Bigger isn’t always better, especially when it comes to golf courses. Golfers can be as fickle as Goldilocks, not wanting anything too long (more than 7,000 yards) or too short (miniature golf). Many finding their happy medium with “short courses” (which we define as anything under 4,444 yards). There are great short courses of all configurations (from three, six and nine holes to full 18s of 3-pars and 4-pars) scattered across America. We made it our mission to find at least one great short course in every state from Alabama to Georgia, Hawaii to Maryland, Massachusetts to New Jersey, New Mexico to South Carolina and finally …
Part 5: South Dakota
This is the fifth of a six-part series — five alphabetical 10-state collections covering 100 short courses across the United States (with one International short-course collection to wrap up the series). There’s never been a short list this long, and a lot of these great courses (experienced by our team and/or suggested by passionate locals and industry professionals) have never been featured in a national article before for. It was time to change that. With zero regard for prestige or marketing budget, we are proud to put these golf courses on your map. And if you’re wondering how all these courses stack up against each other, we’ve even created a Top 100 Rankings List of the Best Short Courses in America you can check out here.
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
Lead Country Club: Established in 1922 at 6,200 feet of elevation, this “Mile High Club” is the highest golf course east of the Rocky Mountains. Famous for its small greens, the locals know to (take notes) never be long, always play from below the hole and watch for putts that typically break more than they appear. The elevation can make the greens a bit patchy in shoulder seasons, but the par-36 course is wrapped in beauty, with Black Hills, ponds, plenty of tall trees and wide funneling fairways. South of Deadwood, west of Rapid City and 50 miles north of Mount Rushmore, if you’re out here looking for Crazy Horse (52 miles south), you’d be crazy to not horse around here, too.
Sweetens Cove: Great as this course is, and true as my opinion might be that (Tad) King and (Rob) Collins Golf Design should be building the next course at a big-name destination such as Sand Valley, Forest Dunes or Big Cedar Lodge, I don’t understand how Golfweek can list them in their Top 100 courses. It’s either disrespectful to all the 18-hole courses on the list or disrespectful to the 13-hole Bandon Preserve, which doesn’t appear on the list. That inconsistency aside (at least in my mind), Sweetens Cove is, by every single account, consistently awesome and exactly the kind of golf we need more of across the industry. I’ve heard it described as “Everything that is Right in Golf Design” and can’t find fault with that. Golf Trip Experts Managing Editor Darin Bunch, a tireless promoter of often-too-unheralded places like Sweetens Cove (and Tobacco Road and others) loved it so much that he bought out the course for two full days this coming August to host our first GolfTripX Event, the Sweetens Cove Shootout (sign up here — limited spots are still available). “It’s just fun, plain and simple,” Bunch says. “I played 60 holes in less than 24 hours on my first visit, just kept making the loop trying to figure out all the intricacies of each of these nine holes, none of which has a weakness.” If you want to know more — a lot more — about Sweetens Cove and King-Collins Golf Design, check out Episode 135 of the “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast with guest Rob Collins discussing, among other things, the course’s new investment partnership group of big names such as Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick.
The Course at Sewanee: Around the time Gil Hanse was becoming world famous for his work, he was renovating this nine-hole university-campus course on the Cumberland Plateau, and it’s important to note he took two full years to do so. Hanse preserved the original routing but changed nearly everything else, and the results are impressive with holes like No. 5 “The Edge” that can be downright otherworldly (especially at sunset). Respected golf journalist and author Tony Dear understates the visual power of the property: “The place is just special, with stunning beauty everywhere.” (Lots of deer, too.) Only 25 miles from Sweetens Cove, it begs the question — “why doesn’t every golfer who plays one play the other?” Probably because people at one don’t realize how close they are to the greatness at the other. Let’s bury that ignorance once and for all. And stay at the Sewanee Inn and Golf Lodge while you’re here.
