(This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, May 19, 2012)
Shorter courses were once considered the ugly sister to championship layouts. Often using rubber mats for tees and prominently posting "no high heels" signs, they were derided by aficionados of the game. Now, though, with the number of golfers in decline, they're being hailed as the salvation of golf. And unlike yesterday's low-rent versions, today's shorter layouts often look and play like Augusta National or Pebble Beach – only in miniature.
"People are leaving golf because it's too expensive or too difficult or takes too much of their time," says Anthony Mocklow, director of golf at Bermuda's par-three Fairmont Southampton course. "If more golfers played shorter courses, the game would be in much better shape."
Par-three and executive courses (usually shorter than 5,200 yards, with a mix of par-threes, -fours and possibly a par-five) are ideal for beginners, golfers with limited time and money, and those slowed by injury and age. Best of all, they're fun to play.
The Cloud Nine Short Course in Las Vegas offers 12 holes inspired by the world's most famous par-three holes and is lit for nighttime play. Acclaimed golf architect Rick Smith artfully carved the nine-hole par-three Treetops course through towering hardwoods in Gaylord, Mich.
And the nine-hole par-three course at Nova Scotia's Fox Harb'r Resort and Spa is spectacularly situated on the Atlantic coastline's Northumberland Strait.
A step up in length and most often in challenge, executive courses can rival the beauty of even the most famous championship layouts.
"An 18-hole executive-style design might be as much as 3,000 yards shorter than a full-length course," top Canadian golf architect Doug Carrick says. "But there's plenty of room to create something wonderful."
The 3,408-yard Turnberry Golf Club in Brampton, Ont., designed by Carrick and his associate, Cam Tyers, finished fourth in voting for SCOREGolf magazine's best new Canadian course of 2010. Built over an abandoned quarry, Turnberry features 16 par-three holes and two par-fours that wind through massive dunes, recalling the links courses of Scotland and Ireland.
Also earning rave reviews is the Ridge at Copper Point, a 5,072-yard, par-62 mountain valley beauty in Invermere, B.C. The innovative Gary Browning design offers a blend of full-length par-three and par-four holes, together with sweeping views of both the Purcell and Rocky Mountains.
Just as pleasing as the scenery are the prime-time green fees at both courses: $49.75 at Turnberry and $75 at the Ridge at Copper Point, a steal compared with the $150 or more charged by many of Canada's marquee courses.
Shorter courses are also a hit with environmentally aware golfers, requiring less water and pesticides to maintain. And they're more economical to build, a potentially vital consideration at a time when the construction of new courses has ground almost to a halt across North America.
There are also hopeful signs that short-course golf might one day become a big-time tournament sport.
Since its inception in 2010, Bermuda's Bacardi National Par-3 Championship, a 36-hole event hosted in March by the Fairmont Southampton, has attracted an increasingly prestigious field, including Canadian golfers Ian Leggatt, Nick Taylor and Ian Doig, the winner of this year's tourney.
"This," says Mocklow, surveying his rolling fairways and the aquamarine Atlantic beyond the palms, "is golf's future."
Fairmont Southampton Golf Course, Bermuda: Dramatic elevation changes and ocean breezes test golfers at this 18-hole par-three island beauty. Beware the 14th hole, a 198-yard uphill brute demanding a mighty wallop from the tee when the wind is in your face. Green fee: $45 to $86. fairmont.com/southampton
The Ridge at Copper Point, Invermere, B.C. is framed by panoramic views of the Purcell and Rocky Mountains. The sternest test here is the par-four 14th, a 397-yard beast demanding a precise tee shot to a narrow landing area hugged by a pond. Green fee: $35 to $75. copperpointgolf.com
Cloud Nine Course, Las Vegas: Twelve holes are inspired by golf's most famous par-threes, including Royal Troon's "Postage Stamp" and the island green hole at TPC Sawgrass. Floodlit and walkable, Cloud Nine offers a wholesome alternative to another lost night on the Strip. Green fee: $19 to $29. angelpark.com
Treetops Course, Treetops Resort, Gaylord, Mich., is rated among the top par-three courses in the world. Roller-coaster elevation changes and detailed bunkering are the hallmarks of a nine-hole layout famous as the former site of the ESPN Par-3 Shootout. Green fee: $35 to $45. treetops.com
Turnberry Golf Club, Brampton, Ont.: This acclaimed 3,408-yard design built over a quarry features 16 par-three holes and two par-fours. But most treacherous is the 165-yard 13th, where a three-foot dip gully runs through the middle of the green. Green fee: $39.75 to $49.75. turnberrygolf.ca
Nine-Hole Course, Fox Harb'r Resort, Wallace, N.S.: Though just 1,039 yards, the nine-hole par-three course is a tough little brute set on a wind-buffeted peninsula. Steady your nerves for the 127-yard fourth hole, an oceanside jewel requiring as much as a six-iron off the tee. Green fee: $30. foxharbr.com/golf