A growing number of golfers, including those new to the game, want the experience of playing, but are looking for laid-back, quicker and more affordable alternatives — and the industry is taking notice
In mid-April, golf course architect Beau Welling traveled to Amelia Island, Florida, an upscale Northeast Florida resort destination, to open a new par-3 course, Little Sandy. In less than 24 hours, Welling experienced much of the reasoning behind the trendy nationwide building of such an alternative golf course.
On the eve of the opening, Welling walked to the precipice of the Little Sandy golf course and witnessed a man and his daughter putting on the wavy putting course alongside two toddlers turning cartwheels. Later, at an Omni Amelia Island Resort bar, a man divulged to Welling that he had strayed from the game because playing took too long and his game had eroded, but that he was on the rebound because of the pandemic.
The following morning, as Welling made his way along the early holes of his water-laden par-3 course, a resident emerged from the nearby condominiums wearing a big smile and introduced himself, thanking the designer for bringing the neighborhood out from under the four-year cloud of litigation of the closed Ocean Links 18-hole course to again have meaningful recreation outside their screened-in porches.
"You look at society in general, we have so many options of how to use our time and our lives," says Welling, principle of Beau Welling Design. "I grew up at a time when there were only three channels on TV. Now we don't even watch TV on a TV. We don't read a newspaper on paper. What we're seeing is a desire of the golfer to have options in how they orient to golf."
According to a National Golf Foundation report in January 2022, there are 664 par-3 courses in the United States, and 523 of those courses are publicly accessible, a higher rate (79 percent) than that of accessible full courses (75 percent). Two-thirds of the par-3 courses are standalones and not affiliated with a standard course, as in Palm Beach, Florida, where there will soon be three public par-3 courses. California has the most total par-3 courses with 74, 50 of which are open to the public. Last year, nearly one-third of the 19 new course openings were purely par-3 courses and more are on the docket around the country. Even more trendy, there was a net gain of par-3 courses in 2021 for the first time since 2000.
Welling, 52, has the diverse character to understand this dynamic. A native and resident of Greenville, South Carolina, he still carries a bit of a Southern drawl to pair with a physics degree from Brown, studies in landscape architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design, international business from the University of South Carolina and time residing in Europe.
While playing Little Sandy, he wore a pullover crested with the World Curling Federation logo, for which he is a board member after seeing the sport for the first time on television during the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. He remains fascinated by curling’s similarity to golf, in origin (Scotland) and the angles and process of the competition (physics).
Setting him apart from most other golf course architects, Welling also dabbles in land planning for many of his clients, without golf as a part of the development. Inner-city land planning in Columbia and Greenville and a consultation with The Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, are among the golf-less projects. For the new PGA of America headquarters project in Frisco, Texas, north of Dallas, Gil Hanse is designing one 18-hole course and Welling the other alongside a lighted 10-hole short course called The Swing.
Welling’s par-3 development experience is steep. More well-known as the golf course designer alongside World Golf Hall of Famer Tiger Woods, Welling has been on point with Woods for the reworking of one of the nation’s original par-3 courses, The Hay at Pebble Beach, first built in 1957, and The Playground in suburban Houston at Bluejack National, Woods’ first course design. At The Playground's opening ceremonies in March 2016, Woods was present but recent back surgery prohibited his full participation, so 11-year-old junior golfer Taylor Crozier promptly aced the 80-yard first shot. Followed by Woods lipping out a putt from the same distance.
Woods’ interest in par-3 courses is rooted in his golf biography. An 8-year-old Woods made his first hole in one at the par-3 Heartwell Golf Course in Long Beach, California, and recorded his first Junior World Championship win at San Diego’s Presidio Hills Golf Course, a nine-hole par-3 course.
Par-3 courses allow for a more liberal layout by architects. Greens with multiple, oversized tiers, elongated and horseshoe shapes and funnels to allow for the ball to move toward specific hole locations are acceptable here while maybe not on a regulation course, a la a putt-putt course type of experience. For example, the third hole at The Cradle in Pinehurst, North Carolina, is nicknamed Punchbowl because of its saucer-shaped green where the center hole location has seen more than 300 aces during the course’s near five-year existence.
Welling said the par-3 courses are more welcoming because it eliminates many of the full shots that distinguish between low-handicap golfers and beginners and welcomes newbies via the TopGolf route. At the same time, convention goers can have a group activity that takes approximately one hour instead of a half day on a full course and includes casual golfers or non-golfers. Devoted golfers can also invite novice family members to participate. That plays into Omni Amelia Island Resort’s purpose for building the course at a $3.5 million price tag over a 20-acre piece of property solely for resort guests and members.
“These kinds of facilities are stripping out a lot of shots people have a hard time playing and focus on the shots they have a chance of being successful with,” Welling says.
Similarly, the names of the courses are more frivolous, such as QuickSands, The Baths, Bad Little Nine, Gravel Pit, On the Rocks, Sandbox and Bootlegger. The atmosphere of laid-back attire, drink holders, piped-in music and bar access add to par-3s’ fun vibe. Developers have noticed and are even devoting more prominent real estate for these course that take up as little as 10 acres.
“Historically, short courses were often after thoughts, squeezed into useless corners for non-golfers to go try their hand," golf architect David McLay Kidd told Forbes in 2020 when QuickSands opened in Brewster, Washington. “Today short courses have become a serious addition to world-class golf resorts. The best land is sought, the best talent is brought to bear, expectations are high, and we don't plan to disappoint.”
The glitzy par-3 courses have opened a public outcry for more low-key golf and resurrected a trend from half a century ago. In the 1960s and 1970s, par-3 courses were more prominent, In Durham, North Carolina, for example, Mike Rubish, a local golf pro, developed Golf City, a driving range, par-3 and putt-putt course on a busy thoroughfare between Durham and Chapel Hill. Five miles away was Westwood Golf Course, a shaggy par-3 course with a small, cinder-block clubhouse that sold cold beer to an army of gamblers, non-golfers and Duke University students. The courses, both lighted, succumbed to a mall and a highway by the early 1980s but could claim getting clubs in the hands of many youngsters and non-golfers.
Making golf easier to access and less intimidating is the result, two factors which golf powerbrokers are finally understanding.