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Why a four-hole loop should be the new short-course standard

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A prime example of triangulation on full display at Lawsonia Links in Wisconsin.
A prime example of triangulation on full display at Lawsonia Links in Wisconsin. Photo by Andy Johnson

Short courses are huge right now. Resorts and private clubs worldwide are converting small plots of land into par-3 courses. Featuring wild greens and holes that rarely measure more than 150 yards, they appeal to golfers thanks to their recipe of fun and playability. And while they can be a great time, they do have some, ahem, shortfalls—mainly a lack of variety in distances, meaning that, for the most part, 7-irons and up are staying at home.

But what if there were a short course that took an hour or less to play and still let you hit almost all the clubs in your bag? Welcome to the golf-design revolution I’d like to see next: four-hole courses.

The four-hole loop tackles some of golf’s biggest problems. It would take under 60 minutes to play, making golf a real alternative to a daily workout. It would require less land to build—roughly 20 acres would do—and cost far less to maintain. And it would take only one or two employees to mow the greens and run the operations.

To prove I’m not crazy, here’s some historical precedent: Eighteen holes in golf is an arbitrary number, essentially created when the Old Course at St. Andrews was converted from 22 holes to 18 in the 1700s. In fact, the earliest courses in Scotland, Leith Links and Bruntsfield Links, were only five holes.

What would my four-hole course look like? Assuming I have a standard plot of land, I would use an old routing trick that many of the best golden-age architects used: triangulation. Many designers would use triangles in their routings in three-hole combinations to ensure variety in playing distance and direction.

Knowing my inherited land was relatively flat, the design would feature template holes rooted in strategic design to ensure they would remain compelling. The opening par 5 would be one leg of the triangle, playing to the northeast and modeled after a common Coore & Crenshaw design that utilizes a long and narrow green. This orientation of the green forces players who fancy getting home in two to challenge the aggressive line to gain the superior angle.

We would then hit the next leg of the triangle: back-to-back par 3s, the first of which would be shorter and test the wedge game with a classic hit-it-or-else green. Following that would be a longer hole with a Biarritz template, which would quarter in the opposite direction. The short par 3 would play to the northwest while the Biarritz would play to the southwest to ensure slightly different wind directions.

The close of the four-hole loop would feature a long par 4 to a double-plateau green. This template, used regularly by C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, is an ideal hole for uninteresting land. It would require a good drive and a long or mid-iron and play to the southwest, back toward the first tee.

This four-hole loop would give players the opportunity to hit two drivers, a long iron, a mid-iron and wedge shots—all the shots one would typically hit in an 18-hole round, all in less than an hour. But four holes isn’t enough, you say? On the next trip around, I’ll show you the alternate tee boxes… 

Andy Johnson’s website and newsletter, The Fried Egg, provides detailed coverage on golf-course architecture and professional and amateur golf.