Redefining golf masochism through nine sadistic little holes
Words by Shane BaconPhotos by Stephen Denton
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In Ponte Vedra, it’s TPC Sawgrass. In Monterey, it’s Cypress Point. In Arizona, we’ve got Whisper Rock and Scottsdale National—but perhaps most infamously, we have the Bad Little Nine. It’s one of those “Have you played it?” bucket-list courses that has reached a level where every local has a story about it whether they’ve played it or not (and most haven’t). Out here in the Valley, rumors have swirled about this dastardly course since Dr. Bob Parsons opened it in 2016. Some say it’s so tough it makes pros actually cry. Some humblebrag and swear it’s not that bad.
I knew one thing for sure: After years of missing out on chances to play, the stars finally aligned and I had a Friday morning tee time. Ready or not, I would be tackling the course at its toughest. At the Bad Little Nine, Fridays are known as Challenge Day.
The reservation sparked the same tingly feeling I get when I’m about to embark on a golf trip. You know it: After spending weeks or months or sometimes even years preparing for the flights and train rides and rental cars and hotels, the trip is mercifully almost here. You’ve consulted with friends and agents and websites and Golf Twitter to get everything calculated. You’ve bucket-listed these tracks for too long and you’re finally going to check them off. You’re mentally prepared for that combination of grinding for a number to brag about while simultaneously trying to take in every hole, every shot, every caddie joke and every memory. It’s the best.
Sure, this trip was down the street for me, but I knew it would be one people would always ask me about.
My mind kept going back to the most important question: How tough could it be? That word is always so subjective with golf. Considering the way people had talked Carnoustie up, my first time there I half-expected to hit irons over hungry mountain lions and putts around angry Komodo dragons. Same thing with Bethpage Black. When you see that sign just off the first tee warning of the severity of what you’re about to put yourself through (something you’re paying to do!), one of two things can happen: 1) It can live up to the hype and beat you to a pulp, or 2) All the chatter turns out to be overkill and you actually finish with a respectable number.
When I asked people I trust about Scottsdale National’s notorious par-3 course, most of them were firm: The chatter is not overkill. Especially on a Friday.
“The word dramatic doesn’t even begin to describe the Bad Little Nine on a normal day,” LPGA star Christina Kim told me. “But on Challenge Day it can feel like playing golf on another planet. Your ball seemingly defies all laws of gravity. It’s nearly impossible to hit it close, but often when you do, the complexes of the green and topography of the course are so deceiving you think there must be some kind of ball-repelling mechanism near the cup.”
Translation from a three-time LPGA champion: It’s going to kick you in the teeth—hope you have good dental insurance.
She did give me one great pro tip: “Try to be one of the first out. There are no rakes in the bunkers and I’ve encountered the remnants of golfers whose frustrations—and many divots and footprints—were a reminder to stay on the grass.”
So, while I confirmed my early tee time and got in some last-minute wedge work, I also did some research to gain some kind of edge. I learned the Bad Little Nine was built by Jackson Kahn Design along with the Other Course, taking Scottsdale National to 45 holes. It was the first major step for Parsons, the man behind GoDaddy and PXG, to take SNCC extremely private. Today, the club reflects his casual but high-end sensibilities, with the Bad Little Nine just one of many nods to his golf-warped sense of humor.
According to an interview in Forbes, Parsons says the idea to make the Bad Little Nine legendarily difficult was the Jackson Kahn Design team’s and that he wholeheartedly approved. The result is just fewer than 1,000 yards of stomach-churning bunkers, comically over-the-top humps and bumps and insane pin placements. It has holes named Shotgun and Stinger, and a plunging bunker called the Mineshaft. One green is shaped like a horseshoe, the ninth is roughly the size of a peso and another mimics the ooze of a Dalí painting. There are dead trees planted throughout. That was Parsons’ idea.
Even places like Carnoustie aren’t called “The Hard-Ass Carnoustie Golf Links.” Everyone should have known Parsons’ intent when he threw “bad” in the name.
“I’ve played it more than a dozen times,” area resident and two-time PGA Tour winner James Hahn told me with a laugh. “Challenge Day is the golf version of the XFL video game: no rules, no complaining, picking up is common, but finishing out is sometimes embarrassing. I’ve never seen PGA and LPGA pros take legitimate 10-plus strokes on a 90-yard par 3 and not miss a shot. It’s not uncommon to hit a green in regulation and have your caddie bring your putter and sand wedge knowing there’s no chance to keep your ball on the green.”
