What’s the best short golf course near you? Do you even know? We do. For decades the industry has essentially shunned short courses (anything under 4,444 yards) as something less than “real golf.” But sometimes we don’t feel like playing (or have the time for) a full 18 holes of championship golf. Fortunately, more and more golf developers are adding high-quality shorter courses to their properties, and it’s our job to tell you where they best of them are — no matter where you are.
Part 3: Massachusetts
to New Jersey
This is the third of a six-part series covering the 100 Best Short Courses in America. Conveniently broken up into alphabetical 10-state collections, you can easily find the best short courses in your state and in the states around you before we reveal our 20 International Favorites in Part 6. And now, in an industry first (based on my opinion and the opinions of many passionate fans and experts) we’ve ranked America’s Best Short Courses from 1 to 100.
Part 1: Alabama to Georgia
Part 2: Hawaii to Maryland
Part 3: Massachusetts to New Jersey
Part 4: New Mexico to South Carolina
Part 5: South Dakota to Wyoming
Highland Links: If scenic links-style golf is your thing, Cape Cod’s oldest course (1892) which is also America’s first legitimate links sits next to the Cape Cod Lighthouse in North Truro on windswept bluffs overlooking the Atlantic (not far from Tom Brady’s six Super Bowl trophies). The nine-hole course, designed by local Willard Small, was reportedly one of Francis Ouimet’s favorite places to play and a site visited frequently by Henry Thoreau. My favorite holes are the 5-pars —the second hole next to the medieval castle turret and the sixth — both with dramatic tee shots offering great ocean views.
Marion Golf Club: Not to be confused with the more famous (and private) Merion over in Pennsylvania, this historic nine-holer built in 1904 is very much public. Here’s what author Anthony Pioppi says of this primarily walking course: “On the same road as legendary Kittansett, Marion is the king of quirk. The first course laid out by George Thomas, who later designed Riviera Country Club and the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club, among others, Marion offers great views of Sippican Harbor and even has a blind hole where players have to hit over large stone walls to reach the green.”
Southers Marsh: You’ve probably never seen a course like this before — not with these kinds of hazards. If you’re near Boston during the cranberry harvest, check out this colorful 18-hole course, with 11 par 3-pars. Playing 4,111 yards from the tips, the par-61 course zigzags through the Stearns family’s cranberry bogs — bogs made famous locally by Will Stearns’ creative commercials. Ever lost a golf ball in cranberries before? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
The Dunes Club: Michigan really “gets it” when it comes to short golf, and it should surprise nobody that Mike Keiser’s private, nine-hole course is king. Architect Keith Cutten of Rod Whitman Golf Design says, “The place really showed the writing on the wall for Mike Keiser’s future, revealing his unique vision and gifts as a developer.” This was Keiser’s first foray into golf development, a project he took on to prevent the land near his home from being used for condo development. He brought Dick Nugent in to build “his own little Pine Valley” and succeeded by all accounts. The course can be played two ways (as 18 holes) with many sets of tees, wild green complexes, great 3-pars like the 165-yard No. 6 and permanent serenity (with NO condos). This is golf as it was meant to be … before Bandon Dunes took over that mantra.
The Links at Bay Harbor Golf Club: No disrespect intended to the other two nines at Bay Harbor — The Quarry nine is stunning if not a bit insane throughout, and The Preserve nine has such an epic closing 3-par — but the star of the show is the Links, the original nine on the property, opened in 1996. With breathtaking panoramic views on holes No. 1 through 4, plus 7 and 8, you have to wonder: If Arthur Hills had been given more land like this, he might have produced Michigan’s best overall golf course. There are quirks on each nine, and none of them is pure links (or pure anything for that matter) but the Links is the most scenic and the most fun — the “must play” nine-hole set on the eastern side of Lake Michigan.
ThreeTops at Treetops Resort: The smallest but most famous of the five courses at Treetops Resort, this nine-hole par-3 course was routinely ranked No. 1 in America for short courses in the 1990s and 2000s — and used to host the ESPN Par-3 Shootout. But it’s the furthest thing from easy, and clearly built more to showcase natural wow factor than allow people to tear it up score-wise. Dramatic elevation changes, crazy water carries and 1,400 yards of impressive hole designs continue to earn Rick Smith praise for his efforts.
