Flatstick fever

Features - Spotlight

Putting courses are providing a jolt to facilities looking to keep customers around longer. They are also attracting golf newcomers.

June 8, 2022

© courtesy of shadow mountain golf club

As golf continues to enjoy a pandemic-era rise in participation, the game’s most accessible, equitable and equalizing club is enjoying its own sweet stroke of ascent.

Perhaps taking an overseas page from the globe’s most historic and famed putting grounds — the two acres of mounded, 18-hole flatstick fun of the Himalayas Course adjacent to the second hole of the Old Course at St Andrews — domestic golf properties of all manner and endeavor are sporting a stated trend of putting courses.

The National Golf Foundation reported 3.2 million new golfers in 2021. That demographic, according to the NGF, has enjoyed a 20 percent rise in just the past five years.

In contrast with the game’s one-time novelty putt-putt days, today’s surge in putting properties involves an architecturally driven ethos of design intent crafted to keep even scratch players engaged using agronomic plans mirroring those of regulation course putting surfaces.

The most eminent domestic homage to the Himalayas Course comes, sans surprise, by way of Pinehurst Resort, where the two-acre Thistle Dhu debuted in 1916 and is regarded as the nation’s first miniature golf course.

The Little Meadow Putting Course at Black Butte Ranch debuted in 2020.
© courtesy of black Butte Ranch

“Thistle Dhu is on the same agronomic program, and pretty well the same standards and conditioning levels, as our other courses,” says Bob Farren, director of golf course and grounds management at Pinehurst. “We do have a little more tolerance for areas that get a little banged-up or worn-out for one reason or other. There are a lot of kids out there and people who aren’t as golf savvy, but we don’t stress over all that.”

In recent years, Farren has seen a dramatic rise in the course’s use and popularity. Akin to many (if not most) of its domestic resort putting course cousins, use of the course comes at no cost to resort guests.

“Any time there’s daylight, somebody is out there,” Farren says. “As a matter of fact, we’ve now divided it up into two 9-hole courses instead of 18, so we can get more people on it at different times. It has grown in popularity, and we’ve seen other locations (around the country), mostly resorts, offer a similar size and scale over the last five or 10 years.”

While putting courses can be an amenity used to bolster a thriving property, a new flatstick track on the opposite coast has debuted a course aimed at narrating a property reimagination.

Shadow Mountain Golf Club in Palm Desert, California, owns not only the distinction of being the now-golf-rich city’s first course, but the 64-year-old grounds are also a rare example of a Gene Sarazen design. Struggling to the point of turning to GoFundMe in recent years, new ownership is aiming to fly flesh, compliments of The Flamingo putting course, which debuted this spring.

Thistle Dhu is two acres and one of the most popular attractions at Pinehurst Resort.
© jonathan cavalier

“There was an existing driving range which was small, didn’t get used too much and had limited-flight balls,” says Jay Blasi, architect of The Flamingo. “So, the new ownership group was looking for a way to transform that underutilized portion of the property.”

Transforming the property’s 5,375-yard, par-70 layout wasn’t a feasible option. “Our course is landlocked, so you can’t make us any longer,” Shadow Mountain general manager Joe Gowdy says. “The consideration here was how to make better use of our dual side drive range space, which had limited stalls. I mean, if our range was full, you might decapitate somebody on the other side, so we wanted something to make us unique, to stand out a bit more. And putting in The Flamingo does that. Nobody else in the desert has it.”

Shadow Mountain’s new leadership also created an adjoining social space with bar, tables, televised sports and soon-to-be-added knee-high lighting. Plans for local industry Skins games and community events will ensue. Blasi designed and planned the one-acre course in relatively short time.

“When you’re blessed with naturally sandy soils, you can work with the native soils,” he says. “It’s a great asset to any putting course and made it feasible to get in there and construct The Flamingo fairly quickly.”

While drainage considerations are still paramount, working free of pre-conceived full course notions or routing corridors provided Blasi with architectural freedom. “You think about it from an operational standpoint, but less so than you would with a full golf course,” he says. “With a putting course, you’re more or less creating a landscape, and once that’s accomplished, you can then lay out holes wherever you want. With The Flamingo, we tried to build in all sorts of fun humps, bumps, side slopes, spines and ridges.”

Blasi sees a movement in the value of putting courses at large and small resorts while also noting great potential within municipalities.

“The trend really starts with the big resorts with multiple courses, like Bandon or Pinehurst or Sand Valley,” he adds. “They’ve all either had these or added them as an extra amenity for guests. What I’d love to see is these putting courses come to more suburban and metro areas, as they could serve such a great role in getting people to the game, keeping them in the game.”

A rise in domestic rounds coupled with a resurgence of golf travel means once-dormant putting courses are finding new life as property assets.

The Little Meadow Putting Course has helped keep golfers around longer at Black Butte Ranch.
© Steve Heinrichs photography

“Our HillTop putting course was actually built back when our Tom Weiskopf course (Forest Dunes) was built (in 2002),” says John Wessels, head golf course superintendent at Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon, Michigan. “And then, in 2007 or ’08, it was never being used. Never. So, we abandoned it. But with new ownership, we resurrected it in ’18. The shapes were all there, but we did have to go through and till it and basically redo it all.”

