Reconsidering golf course alternatives
Golf was first played in America in 1888 in Yonkers, N.Y., on a six-hole track built on a 30-acre pasture. Four years later this pasture, the original home of the St. Andrews Golf Club, moved to a 34-acre apple orchard where another six-hole course of 1,500 yards was built. By 1894, more than 10 clubs, each with a nine-hole golf course, had formed in the New York City area.
Today, golf course are much different. Boasting 25 million golfers playing on 15,000 courses, golf has come a long way from the 10 original nine-hole courses in New York.
Now, prevailing thought demands a “good” course have 18 holes, 6,000 yards and 140 acres to 150 acres. Currently, only a third of courses are nine holes, and many former nine-hole courses have been expanded to 18 as the demand for golf has increased.
But as the demand for golf courses continues to grow, both public and private golf course developers wonder about the viability of golf courses in areas of 60 acres to 120 acres. Obviously, a nine-hole course can be built on such a site, but what about an 18-hole course of less than 6,000 yards with a par less than 70? Will golfers accept such a course? Can such a course be financially successful?
The answer to these questions is yes. Eighteen-hole courses with yardages from 4,500 to 6,000, with pars from 64 to 69, have existed for years on sites with limited acreage, especially in communities with no other golf courses. The Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, the cradle of golf, shoehorns 6,800 yards into less than 100 acres by using double greens. And it is not the only example of how to properly use low acreage and still provide challenging golf.
Around 25 years ago, the executive length golf course — defined by the National Golf Foundation as having 4,000 yards to 5,200 yards with a par between 50 and 66 for 18 holes — was touted as the answer to high land costs and five- to six-hour rounds of golf.
Currently, there are only 740 such facilities in the United States, which is less than 5 percent of the total number of courses.
“In my practice of golf course architecture, while I have not observed the demand for such facilities as it was predicted 25 years ago, I strongly feel that these executive courses have their place on the overall golf course market,” says John Steidel, associate member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA).
“If a community is relatively remote or there is a real lack of competition from other courses — or if no other land is available — then such a course probably makes sense,” he says.
But even in a golf market with heavy demand, and one with considerable competition, the executive length course has some very marketable features. The shorter 18-hole course is preferable for golfers, executives and others who only want to spend three-and-a-half hours to four hours on the course, not the four-plus hours other courses can require.
Also, the shorter course appeals to seniors, women, juniors and beginners who do not need the extra difficulty that 6,000-plus yards presents.
Like all good golf courses, the two key elements in the success of executive courses are the quality of both their design and maintenance.
A quality executive golf course must be exactly the same as a longer course, but with more par 3s and fewer (if any) par 5s. Total par for 18 holes then would add up to less than 70.
The greens, tees, fairways, sand bunkers and lakes must be just like those found on a longer course. The challenge encountered on each hole must be legitimate — no 250-yard par 4s and no par 5s that are not 250 yards. Maintenance, too, must be of a quality equal to or better than that of neighboring facilities.
The 18-hole El Cariso Golf Course, built by Los Angeles County on 80 of El Cariso Park’s 160 acres is an example.
Designed by Robert Muir Graves, a past president of the ASGCA, the course boasts fairways lined with more than 15 different types of trees, three lakes and almost 40 sand traps.
It hosts 90,000 rounds annually with green fees of $15.50 on weekdays and $19.50 on weekends. According to its golf professional Mike O’Keefe, El Cariso receives heavy play from seniors and women but also has the strongest men’s club of any facility with which he has been associated. “It’s really a challenging track, and you’d be amazed at how many low handicap golfers play here,” O’Keefe says.
In 1990, the city of Lynnwood, Wash., opened its own municipal golf course. Built on only 77 acres, the par 65,4,600-yard, fir-lined course is limited to 65,000 rounds annually in order to ensure its good condition and to prevent overplay on the course.
“We start foursomes on nine minute intervals so that they don’t bunch up, and, still, golfers can finish in about three hours and 40 minutes,” says golf course Manager Gary Stormo. “We try to give golfers what they want — a course in playable and good condition, few forced carries and the ability to find golf balls in the rough.”
In an age when land costs in almost all major metropolitan areas are high and free time is not unlimited, there is a place for the less-than-regulation length 18-hole golf course in most current golf markets. With proper planning and design, competitive, financially sound golf courses can be built on less acreage. Executive courses are a viable and marketable alternative.