Nine-Hole Golf Courses

Twilight Park

April 6, 2022

I love nine-hole golf courses. (OK, I also love 18-hole golf courses, too.). These courses make golf more accessible and you meet some wonderful people playing them. More couples, more women, more folks who are just out for fun.

As with many things, I can thank Coach Harris for getting me started with this love affair. I was in Northern California and remembered that Jeff had told me about an Alister MacKenzie course in that area. Coincidently when I re-read Jeff's email I was only a few miles away from the Northwood golf course. This description from the club's website is spot on:

Northwood Golf Course combines the magic of the architecture of Dr. Alister MacKenzie (Augusta National, Pasatiempo, Cypress Point) set amidst towering Redwood trees. It's like nothing you have played before, and prompted Joe Passov of Golf Magazine to place Northwood on his top-5 MacKenzie courses in the world.

In another coincidence I found a number of nine-hole courses in Oregon as I moved up the coast -- and I played each one at least once. I even found a nine-hole course in Madras, Oregon from which you could see Mt. Hood (70+ miles away). Note: The Madras Gold Course was not named the Madras Gold Course which was a bit of a letdown. Think of the cool merchandise they could have had. In fact, the head pro did not know what madras fabric is (of course I wore a pair of madras shorts to play there).

Golf magazine has ranked the top 50 nine-hole courses in the world:

I found the following two articles (which I have combined into one) in Golf magazine. Apparently I am not the only person in love with these courses:

Golf takes too long, you say? There’s an easy and fun solution for that.

Nine-hole golf — it’s where it’s at!

And its rejoinder:

I got 90 minutes and I got the itch.

That doesn’t mean that the vast stock of 18-hole courses should suddenly cleave off nine in the interest of the movement, one well-promoted by the PGA of America, Jack Nicklaus and scores of industrial after-work golf leagues across the Midwest.

(Actually, those leagues — shouting out here to the fellas and gals in Cleveland, in Topeka, in the Twin Cities — don’t promote nine-hole golf. They just play it, in that golden time after the virtual work whistle whistles and before the cowbell rings announcing suppertime.)

The Dunes Club, a nifty nine-holer in New Buffalo, Mich.

I play a lot of golf at an itty-bitty nine-holer a mile or so from my house. When the course is quiet and I play it alone, I get around in about an hour, depending on how much putting I do. I should point out that the movement has been so effective, and the course is so appealing, that I am seldom out there alone anymore. That’s OK.

For all you grass-heads (calling all Super Secrets devotees), the fairways on this course — the St. Martins course of the Philadelphia Cricket Club — are Zoysia. Zoysia has a strong blade that stands straight up and your ball sits high on it. It’s almost like playing off a driving-range mat. It’s a forgiving playing surface and ideal for beginners especially, and those carrying a collection of hybrids.

Growing up — in Patchogue, on the Great South Bay, in Suffolk County, on Long Island — my friend Larry Lodi and I would sometimes dig clams by day (lucrative, back then), eat supper at our homes and end the day at the 18-hole municipal course in Bellport, one town over. This was no-fuss golf and we played as many holes as we could, though 10 was the most common number, sometimes going double-or-nothing on the last. Revealed! The 100 best short courses in the world

Golf was not meant to be an all-day activity. For many years, in Scotland, the most common version of the game was alternate shot (Scotch foursomes), where one golfer plays the tee shot and that golfer’s partner plays the next, shortly after it comes to rest. At Prestwick and loads of other places, rounds often took less than three hours, when played this way. Along those lines, nine-hole golf tends to be less fussy, less fixated on score — and way faster. I’m not saying that golf should be rush-rush-rush. The opposite. Golf is a break from the press and pressure of modern life, and nobody ever makes a good golf swing when rushed. But I am saying that golf can be part of your day without gobbling up most of your waking hours.

Yes, living near a nine-hole course is a big and lucky advantage, although, as many have said, to some degree you do make your own luck.

In my travels, I am sometimes on the prowl for nine-hole golf courses, especially when traveling with my wife, who doesn’t play ye olde game.

Now would be a good time to point out a charming book called The Finest Nines, by Anthony Pippi. Pippi collects 25 nine-hole courses in one place and includes the nine-holer in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. I lived near it for a couple of years and logged a lot of rounds on it. I will say what anybody would say about it: the Edgartown nine is a joyride. The starting point for nine-hole courses is often joy. I would also say that a nine-hole round on an 18-hole course tends to raise the fun-factor, too. Play whatever tee you feel like — it adds to the fun, and moves the game along.