The 18-hole, nearly two-acre property putts barren no longer.

“Now we see it used throughout the day, mostly in the afternoon when people are just wrapping up their morning rounds or getting ready for later rounds,” Wessels says. “And at night it gets pretty fun and rowdy out there.”

Like several of the modern putting course designs, HillTop is drawn and maintained to attract players of all levels. HillTop is maintained to the same green heights as the Forest Dunes course and with the same bentgrass as the resort’s reversible Loop course and Bootlegger short course greens. “The only thing that’s different is that we don’t roll it on a regular basis,” Wessels says. “We may not cut every single day, so it may play a bit slower speed. But with the undulations, that’s totally OK.”

Properties long-lobbying for a putting course are also seeing the returns.

The Little Meadow Putting Course at central Oregon’s Black Butte Ranch enjoyed the design hand of John Fought, who created the property’s Glaze Meadow Course. Featuring a dozen holes ranging from 45 to 105 feet, Little Meadow can also be played as 18 shorter holes and in reverse order.

“It’s been planned here for about 25 years,” Black Butte Ranch director of golf Jeff Fought says. “I’ve been here over two decades, and it just took somebody on our board who had a passion to bring this up again. And we just thought this would be the greatest amenity for families and kids, and a great place to teach your kids how to act on a putting green.”

Little Meadow debuted in mid-2020. It supported 9,000 in-season rounds last year from Memorial Day to the end of September. “It’s unbelievable to see how busy it is, and how people who aren’t even golfers are out here, just having a drink and having a good time,” Fought says.

The impressions are shared by Black Butte’s agronomy team.

“A lot of times, we need to have Jeff hold ’em off a little bit, just so we can get our normal maintenance out there, whether it’s spraying or topdressing or changing the cups,” Black Butte Ranch superintendent Brian Farrell says. “And I do think putting courses are a trend. With bigger groups, when they’re done with the round, they want to unwind with a little more competition, with the thinking that, ‘Hey, I didn’t hit it so hot on the course today, so maybe I can catch my pal off-guard on the putting course.’”

As with several properties, the segue from championship course to putting course sees no decline in care or conditions. “From green speeds, heights, fertility, we maintain Little Meadow essentially the same as our course greens, though the greens on our Big Meadow Course are predominantly Poa, while the putting course is a more dynamic bentgrass turf, kind of the latest and greatest,” Farrell says.

Jay Blasi

The short game allure and flatstick fever haven’t been lost on the game’s biggest name, as Tiger Woods’ budding design business, TGR Design, has included wedge and putter focus in nearly all its work.

“Tiger started the design company with the vision of making golf fun and more welcoming for everybody,” TGR Design President Byron Bell says. “And back in 2006, when it started, we didn’t necessarily have a clear definition of what that would mean.”

TGR’s debut domestic championship design, Bluejack National in Montgomery, Texas, includes a 10-hole par-3 course on property along with a putting course. Woods’ Diamante design in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, includes the same short game amenities. Additionally, TGR’s reimagining of The Hay 9-holer at Pebble Beach includes an approximately 27,000-square-foot 18-hole putting course.

TGR’s partnership with PopStroke — a putting, dining and entertainment concept — has a host of new locations in the works, and a trio of locations opened in Florida, including Fort Myers, Port St. Lucie and the recently debuted Sarasota facility, with its Tiger Red and Tiger Black 18-holers.

“PopStroke fit our model of bringing friends and families together around the game in an unintimidating environment,” Bell says. “There’s no limit to the constituents. Maybe it’s a 2-year-old in diapers out there, teenagers out for a weekend or grandparents on a date night.”

TGR’s PopStroke work features synthetic turf with different lengths of fibers for play and aesthetic such as rough and bunkers.

“As a for-profit business, you need to be open. You can’t have mowers out there and you can’t aerify and be shut down for a few weeks,” Bell says. “There’s a small footprint on these, where everybody is walking down the center of a small fairway, so you can’t spread out the traffic. And with just a putter, it’s pretty tough to have people hitting out of traditional rough or real sand bunkers all day, so synthetic made sense.”

The benefit of multi-use space increases the allure of putting courses. “Whether it’s for rehearsal parties, wedding receptions, … a good recreational programmer can do really well with a space like this, and use it for all different kinds of events,” Farren says.

Limiting guests to one club hasn’t turned away prospective customers. Instead, the lone tool yields a freedom that can’t always be found with a traditional round.

“On this space, you can have a great conversation,” Farren says. “When you play 18 holes of golf, if you’re riding in a cart or walking even, conversations can get disjointed. The putting courses are a great space to get people together and not feel awkward about not being a good golfer.”

Judd Spicer is a Palm Desert, California-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor. We haven’t received confirmation on his scoring average at Shadow Mountain.