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Grass League

I played in golf's new high-stakes par-3 league: Did it live up to the hype?

April 26, 2024

The marketing claims around the first Grass League event held last week at the Phoenix-area night golf course, Glass Clippings Rolling Hills, were bold. It was to be high stakes par-3 golf under the lights, where amateurs would compete for a $100,000 purse (yes, amateurs. More on that later).

The tournament’s organizers, who leased and renovated the municipal course in 2023, said they hoped the Grass Clippings Open would be golf’s version of the World Series of Poker, so they put up grandstands, large digital scoreboards, a concert stage and $1 million to anyone making a hole-in-one on the 18th hole. Oh, yeah, and it was streamed live on Bleacher Report (Golf Digest’s sibling company) ahead of a larger TV package to come.

If this all sounds exciting but a little confusing, that’s how I felt as I flew to Arizona to compete in the inaugural event. I was paired with the Grass Clippings’ head greenskeeper, Trace Jacobson, to represent the grounds staff in the two-person scramble format—a fitting pairing considering the brand’s mission of showcasing and giving back to greenskeepers.

What does high stakes mean?

Despite it being an amateur event, we were playing for real money. There was a six-figure purse in the 75-team tournament, with the top 10 teams getting in on the money. The winning team took home $40,000, the runner-up $20,000 and so on.

Wait, but amateurs can’t make money from competing in tournaments, right?!

Correct. The tournament gets around this technicality by having third parties sponsor the various teams. There are 10 franchises from around the country (Minnesota Muskies, New York Blue Birds, etc.) who each can field multiple teams, and anyone willing to put up the cash can sponsor an independent team as well.

Sponsors can buy one or multiple teams in the competition, and the money that the teams make goes directly to the sponsor. So, the sponsor wins the money, not the golfers competing. What the sponsors do with the money afterward (like, ahem, forward it to the players) is their business.

Par 3s level the playing field, sort of

Grass League is unabashedly democratic. In an age of professional golf where tour status is more coveted than ever, none exists here. All you need to do to play is find someone to sponsor you.

That is also why the format is a two-person scramble on a par-3 course—it levels the playing field. Take distance and long-iron precision out, put more emphasis on putting and anyone can win. At least that’s what Trace and I were telling ourselves. We’re both former college golfers with plus indexes, but we each don’t play nearly as much as we once did, and certainly not as much as the dozens of plus-5s that filled the field.

After 36 holes of competition, where we finished 25th (a few shots out of the money), I still believe it’s a format that favors the underdog. The holes at Grass Clippings ranged from 95 to 195 yards, with many requiring a quality mid-iron shot to have a good look at birdie. Our games weren't sharp by any means, but we still had decent looks on nearly every hole because, after all, if you give any two scratch handicaps a short- or mid-iron and someone is going to hit the green, right?

Well, not quite. Like I said, we don’t play much, so we struggled most with distance control—or at least I did. I hit plenty of otherwise decent shots that either flew to the back edge of the green or spun off the front.

It turns out, a Grass League event mainly tests two skills: distance control and putting. Whoever can get pin high the most or finds a hot putter has a chance; it doesn’t matter if you’re a former All-American or a grinder who just became a scratch—that’s part of the appeal.

Be a pro for a day

I lied. A Grass Clippings event tests an additional skill, which is dealing with nerves that you’ve likely never felt before, no matter what events you’ve played in. Cameras are everywhere, some players are mic’d up and grandstands are full of well-lubricated fans eager to let you know how you’re playing—good or bad.

In fact, as strange as it may first sound, this par-3 golf league is the closest you can get to feeling like you’re on tour, without being on tour. I’m not making a statement about this emerging league’s prestige, but where else can you sign up to compete in front of hundreds of taunting fans for tens of thousands of dollars?

As one playing partner said as he stood over a tee shot, “This is the most nervous I’ve ever felt on a golf course, and I’ve been in a playoff for a spot in the U.S. Open.” The 15th green was flanked by a grandstand filled with fans, and during the first round, I hit a nice shot that landed next to the hole and spun back to a few feet (left, above). I’m not calling it a roar but hearing fans 130 yards away screaming and cheering for a nice shot was a surreal experience. Don’t ask about the putt.

The fans’ enthusiasm works the other way as well. On the final hole of the first round, Trace and I had a 10-footer to close with birdie. We both missed on the high side and one fan was not pleased: “Come on, I had $100 on you guys to make it!”

