Short Courses – Do they make economic sense?

In the continuing effort to grow the game, one area that’s become prominent is the development of short courses. In some cases, this can mean “Par-3” layouts with holes sometimes no longer than 100 yards, it can mean “Executive” courses which typically have a few par-4 holes sprinkled in with a preponderance of one-shotters and those courses which consist predominantly of (shortish) par-4 holes with maybe a par-5 and usually a par-3 or two for nine holes. Historically looked down on, recent short courses of high quality have been developed and are attracting a wide variety of golfers, including experienced and skilled players.

Golf Advisor lists what they consider to be the top 25 short courses in the US in THIS ARTICLE which includes some of each “flavor”. Among the more notable, both included and not included in this list are:

  • Sweetens Cove (TN)
  • Peter Hay Course at Pebble Beach (CA)
  • Palm Beach Par 3 (FL)
  • Pine Valley Short Course (NJ)
  • Augusta National Par-3 (GA)
  • Philadelphia Cricket Club – St. Martins (PA)
  • Hamilton Farm – Hickory Course (NJ)
  • The Cradle at Pinehurst (NC)
  • Winter Park 9 (FL)

There are many others. Some, like Sweetens Cove have developed an almost cult-like following and investors are buying up adjacent real estate to rent to course visitors. “Short Golf” has become very popular as demands for time have grown and as new and developing golfers seek an alternative to the often intimidating experience at many regulation or “championship” courses. Even experienced golfers are discovering the benefits of short golf.

At my home club – Philadelphia Cricket Club (PA) – I can play our 2,600 yard, 9-hole, par 35 St. Martins course in anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, typically carrying only 6 or 7 clubs, being sufficiently challenged and experience a more relaxed and casual environment than exists at our two championship level courses. My wife and daughter (very infrequent golfers, at best) will only play on the short course. A truly fun event each fall is the annual 4-club tournament that presents a most enjoyable and uniquely challenging experience. In 10 years, the St. Martins course has more than doubled its rounds played. Not a bad way to “get your fix”, play some family golf or introduce a new player to the game for a fraction of the cost of the guest fees on the “big” courses.

The Winter Park 9 (WP9) in Florida, famous for Friday Afternoon skins games organized by Golf Channel staff hosted 38,000 rounds in 2019, 32,500 rounds in 2020 while being closed for 45 days and they anticipate 40,000+ in 2021. They expect to exceed $1 million in revenue for 2021 and averaged $26 per round gross revenues (all sources) in 2020. Their maintenance costs were $404,000, only $12.41 per round for what I can attest to as excellent conditions. A friend recently played there and said it was packed. This most enjoyable course can be played for $18, one more reason the less-serious golfer will find it attractive.

St. Martins (on just 38 acres) and WP9 (on 40 acres) are but two excellent examples of high quality golf experiences that are affordable, don’t take a half-day, use less land and cost less to maintain.

With golf having experienced somewhat of a resurgence in popularity in 2020, due to the COVID pandemic and rounds nationally up 14% over 2019 the question of economic feasibility is raised to determine if short golf is an opportunity for sustainable growth in golf. If economically feasible, short golf could be a vehicle for attracting – and keeping – more players. Logic suggests that a course on less than 40 acres will require substantially less maintenance, fewer employees and other costs compared to larger courses. Of course, every situation is different and the amount of play that can be generated and fees charged certainly contribute to the equation, but the popularity of short golf and its stated advantages could be a significant growth segment for golf in the future.