The Needler at Whispering Pines: Golf Digest ranked the private, Chet Williams-designed Whispering Pines as their No. 1 course in all of Texas in 2018. What Golf Digest didn’t say is that a new little nine-hole, par-3 course opened there in 2018 as well. My son, Dylan, and I played both courses with Chet in early April 2019, and I honestly can’t say which was more fun. Williams did such a fantastic job with the land and landscaping of both courses, but the real winner is the member (and guest) who gets to play both. Approximately 90 miles north of Houston in Trinity, Mr. Corby Robertson’s 400 acres feels like a nature preserve, with many of the holes playing along the river-like Lake Livingston. The all-Zoysia-grass Needler wraps around a cool clubhouse called The Roadhouse with an operational Gristmill outside (and a 14-foot gator named “Lucky” inside) and has so many great greens, including a 28,000-square-foot monster at No. 4 and No. 8. My son and Chet Williams shot matching 29s on The Needler. I don’t remember my score. (Whispering Pines will close this year for a massive renovation to do some reshaping and convert the grass to Zoysia. I’m hoping they leave the awesome fifth green alone!)
The Championship Golf Course at Big Easy Ranch: Local design legend Chet Williams has an exceptional Texas resume, with many standout par-3 holes on his full-length designs, and three of the nine 3-pars at this hunting, fishing, clay shooting and golf ranch would rank among his 10 favorites. “The property was just so perfect,” Williams said during our get-together in early April. “I tried to blend a little bit of all my favorite places like Augusta National, Cypress and Pebble.” He even added a replica of Augusta’s famed stone bridges. Big Easy Ranch is just 70 miles west of Houston and 80 miles south of Austin, home to Hal Sutton’s Golf Academy and offers cottage rooms and cabins for a luxurious multi-sport getaway.
The Playgrounds at Bluejack National: Playgrounds should be fun, and golf needs more playgrounds like this one at Houston’s Bluejack National (although we’d prefer all playgrounds be open to the public). Tiger Woods and his TGR Design company continue to expand their portfolio (Cabo, Houston and soon-to-open in Branson) with diverse playing options short and long. The Playgrounds is 10 holes, only 792 yards and intended for casual fun with friends and family. Short holes, with well-contoured fairways and greens, it feels like a course you’d build in your backyard (if you had a few extra million dollars and perfect Zoysia grass).
Starr Hollow: Back in the ’60s this course was built in Mr. Marvin Leonard’s private backyard, 60 miles west of Fort Worth, at Star Hollow Ranch. Mr. Leonard, a father figure to Ben Hogan, built a 90-acre lake, the golf course and a clubhouse, all for himself and a few of his lucky friends. (He also built Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth.) Today, Starr Hollow remains an extremely exclusive club, exquisitely maintained daily even if no one is playing that day. With nine official holes, but with each possessing two separate teeing areas, the course has three holes on Star Hollow Lake and even a book about its history: “Starr Hollow & Star Hollow – Mysteries & Memories of a Golf Course and a Ranch” by Scott Dally.
Jordan Spieth’s Lower 40 at the University of Texas Golf Club: It’s only six holes, only 4.5 acres, wedged between the members’ driving range and the first hole of the championship golf course, and it doesn’t open until this fall, but it looks like a LOT of fun and will easily belong among the Top 100 Short Courses in America. Designed by Roy Bechtol, the architect responsible for the full-length course, Roy got valuable input from “a very hands-on” Jordan Spieth, the three-time Major and 2012 NCAA champion. One distinctive feature of the course will be a bunker in the final (No. 6) green in tribute to the famous hole at Riviera where the Longhorns won their championship. Jordan is very interested in being a golf architect later in life and figured the best place to start that future was at home.
Stewart Peninsula Golf Course: Billed as Texas’ version of the back nine at Pacific Grove in Monterey, this Tripp Davis nine-holer plays along the banks of Lake Lewisville, a short Toll Road drive north of downtown Dallas. The biggest problem with this course is that the secret is out on it, and people play it like they’re playing Pebble Beach. (That’s a duck. You’ve seen them before. Move on.) If you were playing the course by yourself on a calm evening, it might be your favorite in Texas. Playing it on a typical in-season day, you might actually hate it (took almost four hours last time I was there). The views are superb, there’s plenty of wildlife for a DFW course, the greens could be better maintained, but Tripp did a fantastic job with the layout. It’s just a little too chaotic for me.