Northport Creek: The winner of Golf Digest’s “Green Star Award” in 2015, Northport is off the beaten path and entirely “off the grid.” The nine-hole course opened in 2014 as the first course in the country completely operated by solar power. Owner Bill Collins, famous for being on the creative team that built the Pontiac Grand Am (and others) bought the 63-acre cherry farm and brought local architect Jerry Matthews in to build the course. Jerry weaved the holes around wetlands (and over them in the case of the par-3 No. 8) plus brought the sixth hole back to the clubhouse to allow Northport to book loops of six, nine and 18 holes.
Wawashkamo Golf Club: While it’s likely that many of today’s golf courses occupy land used in battles at one point or another, few are as certain of their place in history as “Wawa” out on Mackinac Island. Architect Alex Smith laid the nine-hole course out in 1898 on what is heralded today as one of Conde Nast Traveler’s “Top 10 Islands in the World.” The links-style course near Lake Huron was defended by the British in 1814, was the site of a bloody American loss and remains the only nine-hole course in America designated as a Historic Golf Landmark. Each hole is straightforward, literally, with no doglegs — and designed to be played with hickory clubs and gutta-percha golf balls. Want to learn more about the course? There’s a book on it by Frank Straus and Brian Leigh Dunnigan called, “Walk a Crooked Trail – A Centennial History of Wawashkamo Golf Club.” One of my favorite resorts in the world, Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island, will arrange for a horse-drawn carriage to take you to and from the resort, adding a little more “wow” to your “Wawa” experience.
The Little Course at Black Lake: Black Lake doesn’t get the respect it deserves — not as a golf course, not as a resort — so the short course will get more respect than it probably deserves here. I’m not sure how the place way up in Northern Michigan is largely ignored today. In 2012, Golf Digest had the Rees Jones design ranked 44th on its “100 Greatest Public Courses in America” list. And then it just disappeared. The crazy thing is, it might be better now than it ever was. And part of the experience of playing Black Lake is stumbling across the almost hidden and mostly super-fun Little Course in the process — a nine-hole pitch-and-putt par-3 course intended mostly for practice but set up perfectly for some gambling fun. My son and I recorded back-to-back aces on one hole (that neither of us counts as aces) playing at only 67 yards. The entire golf, resort and conference center is owned by the United Automobile Workers Stay, so take advantage of the many accommodations options and the Olympic-sized pool and incredible beach.
Pine Creek Golf Course: Built in 1957 by “Lefty” Krajewski, this nine-hole course in the far southeast corner of Minnesota just over the river from La Crosse, Wisconsin, deserves recognition for its diversity and insane daily value. At $1 a hole you get a layout across rolling hills, over streams and around ponds that would demand a premium in the Twin Cities or any bigger golf market. Instead, the locals covet and crowd it, and people like me promote it to golf writers like author Tom Coyne (who will play it for his “A Course Called America” book tour) as the “greatest golf value in America.” I’m sure I’m biased, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong, and that collection of short 4-pars and the scenic par-3 No. 7 make every visit a memorable one.
The Ponds at Battle Creek: I consider this nine-hole Garrett Gill design the second-best short course in the state. But if you throw in the 50-station driving range and expansive practice area, it is hard to argue against the facility being the best short-course “facility” in Minnesota. The parkland layout plays around nine ponds with many a fun and daunting tee shot, especially on the four 3-pars.
Hadley Creek: Rochester is home to the Mayo Clinic and more than 100,000 golf-deprived residents. Other than the private Somerby Golf Club in nearby Byron, Rochester (surprisingly and regrettably) doesn’t have any good 18-hole golf courses. In fact, their best course is 50 minutes away in Lake City — a Hale Irwin design called The Jewel. That said, locals can hone their game at a superb practice facility and short course on the northeast side of the city. The short course features a collection of fun 3-pars over and around water and some fun short 4-pars. Rochester is home to one of the game’s greatest and friendliest instructors (Paul Peeler) and a superb golf shop (Rochester Indoor Golf Center) but needs the execs in the parks-and-recreation department to step up their game. Bring in Jeff Brauer or someone else who has revitalized community golf elsewhere and let them bring your courses into this century.
Wolf Ridge: 200 miles north of the Twin Cities, only 25 miles west of my favorite course in the state (The Wilderness at Fortune Bay) this nine-hole reversible course in Angora is equally and yet uniquely dramatic each way. Owner Keith Ojanen transformed his farm into a rugged golfscape with crazy 3-pars built on top of rock outcroppings, playing over ponds, into and out of tight spaces and with a pretty good eye for design. Better yet, he’ll rent out the course to groups for a day and golfers can play any hole whichever way they’d like. Bandon’s (former) Sheep Ranch with Wolves (so to speak).
