire) to shoot their facility. I’m sure he’d give the 392 of you a generous package deal.
Otter Valley Country Club: This place feels like a course anyone could build in their backyard with a bulldozer and a mower. It doesn’t have a signature hole and the members couldn’t care less. Surrounded by corn and bean fields but with more elevation, the sneaky-fun way-rural nine between the small farm towns of George and Boyden sits 1.9 miles from one of the world’s most beautiful churches and only 2.4 miles from a ditch full of all-you-can-take rhubarb.
Brough Creek National: Speaking of building a course in your backyard, Zach Brough and Ben Hotaling conceived this place as a joke in 2016, but it has become considerably less of one in the three years since. It’s not open yet (currently under construction literally in Zach’s backyard outside Kansas City) but that doesn’t make its inclusion any less credible or the story less incredible. These guys refused to let anything get in the way of their dreams. Ben was the primary designer of the routing and green complexes while Evan Bissell and Zach Brough officially “founded” the first hole. The property only has room for seven holes, but maybe a friendly neighbor will let them expand in the future? They hope to have a “soft open” in September 2019 and will be completely public, with the green fee currently listed as “a six-pack of American beer.” The guys are offering “sponsor” memberships to anyone willing to help them (financially or with other needs listed on their website) — a membership with social perks and even a formal letter with logo sticker (I’m proud to be Member #911). Watch Golf Trip Experts for more on this feel-good story (Managing Editor Darin Bunch is looking to make a stop there this summer) because we need more positive spins like this in the game, and more developments like Some Guy’s Backyard.
Paola Country Club: The only golf course I’ve ever seen with six different opening dates, this nine-hole private club 40 miles south of Kansas City survived “two world wars, the Great Depression and a fire that damaged the original Club House.” I’m convinced the tricky elevated green on the short par-4 No. 5 could withstand even more abuse. It and the par-3 No. 3 hole are both fun.
The East Nine at Quail Chase: It’s not Valhalla, but this nine-hole course on McNeely Lake (that looks more like a river) at Louisville’s only 27-hole facility, still has plenty of character. Local golfing legend David Hill agrees: “I love the short par-5 eighth hole with more risk than reward no matter where you go, and the fragment grenade of bunkers around the green.” Frag grenade bunkers … love that visual! Recently acquired by the Louisville Parks and Recreation, they figure to address the two issues locals have consistently had with the course — conditioning and “cart path only.”
Audubon Park Golf Course: Architect Dennis Griffiths only had 81 acres to work with in inner-city New Orleans, making the end result — a 4,220-yard par-62 course with 12 par-3 holes — all the more remarkable. The course lets the good times roll on and off of it, with city life and sounds swarming all around you (in one of America’s five best metro parks, in my opinion) and the tout-sweet aroma of hot doughy treats wafting in from Café Beignet and Café du Monde only six miles east.
Sebasco Harbor Golf & Resort: Standing on the dock, under the lighthouse, overlooking Casco Bay, you feel like you’re in picture-postcard Maine. Stunning 180-degree views of open water, a saltwater pool to your right, and a bowling alley and downright groovy set of nine holes to your left. Redesigned in 2001, the course features a 145-yard 3-par over the bay to a bizarre, multi-tier green that plays differently based on the tides, and a twisting run of tight, tree-lined fairways to proportionally tougher-to-hit greens.
BTW, if you’re ever taking a golf trip to Maine (to play Boothbay Harbor, Belgrade Lakes and Sunday River) jot down the name “Peter Webber” and this e-mail PWebber2@Maine.rr.com. (He wants you to!) That guy and that e-mail is the difference between a mediocre golf trip and an exceptional one to one of Golf Trip Experts’ favorite states.
The Grizzly Course at Bear Trap Dunes: This Rick Jacobson course in Ocean View likely qualifies as the state’s most intriguing nine-hole set if for no other reason than water is essentially in play on every single hole and you have to think about literally every shot. Bonus: It’s a Troon Golf facility, another management company (like KemperSports) that hits way more home runs than singles, and ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt is from Maryland. Whether or not you like ESPN, who doesn’t like Scott Van Pelt?
Gibson Island Club: Designed by Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor in 1922 and set on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay, this private nine-hole course features expansive bay, Magothy River and Red House Cove views, tidal wetlands, a large freshwater pond fronting the punchbowl green on the par-3 third hole and plenty of rolling elevation changes — with a final climb up the Alps-style ninth.
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Part 2 Summary (Hawaii to Maryland): 10 more states down. 16 courses covered. 2 KemperSports references and 1 Scott Van Pelt compliment.
And, once again, a big thank you to the many GolfTripX.com readers and golf-industry people (writers, photographers, course architects and shapers) who generously helped with building our SHORT List. You will not be forgotten.