Want to have fun? Most of what you’ve had on a golf course in a long time, perhaps? Try something completely different.
The whole point of golf travel is experiencing different things. New courses, fresh landscapes, extreme challenges. As golf vacations continued to reopen and then boomed in 2021, more and more people took to the streets and got on planes to see something else. Many top resort courses and other prestigious destinations are jam-packed and will continue to be in 2022 if industry bookings continue.
Of course, traveling to play new courses isn’t new. What is even better today are completely new golf experiences. When I look back at some of the best layouts I’ve played in 2021 – and there have been many, more than 85 courses – many of the standout games involve a game very different from 7,000 yards, par 70, 71, or 72.
Par 3 courses. Short courses. Crazy courses. Big ideas and new ways to tackle three of golf’s greatest challenges: time, cost, and natural resources.
I loved sharing stories and photos from Gamble Sands’ new QuickSands course in Washington and the recently opened Bootlegger at Forest Dunes, Michigan, both par-3 courses that I saw for the first time in 2021 and these are fun Addressing three of the golf problems mentioned above head on, providing fast loops at a lower cost to both the players and the resort operators, without using any near land or water required on a traditional 18-hole course . Both layouts represent a win-win-win situation.
Designers Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns built the bootlegger on a small, hilly plot of land next to the Forest Dunes clubhouse and offer the opportunity to have a few drinks and walk through the woods with a couple of wedges, a putter and a grin on your face stroll There are bench cuts, possible putter tee-offs, extreme greens that would not work on a long par 4, but elicit a lot of whoops from the aft on a par 3 course where the total score is not really important. The resort offers two high-level 18-hole courses – Tom Doak’s Loop and Tom Weiskopf’s eponymous Forest Dunes – but it would be a mistake to miss the bootlegger.
It’s a similar story in Gamble Sands, where David McLay Kidd took an almost unusable blob of sandy slopes and sculpted QuickSands, which are certainly some of the most bouncy, irregular, and fascinating par-3 courses out there. On many holes, it’s best to aim far from the hole and then watch how dramatic landforms make the ball roll back towards the cup. The opening hole is named Plinko in honor of a game of “The Price is Right” in which small discs fall between pins, and at QuickSands it is the same when balls bounce back from a steep hill behind the green and inevitably through funnels onto the putting -Surface falling terrain and maybe a stop near the flag. It’s a radical example of how to play golf on the ground, and it’s incredibly fun.
This is all part of a trend over the past few years where resorts have introduced fun and fast par 3 alternatives. Don’t have the time or energy for an 18 second while staying at a resort? These small grounds are a perfect way to fill up an afternoon, and there is a great chance you’ll enjoy the small lanes as or even more as the big lanes.
Short is also popular at PGA National in Florida, where architect Andy Staples has converted the former and traditional 18-hole Squire course into a new par-3 layout and, in the rest of the country, into the brand new The Match short course . PGA National has many great golf courses including The Champion, which hosts the Honda Classic every year. Staples went in a completely different direction with The Match golf course, building runway tees that allow holes of various lengths to be played. An example: golfers can be 17. playthat at 404 yards or 244 yards or anywhere in between, and the resort encourages players to mix it up. Don’t confuse it with just playing the traditional front tee markers – there aren’t any.
Instead of these traditional tee markers, there are 18 ways to call your stroke in match-play format. There is a risk of some players dragging to the back of the tee box to play the full length The Match and still counting their scores after the round, but that would miss the point. It’s so much more interesting to use all of its range on a layout that stretches from 3,447 yards to 5,841 yards.
Each of these mentioned courses takes traditional golf, picks up the best bits, and reshapes the game into something new. And such an approach is possible even on large courses, as evidenced by some of the courses I played in 2021.
Not all of the great ideas I’ve seen were brand new – some are creative enough to stay fresh for years. I revisited Tobacco Road, North Carolina, and while this sometimes insane layout has been on the ground for decades, Mike Strantz’s take-down of traditionally shaped golf holes keeps missing out. It was to be very different – the Sandhills region around Pinehurst already had enough classically beautiful golf when Strantz set to work. It’s another resourceful example of how different is good, and not just to be different. Some people love the extremities of Tobacco Road, others less, but they always evoke a reaction. It is impossible to imagine leaving this golf course with a shrug and an “Eh”.
Two other courses designed by Kidd are similar. He experienced a few years ago what he saw as a moment when he came to Jesus, reversed course and decided to focus on fun rather than difficulty. Two perfect examples I played in 2021: Mammoth Dunes in Wisconsin’s Sand Valley and the aforementioned Gamble Sands. Both are relatively new and feature loads of crazy bounces, fast-playing surfaces, wide fairways, and loads of angles. I also didn’t fare particularly well, which shows my own need to break out of traditional golfing thinking more often – these two 18-hole layouts will knock the all-air golf approach out of your head. You are a blast.