One rumor is true: If you fire a round of even par or lower during Challenge Day, Parsons will cut you a check for $1,000. It’s also true that Hahn once went around in 1 under, but Parsons laughed and disqualified him for playing two warmup balls earlier that day on the course, telling Hahn afterward that he doesn’t get to do that on the PGA Tour, so he doesn’t get to do it at his course. As far as I know, only one person, LPGA player Ryann O’Toole, has done it and received the actual check. But even that round still holds a bit of mystery. O’Toole herself cheekily denied it to me: “Bested par on Challenge Day? No chance!”
Well, now it was my chance. As the sun rose on a perfect late-spring Friday, I left the big sticks in the garage, pointed my Kia north and pondered one last question: Was the course really so hard? Can a nine-hole golf course with seven holes under 130 yards truly be so tough? Aren’t we told that, in 2019, a course’s only defense is if it’s stretched out to shocking distances? Was I talking myself into winning this check?
On the first tee, a gentle 101 yards, I was told by my playing partner, David Kahn (who helped design the place), that the miss was in the back bunker. With a wedge. My brain did not compute. Even adjusted for my extreme expectations, this wasn’t normal golf behavior. Wedges are scoring clubs, and this should have been a scoring shot. Hell, I even got to use a tee! Somehow, I made a beautiful bogey to win the hole.
Then things took a turn. I made triple bogey on the second hole (and still lost the skin by only one shot). It all came undone on the third hole, where I became that guy Hahn warned me about. Allow me to explain picking up on the Bad Little Nine: You don’t, like on a normal course, pick up because you’re frustrated or out of the hole. You pick up because the Earth spins on an axis and at some point the sun is going to go down. I was convinced that after the countless front-to-back, back-to-front pitch shots and putts, I would never—I repeat, never—get the ball close enough to this simply mean hole location. If this was a count-’em-all tournament, I might still be there with a Tom-Hanks-in-Castaway beard, talking to my golf ball like it was my own version of Wilson.
And yes, that was the moment when my (very) outside shot at a $1,000 check signed by a billionaire evaporated under the Arizona sun.
There was no time to cry about it; I had a 2-foot par putt on No. 4 and somehow made a 5. I walked off that green with the same face Pete Carroll made after Malcolm Butler intercepted that pass at the goal line to kill Seattle’s hopes in Super Bowl XLIX: How did that just happen?
I did not break par on Challenge Day. But I did manage to find entirely new ways to twist and stretch my poor body in sometimes futile attempts to hit bunker shots I never thought possible. I saw my ball roll off greens like it was shot out of a cannon. I got stung by the Stinger. It was a foregone conclusion since the first tee, when I learned the miss was in the back bunker.
As physical as this battle was, the mental aspect turned out to be much more surprising. Yes, you’re shocked when you hit what feels like a good shot and see your ball end up nowhere near the hole. But it also makes you question why everything you’ve worked on for all these years is just not working.
Many people would expect to find the Bad Little Nine humbling, but, after some reflection, I realized that’s the wrong word. It isn’t humbling, because nobody—not Hahn or Kim or Pat Perez or whoever else gets a crack at it on the regular—can figure this place out. Perhaps there is solidarity in the destruction. Either way, humbling isn’t the point. And once you get past that, you can find the beauty and even the joy in it.
The question I get now is a simple one: Was it fun? I like to answer with one of my own: Do you enjoy getting your brains beat in? Strangely, we do. Golfers can be masochists. We brave the rain and sleep in cars to play the Carnousties and Bethpages of the world. I have friends who trek north of Las Vegas to give Wolf Creek a go, knowing full well they’re coming back with horror stories.
“They’ll laugh their asses off because it is so difficult,” Parsons told Forbes about his freaky track. “But if you make that one shot, you’re on top of the world.”
He’s not wrong. I didn’t win the check, but I made a birdie on the seventh after a nifty little tee shot landed hole high. When that putt dropped, I felt like I’d just fired my career-best round.
So maybe “tough” and “humbling” and “fun” aren’t the right words. Enjoyable, it is not. But it’s absolutely one to check off the bucket list. And it’s a hell of a challenge. They got that word 100% correct.