Small Wonders

Nine-hole courses offer as much charm and challenge as 'regulation' 18s, and are usually more ecological and economical. So why do so few golfers play them?

Ron Whitten: Small Wonders

Little package, big punch: The par-3 sixth typifies the challenge at The Dunes Club in Michigan, which has a Pine Valley feel and is viewed as America's best nine-holer.

February 8, 2010

Dr. Gary Wiren is a Ph.D., a highly regarded instructor, a champion golfer, a master professional and member of the PGA Hall of Fame. I am none of those. In fact, the only thing I have in common with Gary is that we both learned golf as youngsters on a hardscrabble nine-hole course in Omaha, par-33 Spring Lake Park, where the last hole, a 100-yard par 3, played over a busy city street, and the meanest hazard was a snarling German shepherd just beyond a flimsy chicken-wire fence behind the second green.

Amazingly, Spring Lake Park still exists. Both Gary and I have made separate pilgrimages to it in recent years, and we're both delighted that little has changed. Oh, there's a new clubhouse and cart paths. The tee boxes are now grass, not dirt. The dog is long gone, but the ninth is still a pitch shot over 16th Street.

Spring Lake Park is why I have such an affection for nine-holers. They are the bedrock upon which golf was built in this country. The first courses were nine holes. The first U.S. Opens were played on them. Legends such as Arnold Palmer and Pete Dye grew up on them.

Nine-hole courses represent fundamentals, with few frills and almost no pretenses. They're usually extremely affordable, frugal in their chemical use and can be played in less than two hours.


Architecturally, nine-hole courses are our great-granddaddies, but most golfers treat them like red-headed step-granddaddies because most don't consider nine holes to be real golf. If statistics mean anything, they're probably justified in that assumption. For more than two generations now, nine-hole courses have comprised just 29 percent of all layouts in America, not enough clout to be considered even a special interest. They're merely a fringe element, a cult.

So be it. But it's a cult worth exploring. Allow me to provide some reasons why.

Some Nine-Hole Courses Are Genuine Tests
The good news is, there are no 4,000-yard nine-hole courses. Because they're invariably built on compact parcels of land, nine-hole courses tend to be more about accuracy and finesse than brute strength. But, as with Chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers, some of those little things have bite.

None more than The Dunes Club in New Buffalo, Mich. A half-dozen years before he established Bandon Dunes in Oregon, recycled-products impresario Mike Keiser created this delightful and devious nine on 68 acres of densely wooded sand dunes off Lake Michigan, just north of the Indiana border. Utilizing the services of architects Dick and Tim Nugent of Chicago as well as mixing in his own armchair-architect ideas, Keiser produced the Pine Valley of nine-hole courses, with vast expanses of exposed sand edging fairways that pitch and roll as if in a storm off the lake, and smallish greens tucked atop sand spits and behind leafy trees. What isn't sand or tightly mown turf is knee-high native grass.

Back in a 2000 Golf Digest feature, Dan Jenkins chose the 513-yard eighth hole as one of his Best 18 Holes in America -- The New Generation, and nearly every commentator on course design ranks the 3,478-yard par-36 Dunes as the country's best nine-hole course. It's private and perfect, with a clubhouse about the size of a detached garage. That's all a nine-hole course needs.

Due east of The Dunes is Signal Point Club in Niles, Mich., just north of South Bend, Ind., a 1964 private club that is perhaps the most imaginative ever from architect Robert Bruce Harris. Strung along a skinny corridor on the west side of the St. Joseph River, Signal Point is tight and tree-lined, with big oval bunkers well removed from enormous putting surfaces, deliberately oversized to accommodate two separate flags, white and red, corresponding to tee markers of the same color. Golfers play white-to-white the first time around, 3,044 yards par 36, then red-to-red at 3,181 yards par 36, for the second nine. So each hole has two personalities. The opener may be only 324 yards, but the second time it's 408, maybe longer if the red flag is tucked back behind a bunker. Conversely, the par-5 second measures 540 yards, but when it's the 11th, it's 475. The craziest hole is the seventh, a zigzag double dogleg through hardwoods and pines, the only par 5 around that measures just 435 yards (489 when played as the 16th) and yet is still a true three-shot hole.

They call Signal Point "Little Point O'Woods," a nod to former Western Amateur venue and Golf Digest 100 Greatest member Point O' Woods just up the road in Benton Harbor, and it certainly resembles it in look and challenge. Back in 1967, when Golf Digest ranked America's 200 Toughest Courses, Signal Point was one of six Michigan courses listed, along with The Point, Oakland Hills, CC of Detroit, University of Michigan and Warwick Hills. Alas, the editors apparently decided there was a mutt amongst those big dogs, and Signal Point was dropped in 1969. No nine-hole course has been ranked by Golf Digest since.

As versatile as Signal Point is, it has nothing on Double Eagle GC in Eagle Bend, Minn., where in 1983 former tour pro-turned-architect Joel Goldstrand created his first of several nine-hole reversible layouts. With nine fairways and 10 greens on 80 acres, Goldstrand provided 18 holes for an owner who couldn't afford the upkeep of 18 and did it with bunkers that play both ways and no awkward doglegs or blind shots. It's not a particularly original idea. The Old Course at St. Andrews is the template for all reversible layouts, and William S. Flynn built one on the Rockefeller estate, Pocantico Hills, in Tarrytown, N.Y., in the 1930s. But unlike St. Andrews, which plays its clockwise routing but once a year, Double Eagle switches every day. On odd days it's the 3,337-yard par-36 Green Course, while on even days it's the 3,536-yard par-37 Gold Course.

Other stern nine-hole tests include Doral Arrowwood GC in Purchase, N.Y., a Robert von Hagge resort design that has been dubbed the "Little Blue Monster." It has humps and bumps everywhere, along with splashy bunkers and ponds on seven holes. It was built in the early 1990s on the site of the old 18-hole par-3 Green Valley Golf Center, and pity the poor hacker who strolled up at the grand reopening expecting his pitch-and-putt.

There's also the private Links at Fisher Island in the center of a 216-acre island of condominiums in Miami's Biscayne Bay. A 1990 P.B. Dye design of 3,347 yards and par 35, it's a tropical terror, with big lakes, 56 bunkers, one island green, one hidden green, imitation sand dunes dotted with coconut palms and gumbo limbos, constant wind and live flamingoes.

Include Falcon Valley GC in Lenexa, Kan., in this category. Designed by Craig Schreiner, it was originally to be 18 holes, but potential land across railroad tracks proved too inaccessible. A par 36 of 3,366 yards, it is hilly and treed on the first four holes, then open and exposed to south winds for four holes and finishes with a straightaway par 4 hugging a lake on the right. Like Doral Arrowwood and Fisher Island, Falcon Valley is that rarest of creatures, a nine-hole residential development course. Other successful nine-hole housing courses that come to mind are Bigwood in Ketcham, Idaho (just west of Sun Valley resort), and Spanish Wells on Hilton Head Island.

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