The Links at Sand Hollow Golf Resort: There are golf nines that blow your mind, like the back nine on Sand Hollow’s Championship Course. And then there are golf nines that blow your mind because more people don’t play them. It is the greatest oversight to stay and play at Utah’s Sand Hollow without playing the nine-hole Links, greater even than not stopping at Oscar’s when visiting Zion National Park (just 30 miles east). Brian Oar, golf packaging expert at St. George-based GolfPackagePros.com, says: “We try to get as many people to play it as possible, but for some strange reason people resist. They just don’t get it.” I don’t either. The course was built to honor the origins of golf, with hand-built stone fences and the state’s largest greens and fairways. It is, quite possibly, “the perfect nine-hole course for everyone.”
Dixie Red Hills: Approximately 20 miles west of Sand Hollow, in St. George, “Lil Dixie” is a nine-hole beauty that the locals would rather you not know about. The spectacular red rock canyon walls and sandstone cliffs surround a sublime, green golf amphitheater that is built on a natural spring and weaves among trees, streams and more rocks. A local golfer known as “Iron Mike” (because he never uses a driver and always eats Mike and Ikes) says, “This is my favorite golf course in Utah.” I tried to get him to expand on “why,” but his mouth was full of candy and he was swinging a three-iron, so I just backed away.
Bellows Falls Country Club: “Almost no one outside the immediate area in Vermont knows about this course, which has a world class punchbowl green on its second hole,” says Anthony Pioppi, author of “The Finest Nines.” “It’s worth the green fee just to play that second hole. Only 12 miles from the phenomenal nine-hole Hooper Golf Course (in New Hampshire), the original Bellows Falls layout was designed by David Brown, who won the 1886 Open Championship and designed only three courses in the United States. It’s a blast to play, and make sure to check out the waterfall next to the eighth green.” Hilly with plenty of swales, that tricky punchbowl on No. 2 is at the end of a 529-yard par 5, and that green is actually hidden in a deep basin 20 feet “underground.” (Cheat before your round by checking the pin location on No. 2 from just left of the clubhouse.) Pair that with holes like “The Canyon” — a 164-yard par 3 — and you’ll have plenty of memorable moments on which to reflect fondly.
Catamount Country Club: With the slogan “First to Open, Last to Close” Catamount has no trouble staying busy longer than all the other courses around it, with the right firmness and openness of turf (lack of tree cover) to contest the calendar of Old Man Winter. The nine-hole course, not far from the well-known landmark known as Camels Hump and only 20 miles from the more widely known Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory (complete with a Flavor Graveyard with headstones and epitaphs for each “Dearly De-Pinted” flavor), was established in 2002 and consists of plenty of humps and bumps, ponds, fountains, bunkers and catlegs (Catamount’s affectionate name for their tricky doglegs) across its 60 acres. Curious what kind of ice cream flavors died? Wavy Gravy, Fossil Fuel, Dastardly Mash and Schweddy Balls are a few.
The Schoolhouse Nine: It was the musical group Train that famously said, “Meet Virginia,” and the golfer Ethan Zimman that says, perhaps less ceremoniously, that Mike McCartin’s design (the only golf course in Rappahannock County) “has a beautiful setting along the river, at the foot of the mountains, with interesting greens and single-height rough and fairways.” There’s a Principal’s Nose bunker on the third hole. You can pick your ball out of it, but please don’t pick your friend’s ball out of it.
Kanawha Club: Local architect Lester George had a lot of fun working the 55 acres of rolling hills in Manakin-Sabot into a par-3 course. The very unique and very private design allows golfers to hit a variety of shots on each hole, with an assortment of tee boxes from 60 to 230 yards. There are elevated tee shots, forced carries, bunkers and aquatic hazards like Dover Creek of which to be conscious. It’s hard to pick a favorite hole among the nine, but the opener towards the barn and the drop-shot fourth are particularly pretty. “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast host Darin Bunch says, “This might be the coolest private club I’ve ever visited.” That probably has something to do with spending the day there with PGA Tour player Ryan Palmer, but playing private-club golf in some guy’s back yard also has a lot to do with it, too.
Orcas Island: Due west of Bellingham and just south of Vancouver, the former mustard farm near the East Sound shoreline is named for the marvelous creatures that frequently circle the island, with killer views of Turtle Back Mountain to boot. Designed in 1961 and redesigned in 2009 after it was sold to the Taylor family, the course plays across some steeply sloped fairways and around some manmade ponds that were added (between holes No. 3 and No. 9) in 2014 and (in front of the eighth tee box) in 2015.