Bay Springs Country Club: This semi-private nine-hole course triangulated by Jackson, Meridian and Hattiesburg opened in 1965 with a distinct “Carolina feel.” Designed by engineer L.A. Conerly and a handful of charter members, the course has several Donald Ross-style mounded and elevated greens with others well protected by tricky, shallow bunkers. Some members refer to Bay Springs as “Baby Pinehurst” while others like local golfer C.J. Wolcott say, “It’s like playing at Pinehurst, baby!” When asked to explain, C.J. said, “The trees, man. There are trees everywhere.” Got it.
Top of the Rock at Big Cedar Lodge: There may not be a more picturesque golf property in America. Seriously. Step out onto the porch of Arnie’s Barn (yes, Arnold Palmer) and take in The King’s 16-green practice range (especially astonishing at night), the wedding chapel, waterfalls, the Jack Nicklaus golf course and jawdropping panoramic views over Table Rock Lake. Billionaire owner of Bass Pro Shops and Big Cedar Lodge, Johnny Morris, brought in the biggest names in golf to develop the place, and their many prestigious friends continue to come back for the annual Champions Tour event — The Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf. “With all the great golf courses in and around Branson, there may be no greater culminating experience to a golf trip than a final round at Top of the Rock and final meal in Arnie’s Barn — easily one of our most popular bookings,” says Brian Oar, owner of BransonGolfTravel.com.
Mountain Top: Gary Player’s walking-only 13-hole short course is another gem in the Johnny Morris mine, cutting through crazy rock formations affording even crazier views, not far from Tom Fazio’s highly acclaimed Buffalo Ridge, the new Ozarks National designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and Tiger’s (yes, that Tiger) first public course in the United States (opening soon) — Payne’s Valley. The hole-to-hole transitions alone on Mountain Top are worth the visit, making the actual golf experience that much more valuable.
Little Bear at Old Works: As unique golf experiences go, the Jack Nicklaus design at Old Works is pretty unique and definitely special. Built on the site of an historic copper smelter, the championship design mixes brilliant green with the darkest of black (slag bunkers) at the base of the mountains. And the three-hole “Little Bear” — while only a par-11 “course” — takes advantage of the same dramatic landscapes (while also clocking in as the official “shortest of the short courses on our list”). As cheap as golf gets without being free, you can play the course for $5 and take a cart for $3 more. Wait … rent a cart for just three holes? Yes. Play it and you’ll see why.
Horse Course at The Prairie Club: In 2015, Golf Digest ranked this free-form experience by Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford as the “10th Most Fun Course in America.” Loosely borrowing from the basketball game of “H-O-R-S-E” in “pick the shot, hit the shot” mode, the romp along the canyon rim is indeed intriguing. The 10-green course (on which you choose your own spots to tee it up) is not always maintained at the same immaculate level of the two championship courses on site, but for fun shots alone and massive 2,000-square-foot greens (on average), it is not to be missed. Golf Trip Experts Managing Editor Darin Bunch, who has championed The Prairie Club from its earliest days, considers one of the canyon-hugging greens on the Horse Course to be “perhaps the best par-3 location on the entire property.” And if you’ve played both the picturesque Pines and Dunes courses, you know that’s high praise.
Pelican Beach: If you’re ever in Hyannis, Nebraska (and most likely you’d only ever be there if you were on your way to or from The Prairie Club), you’ll want to stop off and play the nine-hole Pelican Beach. Designed by Dan Proctor (who has worked with Coore-Crenshaw, Doak and others plus designed both Wild Horse and Bayside in Nebraska), this fun hillside course runs alongside the Fairgrounds and overlooks Beem Lake (which feels more like an oversized pond). More importantly, the course was nurtured by and survives because of golf lovers in this town of just a couple hundred people. Pelican Beach is one of those “put your money in the box and go play” type of places, costing just $9 for nine holes. And it’s more than worth every dollar for an experience you’d never expect to find along Highway 61.
