Shawn Cox, director of golf at The Grand Golf Club in San Diego, thinks there’s been a mistake in labeling executive courses, or par 3 courses, as an inferior golf experience.
“To me that’s where the best programs should be,” he said. “We should be teaching people at those places and get them comfortable so they can go and play the regulation courses. If 18-hole courses are Mercedes, then the industry has treated executive courses like Yugos. That’s not how you build your base of golfers. They can learn the rules and how to play there so when they go to a big course, they don’t encounter something that scares them away from the game.”
Industry figures show that the welcome mat needs to be rolled out more than ever right now. The number of non-golfers who say they’re “very interested in playing golf” is up to a record high 14.9 million (an increase from 12.8 million in 2016). Those who played on a golf course for the first time in 2017 numbered 2.6 million, maintaining a four-year upward trend. The key for the industry’s future is how many of those new trials become committed golfers.
Those numbers are in part why Cox created a 9-hole short course at The Grand Golf Club, part of the upscale Fairmont Grand Del Mar resort, in the summer of 2016. The twist is that his layout, along with others in Arizona and Florida, was draped on top of existing driving ranges, utilizing space that previously sat empty or was underused during late afternoons.
“The short course been great for our kids program, but also a third of the play comes from resort guests with their family,” he said. “There are a lot of people who aren’t 18-hole golfers and come here on vacation. They get to spend some quality time introducing their children to golf. That’s very difficult to do at a public course and even at a private club. It makes the game a little more attractive. And the kids are probably more open to trying since it’s part of a vacation.”
The course is open during late afternoons one day a week in July and August. “Those longer days gives us four to five hours to play,” said Cox. “In the winter it would be a tighter window and the course could get congested. Plus, we’re Bermuda-based course, so agronomically we’re in the best shape in the summer time when the grass can be cut lower and putt like a real course.”
Best of all, there’s no charge to play and resort guests are provided clubs and balls.
From an operations standpoint, Cox acknowledges that having a short course on the range puts more work on the grounds crew. “But one of the things that I strive for is to have one of the best practice facilities in San Diego,” he said (The Grand Golf Club has been recognized by PGA Magazine as a Top 50 Private Driving Range for the past five years). If we want to stay at that level, you have to maintain what we have.”
NGF data shows that 73% of U.S. golf facilities have a driving range. That number jumps to 84% at facilities that have at least 18 holes.
At Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club, a daily-fee facility on land owned by the Ak-Chin Indian Community in Maricopa, Arizona (35 minutes south of Phoenix), a 2014 renovation of the highly regarded regulation course included the creation of #miniDunes, a six-hole course laid out on the driving range.
“We didn’t have great targets out there, so we decided to build six cool target greens with tee boxes off to the side that you really don’t notice,” said general manager Brady Wilson. “It really became an operational issue. So we asked ourselves two questions: ‘Can we pick the range clean every day so golfers can play’ (that process takes an hour), and ‘Is it feasible to rake bunkers, mow greens, fix ballmarks, edge tee boxes, cut cups and set expectations at the right level?
Four years later, the answer to both questions is clearly ‘Yes.’
“We never tell anyone that #miniDunes is going to be as good as Ak-Chin Southern Dunes,” said Wilson. “And I’ve never had one person complain about ballmarks.” The course is open after 3 p.m. every afternoon except Monday. It’s free to both those who play the regulation course and kids age 17 and under accompanied by a paying adult. In addition to junior programs, group events – from local corporations to high school volleyball teams looking for a bonding exercise – have proven popular.
For Wilson, par-3 courses are the bunny slopes for golf. “You don’t go to the black diamond slope your first time skiing,” he pointed out. “Baseball has tee ball. Basketball has lower hoops. You play a miniature version to build some confidence and fundamentals. The holes on #miniDunes range from 60 to 100 yard holes, and you can go around three times to play 18 pretty quickly.”
The course helped Ak-Chin Southern Dunes win the 2017 Player Development Award from the National Golf Course Owners Association. “Everyone in our industry is tasked with growing the game and finding that next amenity,” said Wilson. “If #miniDunes is the inspiration to start the thought process that eventually helps somebody come up with something that does that, then that’s good for our industry.”
The Four Seasons Tranquilo Golf Club at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, debuted a new short course on its range last November as part of a $2.5 million renovation of the 16-acre practice facility by Tom Fazio. Available to resort guests (who pay $45 for all day use of the practice facility; fee includes use of two wedges, putter and three golf balls for short course) and club members, the course is open on Friday afternoons during the summer and Tuesday and Friday afternoons during peak season.
Rod Cook, Tranquilo’s director of instruction, says the layout serves multiple audiences.
“I really think this is a great area to develop junior golfers and beginners. If a resort group is in house and they want a 45-minute to an hour-long activity, a short course can do that. We also have a ladies’ group play every Tuesday. It’s social and a learning experience with a glass of wine afterwards.”
Greens range in size from 3,500 to 6,000 square feet, with holes ranging from 50 to 130 yards. “The feedback has been great from kids,” said Cook. “If we take them out on our championship course, there’s always a pace of play issue. So I take them to the driving range course and they have a great time. I tell parents the first objective of teaching kids is to have fun. Then it becomes more of a learning experience.”
No matter where the short courses are located, they appear to be serving as the perfect on-ramp for newcomers to the game.
“You hear all the time that some of the issues with the golf business is that it’s very time consuming and prices to play are getting higher and higher,” said Cook. “So you experiment with different things like the short course. It only takes 30 to 35 minutes to get around. People are starving to play, but they just don’t want to spend five or six hours on a golf course.”