Nine Must-Play 9-Hole Courses

According to the National Golf Foundation, there are nearly 15,000 golf facilities in the United States, with 9-hole courses accounting for more than a quarter of that total. Yet, 9-hole courses get little love. Nobody trumpets its “Championship 9-hole course.” Still, 9-holers definitely deserve more respect.

After all, the very first U.S. Open in 1895 was held on the 9-hole course at Newport (R.I.) Country Club. The fourth U.S. Open took place at Myopia Hunt Club’s nine in Massachusetts. And chances are, you grew up playing a beloved 9-hole layout.

Some of the country’s greatest 9-hole tracks are private, including Mike Keiser’s The Dunes Club in Michigan and Whitinsville, the fabulous Donald Ross design in Massachusetts. Call in every favor to play either one of them.

In recognition of the unique place that 9-hole courses occupy, we present the “Divine 9”—the nine must-play, regulation 9-hole public courses in the U.S.

Sweetens Cove—South Pittsburg, Tenn.

Perhaps America’s ultimate cult course of any kind, Sweetens Cove is a Tad King/Rob Collins 2014 renovation of a decrepit, pre-existing course called Sequatchie Valley, located 30 miles west of Chattanooga. A 2017 New York Times feature catapulted the 3,301-yard par-36 course into the limelight, which has ultimately attracted celebrity investors such as Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick. What luminaries and regular folks are drawn to are the relentlessly interesting strategic options, ruggedly sculpted bunkers, and imaginatively contoured greens.

Northwood—Monte Rio, Calif.

Not necessarily one of the nine most challenging 9-holers in the U.S., Northwood nonetheless ranks near the top on any must-play list. For starters, it’s the rare Alister MacKenzie design that anyone can play and to complement that aspect, it’s likely the only golf course you’ll ever play that’s routed through giant redwood trees. MacKenzie crafted this 9-holer one hour north of San Francisco in 1928 for members of the exclusive Bohemian Club, when development rules were nowhere near as strict. Many MacKenzie features have been lost over the years at the 2,893-yard par-36 layout, but it still oozes a MacKenzie aura, such as at the 2nd green, which sports a ridge that comes down from the side of a hill and at the area between the 1st and the 6th holes where a slew of grassy bunkers are just waiting to be restored with sand.

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Northwood Golf Course

Fenwick—Old Saybrook, Conn.

Again, great design is not always the measuring stick to earn must-play status. When a course serves up history, scenery, and character in large, equal doses, it will make this list every time. Such is the case with Fenwick. Located in the tiny, tony borough of Fenwick in the town of Old Saybrook, Fenwick is the second oldest course in the Nutmeg State, dating to 1896—and the oldest that’s open to public play. For movie buffs, Fenwick captivates because it was Katherine Hepburn’s home course. The house where she lived was rebuilt after the 1938 hurricane destroyed the original. It sits just off the tee at the 147-yard par-three 2nd hole. However, Hepburn had to be equally fond of the 140-yard 6th, which she aced during the morning of the very day the hurricane struck. With two lighthouses in view, as well as South Cove and Long Island Sound, the 2,810-yard par-35 layout is a delight to walk, highlighted by “Cove,” the 433-yard 4th that demands a carry over an elbow of South Cove and Sequassen Avenue.

The Course at Sewanee—Sewanee, Tenn.

Back in early 2012, Gil Hanse saw a gap in his schedule just prior to winning bids to create Rio’s Olympic course and to remake Doral’s Blue Monster. He filled it with a renovation of the Course at Sewanee, a 3,390-yard par-36 spread dating to 1915 that belongs to the University of the South. Set into the woods of Tennessee’s super-scenic Cumberland Plateau near the Georgia border, Hanse revamped green complexes, added 28 strategically placed bunkers, and cleared trees to open up long-lost mountain vistas. The result? Pure fun, with a bargain price that practically compels you to play another nine.

Hooper—Walpole, N.H.

