What’s green, fun as well as challenging, and fits in just a couple of acres? The new breed of short courses, which are popping up in top golf communities nationwide.
Nearly six years ago, Desert Mountain faced a dilemma. It revolved around a thumbprint of land with no obvious purpose.
“The club owned a small, odd-shaped parcel and we really didn’t know what to do with it,” explained John Lyberger, director of golf at Desert Mountain, the much-honored, 8,300-acre community in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Eventually, we followed our business model, which said the time and place was right for a par-54 championship course, a different option from our six Jack Nicklaus championship courses. When golf exploded in the pandemic, it did so here, and so did home sales. People are still clamoring to buy in the Seven community.”
Opened in 2019, No. 7 at Desert Mountain is a star in the growing movement among leading residential communities to add non-traditional golf options into the activities mix. Short courses—most, but not all, comprised of par-three holes—are experiencing soaring popularity worldwide, especially at five-star resort facilities. Private golf club communities are jumping aboard.
Two Desert Mountain members with design experience, Bill Brownlee and Wendell Pickett, created the club’s seventh desert layout, incorporating much of what they learned on their other acclaimed short-course design, Li’l Wick at Wickenburg Ranch Golf & Social Club, a rollicking 9-hole effort for a private community 75 minutes northwest of downtown Phoenix.
Recently ranked sixth among America’s top short courses by one industry publication, No. 7 at Desert Mountain served two purposes for the club and community: as an amenity to the real estate and as a family activity that could entertain even serious golfers. The 3,004-yard layout, one of the few par-3 courses that is USGA-rated, includes four holes that measure over 200 yards.
“There’s length, sand, mounds, and undulating greens for the scratch golfer,” says Lyberger. “Yet, if you want to bring your grandchildren out and play the No. 4 tees, there are 11 holes where you could literally putt off the tee and roll it right down the fairway and onto the green. It’s a mini version of a bigger course, but one that novices can enjoy. It’s a wonderful walk, too, which is encouraged by design. We have 98 different golf groups up here on the Mountain and a good number of them are requesting to play here, which is a validation of their enjoyment and their experience at No. 7.”
Another desert community incorporating a high-profile par-3 course is Diamante in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. “Monetizing the real estate was the deciding factor to build the Oasis Short Course,” says Ken Jowdy, president of Legacy Properties, owner of Diamante. “We had taken two holes from our championship Dunes course out of play when an oceanside parcel became available for them. The estate lots on Sunset Hill enjoy a prime location because of the elevation and the Pacific Ocean backdrop. We wanted to give them back their golf course views.”
In December 2016, Diamante restored a golf course to the homeowners, a 12-hole par-3 layout with holes measuring between 41 and 143 yards. “We definitely wanted it to be a walking course,” says Jowdy, “but one with variety.”
The Oasis Short Course has captivated the lowest and highest handicap golfers. “I send a Tour player or a scratch golfer out to Oasis and they think it’s the greatest thing in the world because they can practice all the different touch shots. You send beginners out there and they have the same reaction, for different reasons. That’s the beauty of what a par-3 can bring to a development.”
Jowdy retained the Tiger Woods Design firm (TGR Design) to create the Oasis Short Course. Aided by Senior Design Consultant Beau Welling, who also has his own thriving architecture business, Tiger has been a leading proponent of very short courses. He and Welling have hit home run after home run in conjuring up short courses, starting in March 2016 with The Playgrounds at Bluejack National in Montgomery, Texas. Welling thinks the success of short courses comes from their ability to be all things to all players.
“Higher handicaps struggle with really long shots,” says Welling. “The beauty of the short course is it removes all that. What becomes interesting is that everybody has a chance standing on a tee on a short course. They may not perform, but they have a chance, right? The net is that it becomes a place where a good player could really have fun, but a beginner can go and not feel intimidated. And a short course is perfect for a family of extremely different levels to be able to go enjoy at the same time.”
Therein lies the intrinsic, multi-pronged appeal to communities of the well-designed short course. It meets a financial need by boosting property values and real estate sales. It yields a compelling experience for low handicappers to hone their short games. It serves as a stress-free introduction to the game, and a healthy draw for generations of families. In a time-challenged world, the short course lets you enjoy your favorite game more often, more quickly, less expensively, and on a smaller environmental footprint. And the skill utilized in creating a short course with architectural merit compared to the boring, entry-level tracks of previous eras means everybody gets to share in the design fun.
In 2019, Jack Nicklaus created The Gimme, at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla. Senior Designer Chris Cochran handled the heavy lifting on this 9-hole 1,088-yard par-27, which features nods to legendary holes across the world, including Riviera and St. Andrews.
“We created a par-3 course equal in its quality and visual impact to The Concession’s championship course and complements its challenging nature with a family-friendly design that caters to beginners, juniors, seniors, and die-hard golfers alike,” says Cochran. “It was a small piece of property, only eight acres, but we got nine holes in there, with a huge amount of variety. And we had fun using template holes from the history of the game.”
There’s a simple reason that elite architects are crafting these short courses—developers are requesting them. No longer will a vanilla-style, entry-level layout suffice for homeowners. They want their short-course experiences to be as fulfilling as their encounters with their club’s championship tests.
Forrest Richardson recently completed an 18-hole par-3 course at the Promontory Club in Park City, Utah, a private community that was already home to championship tracks designed by Nicklaus and Pete Dye.
“The Hills short course at Promontory is meant to be a full golf experience,” says Richardson. “It’s a legitimate alternative to the other courses but set on just 15 acres of turf. The architecture was intended to be every bit as thought-provoking as on the longer courses here.”
Richardson’s firm created familiar template holes—including a Redan, a Biarritz, and a Dell—but also forged innovative concepts throughout, such as the stone ha-ha wall that flanks the right side of the green at the 145-yard 11th. “New Moon,” the 82-yard 9th, revolves around a crescent moon-shaped stacked sod feature that has been sculpted into the green.
Although the presence of short courses in top golf communities lags behind their equivalents at five-star resorts, that is quickly changing. “There’s a lot of buzz out there to create these courses,” says Richardson. “We are responding to everyone with smaller doses of golf that are fun and full of smiles. You’ll see more and more interest in these short courses as time goes on.”
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