BOWLING GREEN, Fla. — If golf has a superpower, it’s the ability to fill the cracks in your mind and satiate your anxieties. First-tee jitters. Overthinking the putt. New players are anxious trying to figure out where to stand, where to go, what to do. Experienced players were upset with each mistake, seeing the score they were hoping to post slip away. All the anxiety of playing too slow or waiting too long.
Then the scoring. An arbitrary number decided by someone you’ve never met. You thought you played that hole well, but this little card says you took a bogey. The word was born from a Scottish term for a devil. So now your horrible game is an incarnation of a fallen angel, cast out of heaven, abusing free will with its evil. Beelzebul is playing.
But now imagine you are given a scorecard with no criteria. Some tees at 50 and 56 yards. Others at 101 and 111. And 164. And 218. And up to 293. A hole playable from 89 or 187. And on this card, a glaring omission. No par. Just play. Have a match with a friend. Grab some clubs, some drinks, and go. The winner of each hole decides where to tee off on the next hole. You can play a six-hole loop that winds through a beautiful 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 often?
A new course opening in central Florida makes the question hard to ignore again. The Chain, a “short course” created by Crenshaw and longtime design partner Bill Coore, opens this month at Streamsong Golf Resort. Guests can currently play a total of 13 holes for preview play. The hope is to open the entire 19 course by December 1, as the ground allows.
Streamsong is already known for its eclectic three traditional 18-hole courses built by the now 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 hazard when construction began on the first two courses in 2012. Bowling Green, Florida, is an hour southeast of Tampa and about two time southwest of Orlando. Even if it seems far, it’s still undersell. Who, in a state with more than 1,200 golf courses, would play golf this far? The project plowed on, however, because the goal was bigger than building a golf resort – it was to commercially develop reclaimed land that would otherwise have no other use. It worked because Streamsong’s three courses were so beautiful, and so different, that it earned a place among the new generation of destination golf resorts like Bandon Dunes in Oregon, The Prairie Club in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, and Cabot Links in Nova Scotia. .
Like The Cradle and Pinehurst and others, each of those resorts features a funky short course. Now, so does Streamsong. The feature has become a must for resort life. For visitors, playing (especially walking) 36 holes multiple days in a row can be easier said than done. It is far more enjoyable to play 18, then hit the short course for a loop. For resorts, a short course is a draw, an additional amenity for the portfolio, uses little land, and, above all, encourages additional nights of stay-and-play.
The Chain is a picture of why it works. Guests at Streamsong walk across a footbridge from the hotel, stop at a new 2-acre putting course (The Bucket), grab a carry bag to carry a few clubs, and play the 3,000-yard layout of holes which — here’s the key — is good enough to match the quality of the property’s three main courses. Like any good short course, its character comes from its green complexes. Some wild and big. Others are scaled down and delicate. A certain personality exists in green, one born from architectural freedom.
“You can take more liberties, or risks, so to speak, to make greens and surrounds that you might not be able to on a regulation course, where you’re trying to adapt to people with different levels or both strength and skill. ,” Coore said.
Highlights include a bunker positioned in the middle of the 6th green, which characterizes the famous Riviera sixth, and the long 11th, a hole that can reach back nearly 200 yards over a lake to a massive punchbowl green.
But the real highlight is what The Chain, like many of these unique short courses, provides to players. Because it’s different. In a sport so steeped in individual pursuit, you and a few friends instead walk together, talk together, drink together. In a sport so obsessed with numbers, there is no real scoring. In a time-consuming sport, you can finish in an hour. In a sport dictated by strength and length, skill gaps are established.
It is, in many ways, a more enjoyable version of golf.
So why isn’t this version more widely available? Why are there no public copies of these courses springing up in metropolitan areas? Why can’t golf change?
Well, there’s a chance we’ll get there.
“I think it’s 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 are the most incentivized creators. Municipalities and public facilities have more limitations and regulations, so there is less appetite to adapt. But we often see many golf course trends emerging in private space and resort space eventually being translated into public space. Public golf, and municipal golf, in particular, is a very follow-the-leader industry. So I think the short course boom is coming to public golf.”
Short courses create incredible value in metropolitan areas stuck with hyper-exclusive courses and limited public options. They just need to build it there. Chicago, Washington DC, Boston, Philadelphia — cities that require a one-hour drive to the course, a five-and-a-half-hour spin on a packed course, and a one-hour drive home. One imagines that gamers are thirsty for such an option. The most densely populated areas have the most potential golfers. There’s a reason Callaway paid $2.66 billion for Top Golf in 2021 — more and more people are having fun hitting golf balls. However, anyone who wants to make the transition from driving range-esque Top Golf to learning the game on the golf course, has to deal with the tension that comes with playing 14 clubs on a tight, intimidating 18-hole course, who navigated through all the worry and embarrassment of golf’s excessive rules and customs. Think new players instead of relaxing and understanding how to experience golf courses.
Based on Johnson’s explanation of the top-down composition of golf course architecture, perhaps we’ll see the success of courses like The Chain finally motivate local municipalities and private developers to renovate these pre-existing, non-identifiable public courses in alternative short courses.
This, in turn, can create an entirely new access point to the game. Yes, par-3 tracks do exist, but these resort-style short courses designed by the best architects are nothing like what the average beginner has seen — short doesn’t have to mean simple. Was a completely different experience. One that kids and newcomers are probably more likely to want to visit.
“You show the funnest version of golf,” Johnson said. “Features bold design. Cool greens. People can see the spin and movement of the ball.”
It’s unbelievable. 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 place for a tee and a place for a green.
A few early examples are worth tracking. The Loop at Chaska, which sits just outside of Minneapolis and was 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, a par-4 and it is the first of its kind specifically configured for adaptive golfers. The Park in West Palm Beach, Florida is a Hanse/Wagner-design course that is a public-private partnership between the City of West Palm Beach and the West Palm Golf Park Trust that built a closed municipal course. Along with the 18-hole course, there is a nine-hole par-3 that is lighted for night play.
There are others.
There should be more.
But golf, as it often does, moves slowly. The best chance for change is that the math eventually adds up to create an inevitable change. While renovating an entire public course can cost $5-$15 million, renovating or building a high-end par-3 course can be done for probably under a few million dollars. What is more meaningful for that community?
“It’s a more palatable expense for a parks department or a municipality, and they create something that will bring in revenue,” Johnson said. “These things make a ton of sense. There just needs to be more momentum to them and more examples to them.”
Then we see what many expect.
A different way of playing.
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; (Photos: Courtesy Streamsong Resort, Matt Hahn)