King’s Course at Stonewall Resort: As a proud, badge-wielding member of Arnie’s Army, I try to play every Palmer course that I can. Deacon’s Lodge (in Minnesota) is my favorite full-length U.S. Palmer design. Ireland’s Tralee my favorite internationally. And this 18-hole course, (while it is overlays the existing championship course) tipping out at only 2,600 yards, qualifies as my favorite Palmer short course. Complemented finely by its setting on the bluffs over the West Fork River in picturesque Roanoke, the short course gives you new looks and play angles into each of the Palmer signature holes, making the big course much more playable for everyone and a great amenity at a resort with many other great amenities (awesome indoor-outdoor pool).
The Sandbox at Sand Valley Resort: Sometimes you only have enough time for 17 holes. That might not have been the exact reasoning behind mastermind Jim Craig’s suggestion to Michael Keiser to have legendary architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw build this little beauty near the clubhouse, but the 17 holes at one time might have been 22 (“18 is just a number”) — in short, they just worked magic with what they had. My son, Dylan, is credited with catching the first fish at Sand Valley and with hitting one of the first guest shots on the Sandbox (before it was opened). He loves it because you can play the entire course with only a putter (and many do). Most of the holes max out at 100 yards, and Sand Valley issues small golf bags to Sandbox players so you can whittle your own bag down to a putter, two golf balls (you shouldn’t lose any but you might get mad at one) and some wedges. Minimal size. Maximum fun. The logical pairing of Sand Valley with the exceptional management brand at KemperSports means that, much like The Preserve at Bandon, the golfer is treated to a short course maintained at the same superior level of the nationally-ranked, top-tier championship courses — Coore-Crenshaw’s original Sand Valley and David McLay Kidd’s newer Mammoth Dunes.
The Woods Course at Wilderness Resort: Wisconsin Dells is the “Waterpark Capital of the World” and loaded with indoor and outdoor water parks from Noah’s Ark to Kalahari, from Great Wolf Lodge to Mt. Olympus, and from Chula Vista to the biggest indoor-outdoor waterpark experience at Wilderness Resort. Wilderness Resort and Kalahari dominate the winter scene in “The Dells” and continue that dominance in summer with the best golf in town at Kalahari’s Trappers Turn and the Hurdzan-Fry rollercoaster Wild Rock at The Wilderness. The course that often gets lost in that shuffle, however, is arguably the most fun nine in town — the Woods Course at Wild Rock, otherwise known as “The Gambler.” The Gambler has several great downhill 3-pars, including one to an island green, with enough challenge to foreshadow the greater challenges on Wild Rock. “Plenty of bets are settled on this course,” says the director of golf. I bet.
Sinclair Golf Course: While the course logo of a dinosaur hitting a golf ball with its tail is a bit befuddling (can’t dinosaurs golf with their hands?), the course itself makes perfect sense as a playground for all ages. Yes, there are bunkers and water bodies present to create plenty of challenge, but this nine-hole course just past the Sinclair Gun Club doubles as a Foot Golf course and triples as a Disc Golf course to show that the local operators know how to maximize the beautiful land they’ve been given. You’re in Wyoming, so you’re bound to see antelope around, explaining why this course seems to be both a little extra green and also oddly mowed in places. Other than the four-legged characters milling about, the course doesn’t have much character, but of the 12 short courses I considered in Wyoming, it was easily the best.
• • •
Part 5 Summary: These were the 10 final states (that’s all 50 now present and accounted for across all five parts of the series). And 20 courses in this part to top off our Top 100 total. Two Chet Williams courses and even a Jordan Spieth course in the works. Mentions of Foot Golf and Disc Golf, much to my editor’s dismay. And also a Peyton Manning reference inserted without my knowledge, which for those of you who know me and my love for Tom Brady, was very tough to stomach. And, of course, a Schweddy Balls reference, which has to be a first for GolfTripX.com.
Part 6 will cover 20 of the Best International SHORT Courses we could find. And if you have nominations for any Short Courses we missed — in the United States or abroad — send them our way @GolfTripExperts on Twitter.
Thank you to the many writers, photographers, architects, course shapers and golf-travel enthusiasts who answered my inquiries and generously contributed to this project.