George Peper: Mini Mania

According to figures just released by the National Golf Foundation, only 13 golf courses opened in the U.S. last year while 154 courses closed, a net loss of 141, continuing a negative trend that has persisted for seven years. In the face of those grim stats, however, one subspecies of golf playground seems to be thriving: the 18-hole natural-grass putting course.

Pinehurst opened a beauty last year—named Thistle Dhu (pictured above)—adding to the growing number at resorts from Scottsdale to St. Augustine, Sun Valley to Molokai. And this week comes the news that ground has been broken on a putting course at Bandon Dunes. As always, owner Mike Keiser has done it right, commissioning as designers the team of Tom Doak and Jim Urbina, the same duo who produced Bandon’s highly praised Old Macdonald course.

The course will unfurl beside the Pacific Dunes clubhouse over a whopping 4-½ acres and will be named Punchbowl in further homage to C.B. Macdonald, the punchbowl green being one of the iconic designs he popularized.

This Bandon bantam surely will be the mother of all minis, but just as surely the grandmother of them all is The Himalayas, alias the Ladies’ Putting Course of St. Andrews. Having lived for several years just a soft 9-iron from its first tee, I can say without reservation that this is the second most fun and fascinating course in the Auld Grey Toon (and you shouldn’t have to ask which is the first).

Part of its charm is that the routing changes every day, when Neil Moore, the young man (who serves as greenkeeper, club manager, and first-tee starter) plugs the old holes and cuts new ones. Generally the outward nine is the tougher as it rambles across terrain that gave the course its name, while the inward half —on land just across an OB fence from the flattish first fairway of the Old Course—is where aces are made.

The Himalayas is owned and operated by the St. Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club, the oldest women’s golf club in the world (founded 1867), and I can assure you its membership includes some of the world’s oldest women. For a while, however, it also included me. Back when we were living there, my wife was invited to join, and a year or so later I was asked to become an Associate Member, which entitled me to enter a handful of tournaments and enjoy the 5-6 pm starting times reserved for members only. I even established a handicap, which if I recall correctly was +4 (according to an arcane system understood only by the world’s oldest women).

Among my fondest St. Andrews memories are the “let’s go play the Himalayas” moments, usually just after the sun had begun to set (and we’d had our first cocktail) when we’d head out with houseguests or neighbors, putters in hand, for a quick 18. Occasionally, if the course wasn’t busy, we’d take along our best friend Millie, and to add an imbecilic extra challenge to the course, I’d loop her leash over the flagsticks, thus adding four doglegs to each hole.

Sadly, after less than two years I was kicked out of the club—all of the Associate Members (read men) were—as part of the Equality Act, a piece of legislation that wrought havoc with just about every private club in the U.K. Now I’m just another walk-on, along with the 60,000 others who play it each year. The green fee is two pounds—for pure enjoyment, that’s the best bargain in golf.