Cloud Nine at Angel Park: The name is a bit of a misnomer, given the course has 12 holes, but when you understand that nine of those holes are lit up at night, you accept the verbal quirk and move on. Fun to play day or night, the twelve holes are inspired by some of the most famous holes in golf — TPC Sawgrass’ island green, the Valley of Sin, the Postage Stamp and Riviera’s famous “bunker hole.” The Cloud Nine sits adjacent Las Vegas’ best practice facility plus a putting course (where you can literally putt a ball into a bunker, lol) and on the property with two Arnold Palmer-designed championship courses.“We book Angel Park a ton because of their practice facility, great courses, proximity to the 54 amazing holes at Paiute Golf Resort and our partnership with Suncoast Casino down the street,” says Darin Oar at LasVegasTeeTimes.com. “And that Cloud Nine night course — it’s a cool place to hang when it’s really hot!”
BTW, Topgolf deserves a mention on “The SHORT List” for a number of reasons. Sure, you aren’t playing physical golf holes per sé — it’s a more arcade version of the game — but you’re hitting real balls with real clubs and having a real good time with some amazing chefs at the Las Vegas location and 40-plus others around the United States and in the United Kingdom. With nearly 15 million people visiting these facilities each year, it only makes sense to highlight one of their best ones. Topgolf Las Vegas is regularly featured on social-media accounts of the stars of many sports, from NBA to NFL, and has a bit more glitz and glamour than most with two pools, five bars, 100-plus hitting bays and a concert venue that can hold up to 900 guests.
Hooper Golf Club: Formed in 1926, the course was built by Golden Age star Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek, and opened in July of 1927 with the old Watkins Tavern as its clubhouse and some cool stone walls scattered throughout. Located 100 miles northwest of Boston, the club is revered for its architecture by such knowledgeable design experts as Tom Doak, Ron Whitten and Tony Dear. Doak loved it so much that he once wrote, “I racked my brain trying to think if I’d ever seen a better pair of opening holes and (in the moment, anyway) I could think of none.”
Mt. Pleasant Golf Course at Omni Mount Washington Resort: This nine-hole course opened in 1895 and remained in its original form for nearly a century until Geoffrey Cornish and Brian Silva (with assistance from Gene Sarazen and Ken Venturi) renovated it in 1989 to increase the challenge and beauty of the layout along the Ammonoosuc River. A great complement to the championship course, the Mt. Pleasant course can also be made shorter and more enjoyable for family play with a six-hole option. The famed Omni Mount Washington Resort offers many other summer (and winter) activities (canopy tours, biking, tennis, fishing, climbing, pools) including a Moose Tour. “Moose don’t moo the way milk cows do.” (Or so we were told.)
Hickory Course at Hamilton Farm: No disrespect intended to Pine Valley’s short course, but this is THE short course in New Jersey that I’ve always wanted to play — and not just because it was designed by the team of Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry (although after playing Devil’s Paintbrush, that’s a lot of the reason), but because of this description from a Twitter follower who has played it: “18 par-3 holes of sheer DANG!” And the opinion of another: “It’s the second-best par-3 course in the entire country (behind Bandon Preserve).” That makes it a must play for me. (That and the pictures.) How about you?
The Short Course at Pine Valley: These ten holes were designed by Tom Fazio and Ernie Ransome in 1992 to alleviate wear on the legendary 18-hole routing. Eight of the holes replicate holes on the big course while the other two are original designs. “It’s an excellent solution for the club,” Tom Doak wrote in his “Confidential Guide to Golf Courses,” “because no original design was going to be good enough to get regular use; but it’s hard to know how to grade something so derivative.” I’m pretty confident it would get a good grade in my book (if I ever get to play it).
The Skyway Golf Course at Lincoln Park West: I’ve always known that golf photographer (extraordinaire – drink) Brian Oar was good, but looking at his pictures of the nine-hole Skyway Golf Course, I was rendered almost speechless. “Son of a motherless goat,” I muttered to no one but the neighbor’s dog. Fescue, dunes, the Manhattan skyline backdrop and the Pulaski Skyway overhead. (Wow.) I was taking a trip out east and determined I had to see it for myself. (Added bonus that it’s a KemperSports property — immaculately managed.) At every turn, the scenery was breaktaking. Ever a fan of the New York City skyline, in particular the chiseled symbol of national pride and remembrance — the One World Tower — I wished so much I had the time to play it. Next time. And the time after that. And the time after that.
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Part 3 Summary (Massachusetts to New Jersey): 10 more states covered. 25 courses. 1 Topgolf mention. 1 Tom Brady humble brag.
Thank you to the many writers, photographers, architects, course shapers and golf-travel enthusiasts who answered my inquiries and generously contributed to this project.