BOWLING GREEN, Fla. — If golf has a superpower, it’s the ability to fill the cracks in your mind and feast on your anxieties. First-tee jitters. Overthinking a putt. New players worriedly trying to figure out where to stand, where to go, what to do. Experienced players exasperated by every mistake, seeing the score they hoped to post slip away. All the fretting over playing too slow or waiting too long.
Then there’s the scoring. An arbitrary number decided by someone you never met. You thought you played that hole well, but this little card says you took a bogey. The word is born from a Scottish term for a devil. So now your terrible play is an incarnation of a fallen angel, expelled from heaven, abusing free will with its evil. Beelzebul is playing through.
But now imagine being handed a scorecard with no criterion. Some tees at 50 and 56 yards. Others at 101 and 111. And 164. And 218. And as far back as 293. One hole that can be played from 89 or 187. And on this card, a glaring omission. No par. Just play. Have a match against a friend. Grab a couple of clubs, a few beverages, and go. Winner of each hole decides where to tee off on the next hole. You can play a six-hole loop that circles a lovely grove of oak trees. Or play a 13-hole loop. Or play all 19. Who cares?
“You know,” Ben Crenshaw, the legendary golfer-turned-course architect, recently said, “this game is allowed to be played differently.”
So why don’t we more often?
A new course opening in central Florida makes the question again hard to ignore. The Chain, a “short course” created by Crenshaw and long-time design partner Bill Coore, is opening this month at Streamsong Golf Resort. Guests can currently play 13 holes total for preview play. The hope is to open the course’s full 19 by December 1, as long as the land allows.
Streamsong is already well known for its eclectic three traditional 18-hole courses built by the current holy triumvirate of design firms — the Red (also a Coore/Crenshaw), the Blue (Tom Doak) and the Black (Gil Hanse/Jim Wagner). The property, a converted phosphate mine, was considered a wild risk when construction began on the first two courses in 2012. Bowling Green, Florida, is an hour southeast of Tampa and nearly two hours southwest of Orlando. Even if that sounds remote, it’s still an undersell. Who, in a state with more than 1,200 golf courses, would go to play golf all the way out here? The project plowed along, though, because the goal was larger than building a golf resort — it was to commercially develop reclaimed land that otherwise had little other use. It worked because Streamsong’s three courses are so good, and so different, that it secured a place among golf’s new generation of destination resorts like Bandon Dunes in Oregon, The Prairie Club in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, and Cabot Links in Nova Scotia.
Like The Cradle at Pinehurst and others, each of those resorts features a funky short course. Now, so too does Streamsong. The feature has become a prerequisite for resort life. For guests, playing (especially walking) 36 holes over multiple consecutive days can be easier said than done. It’s far more enjoyable to play 18, then hit the short course for a loop. For the resorts, a short course is a draw, an extra amenity for the portfolio, uses little land, and, most importantly, encourages additional nights of stay-and-play.
The Chain is a portrait of why this works. Guests at Streamsong walk over a footbridge from the hotel, stop by a new 2-acre putting course (The Bucket), grab a carry bag to tote a few clubs, and play a 3,000-yard walking layout of holes that are — here’s the key — good enough to match the quality of the property’s three primary courses. Like any good short course, its character comes from its green complexes. Some wild and huge. Others are scaled-down and delicate. A certain personality exists in the green, one born from architectural freedom.
“You can take more liberties, or risks, so to speak, to do greens and surrounds that you may not be able to do on a regulation course, where you’re trying to adapt to people of such varying degrees or both strength and skill,” Coore said.
Highlights include a bunker positioned in the middle of the 6th green, conjuring Riviera’s famed sixth, and the lengthy 11th, a hole that can stretch back to nearly 200 yards over a lake into a mammoth punchbowl green.
But the real highlight is what The Chain, like so many of these quirky short courses, gives the players. It’s different. In a sport so steep in the individual pursuit, you and some friends instead walk together, talk together, drink together. In a sport so obsessed with numbers, there’s no real scoring. In a sport that’s so time-consuming, you’re through in an hour. In a sport so dictated by strength and length, skill gaps are leveled.
It is, in many ways, a much more enjoyable version of golf.
So why isn’t this version more widely available? Why aren’t there publicly accessible copies of these courses springing up in metropolitan areas? Why can’t golf change?
Well, there’s a chance we’re getting there.
“I think it’s now just a matter of time,” said Andy Johnson, a golf architecture writer and founder of The Fried Egg. “Resorts are innovators in the golf space because they’re most incentivized to create. Municipalities and public facilities have more limitations and regulations, so there’s less of an appetite to adapt. But we often see a lot of golf course trends that emerge in the private space and the resort space eventually translate to the public space. Public golf, and municipal golf, in particular, is a very follow-the-leader industry. So I think the short course boom will come to public golf.”
Short courses make an incredible amount of sense in metropolitan areas stuck with hyper-exclusive courses and limited public options. They just need to be built there. Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia — cities that require an hour drive to the course, a five-and-a-half hour round on a packed course, and an hour drive home. One imagines such players thirsty for such an option. The densest populated areas have the most potential golfers. There’s a reason Callaway paid $2.66 billion for Top Golf in 2021 — droves of people go because hitting golf balls is fun. Anyone who wants to transition from the driving range-esque Top Golf to learning the game on the golf course, though, has to tackle the tension that comes with playing with 14 clubs on a crowded, daunting 18-hole course, navigating all the worry and embarrassment of golf’s inordinate rules and customs. Envision new players instead getting to relax and come to understand how golf courses can be experienced.
Based on Johnson’s explanation of golf course architecture top-down composition, maybe we’ll see the success of courses like The Chain finally spur local municipalities and private developers into renovating pre-existing, nondescript public courses into alternative short courses.
This, in turn, could create an entirely new access point to the game. Yes, par-3 tracks already exist, but these resort-style short courses designed by the finest architects are nothing like what the average novice has seen — short does not have to mean simple. Is an entirely different experience. One that kids and newcomers would likely be far more prone to want to revisit.
“You’re showing the most fun version of golf,” Johnson said. “Bold design features. Cool greens. People getting to see the ball rolling and moving.”
This isn’t implausible. Designer short sources require only small plots of real estate and can be built anywhere — flat land, undulating land, choppier land. All you need is a spot for a tee and a spot for a green.
Some early examples are worth keeping an eye on. The Loop at Chaska, sitting just outside Minneapolis and designed by Artisan Golf Design’s lead architect, Benjamin Warren, will open in 2024 as a 1,200-yard, nine-holer with eight par 3s, one par-4 and is the first of its kind expressly configured for adaptive golfers. The Park at West Palm Beach, Florida is a Hanse/Wagner-design course that’s a public-private partnership between the City of West Palm Beach and the West Palm Golf Park Trust that resurrected a closed municipal course. Along with an 18-hole course, there’s a nine-hole par-3 lit for evening play.
There are others.
There should be more.
But golf, as it so often does, moves slowly. The best chance for change is the math eventually adding up to create an inevitable shift. If renovating an entire public course can range from $5-$15 million, renovating or building a high-end par-3 course can get done for probably under a couple million dollars. What makes more sense for that community?
“It’s a more palatable expense for a parks department or a municipality, and they’d creating something that will bring in revenue,” Johnson said. “These things make a ton of sense. There just needs to be more momentum with them and more examples of them.”
Then we might see what so many are hoping for.
A different way to play.
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos: Courtesy Streamsong Resort, Matt Hahn)