Zac Blair, touring pro and course nut, grew up playing a nine-hole course owned by his father called Mulligans Golf & Games in South Jordan, Utah. “Even though Mulligans is nine holes, I never believed that it lacked authenticity,” Blair wrote in a foreword to Finest Nines. You can find your own MG&G. Wawashkamo is a nine-holer on Mackinac Island, so far north in Michigan you’re practically in Canada. The nine-holer on Shelter Island, N.Y., is called Goat Hill, with a closing, semi-blind par-3 with a grass wall for a backstop. The last time I played it, I thought I might have made a hole-in-one, the shot was so pure, but I never found the ball, which means I either made an X (we all know that score) or a 10 (the highest score a local rule allows on a hole). Does anybody care? No, nobody cares.

Golf can be part of your day without gobbling up most of your waking hours.

Few people would call Goat Hill “proper golf,” whatever that means. (Proper is not a word that has served golf well.) You might call it pasture golf — it really doesn’t matter. It is primitive.

Some of you, over the years, have asked about a primal course dear to me called Auchnafree, in a remote Scottish glen. Auchnafree was laid out by a shepherd and was tended by sheep, but the shepherd is long dead and sheep have feet and move about and if it’s a course today at all I do not know. I played it as a six-holer, some 30 years ago.

But it was golf, no question about that. You had tee markers, flagsticks marking holes some distance away, a sack on your back with some clubs in it, and feet down below your knees to get you from A to B, and from the first to the second. Yep, golf.

My friend Rees Jones, the golf-course architect, has had some interesting projects over the years, across the country and across the world, backed by some interesting clients. He’s done resort courses, country-club courses, public courses, and some of the land tracts have been pretty, pretty big. In China, the golf-course developers aren’t worried about 10 acres here and 20 acres there. It’s a land-rich country.

But one of Rees’ most interesting projects, over the course of his long career, required him to work in a far more intimate scale. About 30 years ago, a New York businessman named Edward S. Gordon asked Jones to build him a nine-hole golf course in his Long Island backyard.

OK, not your everyday backyard. Gordon owned a 60-acre estate in Water Mill — in the town of Southampton, in Suffolk County — called Three Ponds Farm. The estate was (and is) across a country lane from a golf course, the Atlantic Golf Club, that Gordon helped start and Jones designed.

There are 18 holes somewhere in there. Gordon was a New Yorker’s New Yorker and a real-estate legend. When he died in 2000 at age 65 (colon cancer), his family took out a full-page ad in the New York Times featuring Gordon, the Manhattan skyline and the words, “Thank you, New York, for a wonderful life.”

His Times obit noted that he used his backyard nine-hole golf course to close deals. Well, all these years later another self-made New York real-estate mogul, Ivan Kaufman, is now the owner of Three Ponds Farm and the Rees Jones course on it. He bought it in 2019, and Kaufman brought Rees back to the estate course for a makeover. Don’t call it a nine-holer anymore. As Kaufman and Jones are happy to tell you, it’s now an 18-hole course. Yes, an 18-hole course on 60 acres. It’s not the accounting that’s creative. It’s the use of the land. On a nine-hole course, Kaufman told me, you go around twice if you want to get in 18 holes. At the K Club at Three Ponds Farm, there’s none of that. Through inventive use of its teeing areas, fairways, greens and the holes cut on them — along with some changes in direction — you actually play 18 unique holes by the time you’re done.

And by the time you count your steps and your strokes, you have played a 6,400-yard, par-71 course that is maintained to private-club standards and then some. “We overlaid the new course on the existing course,” said Kaufman, who bought the estate from the Gordon family in 2019. “I think it’s unique.”

Oh, it’s unique, all right. Rees has seen hundreds if not thousands of golf courses in his day. He’ll tell you that the K Club at Three Ponds Farm is one of a kind. It’s not just the snugness of the property, but the elevated tees, the rolling terrain, the broad bunkering, the swooping greens. It’s as real as any golf course you would hope to play.

Kaufman is not looking to close deals on his course but he does want to find ways to use the course for charity outings. He has mapped-out a 12-hole short course on his course that he says would be suitable for all skill levels, thereby making a day of charity fundraising on a golf course more realistic for more people.

It’s as real as any golf course you would hope to play. Rees and I played it on a warm summer day and had ourselves a good time. And let me say this about Rees: you’d be hard-pressed to find a more companionable playing partner, or one who takes more pleasure from your good shots.

Rees grew up in Montclair, N.J., played golf at Yale and worked for his father, Robert Trent Jones, before going out on his own. Early in his career, Jones the father and Jones the son did renovation work at Bellport, a modest Seth Raynor municipal course about 30 miles from Southampton. This was in the 1960s. They took two par-3s and combined them to create a bayfront cape hole that looks to be 100 years old. It was the seventh when I first started playing it in the mid-1970s but today is Bellport’s 15th, after a rerouting.