A day later on the same hole, I bounced over the green with my approach and faced a tricky shot off a dormant lie to a green sloping away. I would’ve been too scared to chip that shot if I was playing by myself, let alone in front of fans and on a live stream. I took putter, came up well short and (deservedly) heard it from the crowd.

“What the hell, chip it!” one fan screamed. Others agreed, not understanding there’s a reason I’m writing about golf and not playing it for a living.

After I holed our downhill three-footer to sneak away with par, the fan came around: “That’s why you boys are out there!” he yelled.

That quick change of judgement was present throughout the week. The fans recognize that they aren’t watching tour professionals, so they are far quicker to forgive poor shots versus the same spectators at, say, the WM Phoenix Open just down the road. That took much of the pressure off—the fans rarely scrutinized poor swings but went crazy for a great shot.

What about that shot for $1 million?

This ain’t your buddy’s member-guest where a hole-in-one might net you a two-year lease on a Honda Civic (terms and conditions apply). On the 18th hole during the final round, a hole-in-one would earn you $1 million, and it was all live-streamed on the Bleacher Report app and YouTube.

Speaking of surreal experiences, have you ever stood over a shot where one swing would, without exaggeration, change your life? (A new car and a moderately aggressive portfolio to retire by 50 was what I had settled on.) For all that the experience competing in the Grass League provides, that feeling alone is worth playing for.

I was stupid and tried to take five yards off an 8-iron for the 165-yard shot but landed pin high and bounded over the green. A 9 would’ve covered my Manhattan rent for a few years.

Why did I club-twirl a shot that was always 20 feet left of the hole? Well, that’s night golf—like being in the spotlight on a stage, it’s very tough to see anything when the lights are close by. Anyways, I hit it well, knew I didn’t make an idiot of myself, so that was worthy enough of a twirl.

You need to start playing night golf

Put everything else about the event aside, night golf is thrilling. If you haven’t played under the lights before, start figuring out which of America’s two dozen night courses is closest to you. On the shots you can see, the ball pierces the night sky and looks as though there is a tracer on it. Even a bad shot is worth watching the whole way, provided you’re not blinded. Depth perception is very tough, however. That last hole was only 170 yards yet it looked like I couldn’t get 6-iron there.

Is it a party or a golf tournament?

Both—by design. Concerts ran throughout both days before a couple country stars, Easton Corbin and LANCO, headlined the 8 p.m. shows. Food trucks, beer tents, an on-site barber and masseuse surrounded the pit, situated adjacent to the 18th green and 10th tee. Whether you wanted to watch some golf or just hang out, have a few drinks and listen to music with friends, there was something for you. Most fans did some of both.

Who this is right for

In many ways, this tournament was perfect for a player like me—someone who grew up dreaming of playing on tour, played college golf but never quite got good enough to seriously consider trying to make it. For at least two days, this was my opportunity to feel like I was on tour.

The field was filled with similar backstories—former mini-tour grinders and college players (one of my playing partners on Day 1 played with Jon Rahm at Arizona State), as well as lifelong amateurs sporting plus-4 indexes. If you’re a scratch golfer who embraces big moments and doesn’t take yourself too seriously, this is the event for you.

Who this isn’t right for

On the last point, if you’re a player who shies away from nerve-wracking moments on the course for fear of failure, then stay away. No matter how good you are, you’re going to hit poor shots and, once the beers start flowing later in the day, you're going to hear it from the crowd.

Also, if you’re that golfer who loves silence over every shot and doesn’t understand why speakers are allowed on the course, then this isn’t your scene. Live music is blaring, people are talking in backswings and the first-tee announcer can be heard from all 18 holes.

Is this really going to work?

Maybe! I find the biggest draw of Grass League to be the fusion of live music and night golf. Draw people in the gates with big-name headliners, put on an all-day party and oh, yeah, there is a bunch of great golf to watch as well. That the golf can be played under the lights at Grass Clippings Rolling Hills is the league’s greatest asset, fully accommodating a boozy evening hangout. The turnout increased significantly as the sun went down.

The league is trying to showcase the thousands of elite golfers who never quite made it and tell their often-fascinating stories. While that's a noble cause worth pursuing, is there enough demand to watch guys like me make scrappy pars? I would love to be proven wrong, and certainly there is more demand for that in large golf markets like Phoenix/Scottsdale (Grass Clippings hopes to expand to Las Vegas and other markets as well).

Perhaps the best way for Grass League to grow is to initially draw fans in with the live music and party atmosphere, and then once the fans see that the golf is compelling, especially under the lights, the golf itself starts to drive the league.