There’s been a lot of chatter recently about how far the golf ball goes and that perhaps it needs to be dialled back. The alternative would be to make golf courses even longer.
For most amateurs, either option is pure nonsense. The golf ball doesn’t go far enough for most of us and since very few of us play the tips, adding more real estate behind us is just a waste of money, space and maintenance.
That sentiment was driven home to me during a luncheon I attended at the PGA Merchandize Show sponsored by the KemperLesnik PR agency that featured architects David McLay Kidd and Bill Coore discussing new golf course designs opening this year. Kidd was there to talk about Sand Valley in Wisconsin, while Coore discussed the latest addition that he and partner Ben Crenshaw made to Big Cedar Lodge at Lake-of-the-Ozarks near Branson, Missouri.
In conversation both men mentioned how excited they were to design new short courses, either as a complement to championship layouts or as purpose built destination courses. The idea was that short courses let them do things that they couldn’t usually do on full length courses. They could design more for slower swing speeds and shorter carry distances and design holes specifically for women and seniors. Overall, they said, short courses were designed to be fun, not penal.
O course, golf is supposed to be fun.
I certainly had that thought in mind when I made a stop at Pinehurst Resort on my return trip from the PGA Merchandise Show in February, specifically to see and test their new short course called The Cradle. Given that Pinehurst is often called “the cradle of American golf” and short courses are where a lot of kids learn the game, it’s a very appropriate name. The course also sits on the same spot where Dr. Leroy Culver laid out the first nine hole course at Pinehurst in 1898.
The Cradle is not your traditional short course. By that I mean that it doesn’t easily fit into the mold of previous short courses. Some of those started out life in a farmer’s field where there wasn’t enough room for a championship layout, so a mix of par 3’s and short par 4’s combined to make an economical routing. Others were built on leftover land almost as an afterthought, often adjacent to a range or teaching academy where you could play a few holes when you got tired of beating balls.
That’s not the case at Pinehurst. The Cradle is a purpose built 9-hole course and while it could be used for warm-up before tackling one of the feature courses, it’s really intended as a destination unto itself.
The course is right outside the pro shop doors and encompasses about 10 acres of land. The holes range in length from 56 to 127 yards and in total max out at 789 yards. It was designed by architect Gil Hanse, who is well known in the golf world for his work on renowned courses such as Merion, Winged Foot and Los Angeles CC, and for designing the Olympic Course in Rio de Janiero. Hanse is also engaged for 2018 in a complete re-design of Pinehurst No. 4.
Each hole on The Cradle features sandscape rough with wire grass, irregular shaped deep bunkers and raised contoured sloping greens, similar to the challenging putting surfaces found on Pinehurst No. 2. Even though the holes are short in length, they’re not pushovers and will test every part of your short game.
The day I played, it was cold (about 6 degrees Celsius / 40 degrees Fahrenheit) and there was a frost delay so I had a few minutes to chat with the starter, John, a retired university professor from Michigan, who now lived in the Pinehurst area. John told me that on warmer days The Cradle is packed with kids and adults, who often play multiple rounds on the course. The all-day green fee is $50 for adults but kids 17 and under play for free if accompanied by an adult. Since The Cradle is open to the public, it attracts a lot of local play as well as from members and resort guests.
But, according to John, the best thing about The Cradle is that it can be played in less than an hour.
I can attest to that too. Even though I was the only golfer crazy enough to venture out in the cold that day, I played two balls and finished 9 holes in 45 minutes. I even hit additional putts and played several times from one of the bunkers. Another fun aspect of The Cradle is that you only need a couple of clubs – I carried a pitching wedge and a sand wedge plus my putter. If you want, John advised that they have little Sunday bags for you to use too.
The Cradle also sits adjacent to Thistle Dhu, Pinehurst’s legendary 18 hole putting green, a massive 75,000 square foot complex that has all the humps, bumps and rolls of the regular courses. The Cradle and Thistle Dhu form a terrific one-two punch for anybody looking to practice their short game or just hang out with friends and family and have some laughs. I know that if there was anything like this close to me, I’d be there all the time. I’m no range rat and sometimes struggle to get through a whole bucket of balls but this was an entirely different kind of practice – more like playing real golf, albeit a condensed version.
On a more recent trip to the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama, I encountered another style of short course at both Grand National in Auburn/Opelika and again at Oxmoor Valley in Birmingham. These too are purpose built short courses but unlike The Cradle, which is really short, The RTJ Trail versions are 18 holes each and have holes ranging in length from 120 to 210 yards.
The Trail is designed for tourism, so a lot of players are doing some sort of stay-and-play. That often means 36 a day. However, for older golfers, 36 holes of championship golf for six or seven days straight is way too much, so the idea of playing a championship course in the morning followed by a short course after lunch makes a lot of sense.
The Alabama short courses occupy the same kind of land that the rest of the courses enjoy – hilly, wooded, rambling terrain dotted with lots of lakes and ponds. They have regulation sized greens with plenty of bunkering and the short courses don’t skimp on the tee decks either, offering four sets of tees on every hole. That turned out to be a real bonus as one of the marshals advised us that the best way to play was to vary the tee decks throughout the round to get maximum variation on the yardages. Purple, Orange, White, Teal. Repeat until done.
Playing time was about 2 ½ hours for each course, which would be ideal for kids or anybody stressed for time.
Maybe when everybody in the industry is wracking their brain trying to solve some of golf’s real or perceived problems and coming up with new innovations like TopGolf, FootGolf and 15” cups, the best answer has been right in front of us all along – short courses.
Neither the Cradle nor the RTJ Trail short courses are meant to replace regulation length golf courses but at a time when most courses try to be everything for everybody, short courses offer a nice alternative and satisfy some real needs for large swaths of the golfing population and the future of golf.
I know I’m a fan.