April 8, 2014

Spear: Par 3 courses could be the wave of the future

FOR A FEW glorious hours each year, par-3 golf basks in the spotlight. The game’s elite put their short-game skills on display, and fans flock.

FOR A FEW glorious hours each year, par-3 golf basks in the spotlight. The game’s elite put their short-game skills on display, and fans flock.

The competition is serious for some, less so for others. Mostly, the players laugh, enjoy themselves and make the afternoon a fun experience. Caddies attired in the club livery might be a player’s son or daughter, some no taller than a 3-iron, or a friend, perhaps a skyscraper who played on NBA championship teams.

Those scenes to remember unfold, of course, the Wednesday before the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club’s par-3 course, and a good time is had by all. Winning brings a nice reward, a piece of crystal from the club. Finishing from second to last brings memories worth keeping.

All too quickly, the short-game display and its merits are gone, put on the shelf for another year with emphasis returning to the “big” course and the year’s first major championship.

But a question for today: Is that changing?

Is par-3 golf ready to play a role in the “growing of the game?”

There’s no doubt that golf needs a transfusion. Survey after survey shows declining participation for the usual reasons: too expensive, too exclusive, too difficult, too time-consuming. Besides that, the golf industry over-built regulation-sized courses and the economic downturn “left a lot of owners crying the blues,” said Suzy Ellison, owner of The Golf Center in Northeast Columbia.

The game’s ruling bodies – the PGA of America, the PGA Tour, the USGA, the R&A and others – figuratively scratch their heads in search of answers, and the PGA Tour has decided to give par-3 a test run. A short course will be part of the Champions Tour’s Legends of Golf tournament in June.

A shorter course will not change the difficulty of the game, but the other challenges – time, expense, exclusiveness – are taken out of the equation. Purist might cringe, but the tablets delivered on Mount Sinai did not decree that golf must be played at 7,000 or more yards.

“We’re at an important point in the evolution of our game. ... We need to embrace innovation, new ideas and out-of- the-box thinking ... ,” Jack Nicklaus told reporters after the PGA Tour announcement. “We need to come up with new golf experiences, whether that is 60 minutes or 90 minutes, whether it’s six holes, 12 holes, a par-3 course. We need to think in terms of shorter, faster and more fun.”

The idea has merit, said Ellison, an LPGA pro who began teaching in the area in 1987. Admittedly, she has a vested interest; her facility includes both a par-3 layout and a driving range. But she said, a shorter course “is where beginners and a lot of seniors, ladies and less accomplished players belong. I was delighted when the PGA Tour made the announcement.”

Thinking about her customers who flock to her range and ignore the wide-open par-3 course, her instructor instincts come to the fore. “About 65 percent or more of your shots (on a regulation course) come on approaches to the green and on putting,” she said, “and yet they’re out there banging driver after driver on the range. You get more bang for your buck on the par-3.”

Mike Guerry sees about a 50-50 split between par-3 players and golfers on the range at the Lake Murray Golf Center in Chapin and shares Ellison’s view on the importance of approach shots. What better place than a par-3 course, he asked, to work on that aspect of the game?

The Lake Murray layout features holes from 68 to 170 yards, has lights and offers affordable fees.

“Come out here and play nine holes in an hour and a half, and you don’t pay $50 (fees at some regulation courses),” he said. “You can play after work and still get home at a reasonable hour. You don’t spend all day at the golf course.

“As far as costs, you can play four times a month here or once a month (at a regulation course) for the same money. Playing par-3 courses makes so much sense in a lot of ways.”

Tom Wingard, owner of Caddy Shak in Lexington, echoes the same theme, and in fact, seemed to be looking into the future in building his par-3 layout. It’s 12 holes and provides a serious challenge with water or sand in play on nine holes.

“When we built the par-3, I had read in Golf Digest about Jack Nicklaus’ saying the future of golf might be 12 holes, and that’s what we did,” Wingard said. “The course comes back to the clubhouse after 6, 9 and 12, so we have different ways to play. We understand people have time constraints.”

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem believes the Champions Tour event that will include competition over both a regulation course and a par-3 layout will be an eye-opener for golfers.

“The tournament will educate and encourage people to use par-3 golf,” he said. “It will help tell the story why alternative facilities can be used to bring more people into the game of golf.”

Obviously, the shorter par-3 courses are cheaper to build, with less land involved and maintenance costs are much lower.

The idea of par-3 courses is not new. Columbia-area residents with long memories might recall Cedarwood, a par-3 layout in the early 1960s that offered nine holes and a driving range on the land the Wal-Mart on Garners Ferry Road now occupies. The Rockbridge Club off North Trenholm Road also offered par-3 rounds.

But the emphasis is new – and welcome.

“When the PGA tour made the announcement, I had people call excited about the possibilities,” Ellison said. “I haven’t seen any difference yet, but there should be more promotion during the Champions tournament, and I hope it helps get people back to the game.”

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