Rees and his wife, Susan, have a summer home in East Hampton — “on the wrong side of the tracks,” he wryly notes — and Rees knows what I know: that Suffolk County, Long Island’s eastern county, is a golfing heaven.

I was lucky to grow up there. Everybody knows about Shinnecock Hills. I’ve probably written too much about Bellport (but it’s home). Fewer people know about course at Three Ponds Farm.

Three Ponds has it all: broad bunkering, swooping greens……elevated tees and rolling terrain.

Some long months after I played it, Ivan Kaufman and I were comparing golf notes and other notes. Kaufman started his first business while in law school at Hofstra and had 250 employees before he graduated. He took up golf in earnest only at age 40, but when the bug bit it bit hard, and 20 years later the game, and his backyard course, is beyond a preoccupation. It’s also a way for him to spend time with his grown son, Maurice, who is a scratch golfer.

I told Kaufman about growing up in Patchogue and playing golf one town over, in Bellport. “Patchogue?” Kaufman said. It’s a small, self-contained village, on a bay with a working main street. “I spent a lot of weekends with friends in Patchogue.”

And then we went down that rabbit hole. Within a few minutes, we realized that we played Saturday-afternoon football together (or against one another) in Patchogue. No uniforms, no cleats, no officials. No adult supervision. Just pickup touch games at Roger’s house, in his long rectangle of a backyard. Small world!

That was a long time ago, long before Ivan Kaufman or I took up golf, long before he expanded the idea of backyard sporting fun. But if he wanted to play football at Three Ponds Farm, there’s plenty of room for that.


These are our 10 favorite 9-hole courses that anyone can play:

Sweetens Cove—South Pittsburg, Tenn.

Built on the site of an old course called Sequatchie Valley that was about as dull as a golf course could be, Sweetens Cove opened to great acclaim in 2014. The brilliant minds behind the transformation were Rob Collins and Tad King whose vision and creativity turned a dog track into what is widely considered the best 9-hole course of the modern era. “Sequatchie was the worst course I’d ever seen,” says Collins. “I remember thinking ‘what the hell am I doing with my life?’ But even though the challenges were obvious, we had a plan I believed could be special.”

Most of the design work was done in the field, says Collins. “The construction process was very fluid which allowed us to refine and perfect features every day.” Anthony Pioppi, author of To The Nines and the upcoming The Finest Nines: The Best Nine-Hole Courses in North America, says Sweetens Cove is an “incredibly fun and strategic” course. “It’s really one of the finest affordable golf courses—nine or 18—in the U.S.” __________________

Hooper Golf Club—Walpole, N.H.

Designed by Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek, and opened in 1927, Hooper Golf Club is set in remote and beautiful wooded countryside in central New Hampshire, 100 miles northwest of Boston, Mass. Unpretentious and known for building low-cost but very enjoyable courses, Stiles was a fairly prolific Golden Age designer who teamed with Van Kleek, the first golf course architect to graduate from Cornell University, in 1923.

Together they built dozens of courses, predominantly in New England but other parts of the U.S., too. Hooper has a wonderful variety of holes and is well worth the drive. __________________ The Cradle at Pinehurst Resort—Pinehurst, N.C.

The newest course on this list, The Cradle is a recent addition to the offerings at Pinehurst. It’s truly a short course with the longest hole at 127 yards and two holes under 60 yards. All nine holes sit on just 10 acres, the size of just two holes on a regular course meaning rounds are quick, the walk is short, and the pressure is off.

Gil Hanse and his partner Jim Wagner designed the course to be an extremely fun nine that also provides challenge to players. The Cradle is free for kids under 18 who play with a paying adult. For adults the cost is $50, which allows unlimited play for the whole day. “This is Pinehurst’s grow the game initiative,” says Pinehurst President Tom Pashley. __________________

Hotchkiss—Lakeville, Conn.

While working on the course at Yale University in 1924, Seth Raynor was asked to visit the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, 60 miles north. Hotchkiss had close ties with Yale, and Raynor built the school a 9-hole course circling the campus. A teacher by the name of Charles Banks was appointed Raynor’s assistant, and he was so taken with Raynor’s artistry he stopped teaching to become a course architect working alongside Raynor and C.B. Macdonald. Hotchkiss doesn’t quite have Yale’s maintenance budget, but Raynor’s skill is clearly evident. __________________ Aetna Springs—Pope Valley, Calif.

We just found out that Aetna Springs will close on 1/13/18. No news yet on its future direction.

One hundred and eighteen years after golf was first played here, Tom Doak and Jim Urbina were hired to renovate the 9-hole course at the Aetna Springs Resort, 35 miles north of Napa, Calif., and 85 miles north of San Francisco.