Of the many talented Golden Age architects, Wayne Stiles is one of the most underrated. Certainly, that’s what course connoisseurs take away after dueling with Hooper. Situated in the southwestern portion of the state, practically in Vermont, the 95-year-old, 3,033-yard par-36 Hooper wows with autumn scenery, but dazzles year-round with its superb variety and dramatically undulating terrain. The 427-yard par-four 2nd hole, the number one handicap, sports a crested fairway and beguiling green and would be an all-star at any championship layout. The 194-yard par-three 6th would qualify as well, an all-carry affair to a green sternly bunkered into a right-side slope.

Winter Park—Winter Park, Fla.

Nearly the cult favorite that Sweetens Cove is, Winter Park is the most exalted example of what imagination can do to reinvigorate an ancient muni. Located seven miles north of downtown Orlando, Winter Park opened its doors in 1914. Worn out and then some by 2014, it took on new life when the City of Winter Park enlisted Coore & Crenshaw associate Keith Rhebb and Integrated Golf’s Riley Johns to resuscitate it, for the modest budget of $1.2 million. Rhebb and Johns hit it out of the park. At just 2,480 yards with a par of 35, it’s only short on distance. It is muscular on atmosphere, a true urban park course, a la St. Andrews or North Berwick, as the course eases past two churches, a cemetery, and an active railway line. While still poker-table flat, Rhebb and Johns molded the greens and their surrounds into nine compelling challenges. Character, variety, and fun—all for a visitor’s rate of $20 during the week.

Downers Grove—Downers Grove, Ill.

Home to the original Chicago Golf Club in 1892, Downers Grove earns must-play status strictly for its appeal to history and architecture fans. Pioneer American architect C.B. Macdonald crafted nine holes on the site in Downers Grove, at Belmont Road, 25 miles west of downtown Chicago. He added nine more holes in 1893 and it was this Chicago Golf Club course on this site that became one of the five founding members of the USGA in 1894. In 1895, the club abandoned the Belmont Road venue and moved to nearby Wheaton. In 1899, the Belmont Golf Club was established on the site. Around this time, it reverted back to nine holes. Six of those holes remain substantially similar to that 1899 layout—holes 1, 2, 4, 7, 8, and 9. There’s nothing dramatic about the parkland terrain on this 3,280-yard, par-36 layout but it oozes historical character. Best news for traditionalists: Known as Downers Grove since 1968, the course will revert to its 19th century name, Belmont Golf Club starting in 2023.

Highland Links—Truro, Mass.

Dating to 1892, funky fun best describes this 2,753-yard par-35 layout on Cape Cod that has so many delightful quirks, it makes Prestwick look practically tame. Fescue-framed holes dip into and climb out of beach canyons, many with unforgettable sidebar attractions. The par-five 2nd sports a medieval granite tower that memorializes 19th century singer Jenny Lind; the par-five 6th features a cliff-top tee box that hovers 130 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, and the par-three 9th is backdropped by Cape Cod (a.k.a. “Highland”) Lighthouse, the Cape’s oldest, dating to 1767.

Marion—Marion, Mass.

Admittedly, this final selection on my must-play 9-hole course list is an acquired taste—much like a peaty scotch whisky. Situated next to Buzzards Bay, but providing only one glimpse of the water, Marion is 2,695 yards of par-34, weirdly compelling fun. The reason architecture buffs have to cross this one off relates to one of history’s greatest architects, George C. Thomas Jr. Twenty or so years after Thomas carved out Marion on a family friend’s farm in 1904, he delivered the holy trinity of Southern California golf—Riviera, Bel-Air, and Los Angeles Country Club (North). Given that lofty trio, it’s almost incomprehensible that Thomas designed Marion. No fewer than three par threes—the 3rd, 8th and 9th—feature greens that are partially or fully blocked by old stone walls. If you’re a George Thomas fan or just a student of ancient, lay-of-the-land architecture, Marion is a must-visit.

What are your favorite 9-hole courses?

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