“I’d never heard of Aetna Springs before,” says Doak. “But we’d always wanted to build a 9-hole course, and virtually rebuilding Aetna Springs was close enough.” The holes were crammed extremely close together, so Doak advised building three new holes and spacing the others out.

Pioppi says Doak and Urbina did a great job creating a course everyone could enjoy. “The design challenges the better player, but is also fun for the average golfer. The greens aren’t as wild as some Doak has a reputation for building. It’s just an entertaining nine, well off the beaten trail.” Doak himself is very fond of the course saying it’s built on a different scale to most of what he and his company, Renaissance Golf, tend to build. “Because it was only nine holes, and fairly short, we decided it was okay to make the greens very small (under 3,000 square feet),” he adds. “The little creek that crosses the 1st hole twice and the 8th hole once is a neat feature, there are some beautiful oaks, and all in all it’s one of the nicest, quiet spots for golf I know.” __________________

Dixie Red Hills—St. George, Utah

Golf course photographer and tour operator Brian Oar grew up at Dixie Red Hills, or just Red Hills as he calls it. “This is where I fell in love with golf,” he says. “I was 13 and just played it over and over again for $1 a time.” Tucked into the red rocks and surrounded by cottonwoods 10 minutes north of downtown, Red Hills isn’t the most challenging course here, but it may be the most fun. “Just leave your 300-yard drive at the door,” says Oar. “Modern equipment has made its length a non-factor, but the quiet, peaceful charm of the place makes it special and you can walk it easily in 90 minutes.”

Red Hills was the first course developed by the City of St. George. It opened in 1965, and was designed by local golf legend Ernie Schneider. __________________

Sydney R. Marovitz—Chicago, Ill.

It’s probably not surprising that a 1932, big city muni once had maintenance and pace-of-play issues (apparently those have been rectified as of late), but there’s a lot to make you want to tee it up next to Lake Michigan and finish with a view of the Chicago skyline. Named for a former Chicago Parks Commissioner, Sydney R. Marovitz was one of the courses Edward B. Dearie Jr. worked on during his career. __________________

Downers Grove—Chicago, Ill.

Downers Grove may not beat its Chicagoland neighbor (well, 30 miles to the west) Sydney R. Marovitz for views, but it does edge it for age. The first site of the Chicago Golf Club and built by C.B. Macdonald, Downers Grove opened in 1892, making it the first course west of the Alleghenies. The members loved the game so much they added nine more holes in 1893, but left for nearby Wheaton in 1895 when 200 acres became available. Downers Grove reverted to nine holes which were bought by the Downers Grove Park District in 1968. The course today has lost much of its original Macdonald character, but five of his holes—2, 4, 7, 8, and 9—remain largely intact. __________________ Gleneagles International at McLaren Park—San Francisco, Calif.

Another big city muni, the original course here opened to great fanfare in 1962, and was designed by Irish-born landscaper Jack Fleming who had worked with Alister MacKenzie’s associate Robert Hunter in constructing Cypress Point Golf Club 36 years before. The name changed to Gleneagles International at McLaren Park in 1980, and it is currently operated by leaseholder Thomas Hsieh, a former political consultant who has spent a great deal of his and his partners’ money in restoring the course to its original state. Gleneagles recently benefitted from the combined talents of Thomas Bastis, former superintendent at California Club of San Francisco, and George Waters, former shaper and now Manager of USGA Green Section Education. Together they redesigned and rebuilt the greens. At Gleneagles, they like to say that the “Rates are low, and the play fast.” __________________ Winter Park—Winter Park, Fla.

“Although it is less than 2,500 yards from the tips, this routing that originated over 100 years ago received a stunning renovation in 2016 that turned it into first-rate layout,” says Anthony Pioppi. “The fact the course is located in the midst of the town with an active rail line bordering two holes simply adds to the charm.”

Winter Park Golf Club, seven miles north of downtown Orlando, first opened in 1900. By 2016, however, it was old, tired, and seriously out of shape so the City of Winter Park hired Keith Rhebb, an architect and shaper that had worked on several projects with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and Integrative Golf’s Riley Johns, to bring it back to life with a budget of $1.2 million. “When we first visited Winter Park we saw a flat, featureless golf course overgrown with trees and patchy turf,” says Johns. “It looked sad and rundown. But its location, in the heart of downtown Winter Park, was very distinct. That and the course’s untapped potential got me really interested in the project.”

Johns and Rhebb set out to create a fun and inexpensive course community members could play in under two hours. And they succeeded brilliantly, as Winter Park’s significant rounds-played increase shows. “I think municipal and community golf courses have a tremendous opportunity to help reinvigorate the game’s appeal in North America,” says Johns. “It just has to be done right.”

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