The par-3 2nd hole at the Dunes Club, a nine-hole course in New Buffalo, Mich., requires a heroic shot over a miniature desert strewn with indigenous scrub pine and love grass. The hole also has more tee locations than you'll find at most 18-hole layouts. The 2nd can stretch from 160 to 200 yards from the tee boxes on the right; and while the hole is shorter from the tees on the left, the angle of approach and view of the green from there is completely different. The net effect is that one hole can play like many. It's that variety, along with the natural beauty of the Dunes, that makes it No. 1 on SI's list of the top 10 nine-hole courses in the country.
Choosing the best nine-holers (of the 16,000 courses in the U.S., about 4,800 have only nine holes) wasn't easy, if for no other reason than the list of eligible courses is constantly changing. The best nine-hole tracks are often expanded to 18 holes. For years Prairie Dunes Golf Club, a Perry Maxwell design in Hutchinson, Kans., stood out as the strongest nine-hole course until Maxwell's son, Press, added a second nine in 1957. After that, Rolling Rock Club, a Donald Ross creation outside Pittsburgh, reigned as No. 1, but it dropped off the list in May when a companion nine designed by Brian Silva was opened.
Because there's no room to expand, the Dunes should have a long run as the best of one of golf's subsets, which suits Mike Keiser, the 52-year-old co-owner of Recycled Paper Greetings and the founder of the Dunes. "The fact that we're nine holes makes us nontraditional, but we like it that way," he says. "There are reasons why nine holes are superior. We have the option of playing in a couple of hours and still making it back for whatever our families are doing. When the wife says, 'All you do is play golf,' I can say, 'Hey, it's just nine holes' or 'I'll take the kids with me.' "
Only nine years old, the Dunes is No. 1 for many of the reasons Pine Valley ( N.J.) Golf Club is the consensus choice among 18-hole courses, and none are coincidental. Keiser has long been an admirer of Pine Valley. When 90 acres of similar land came up for sale a decade ago on the southeastern end of Lake Michigan—an hour and a half from his home base in Chicago—he snapped them up, even though there wasn't room for 18 holes. In 1987 Keiser hired course architect Dick Nugent, and, looking for inspiration, they made several trips to the pine barrens of southern New Jersey before breaking ground in New Buffalo. The influence is obvious: wide, undulating fairways bounded by natural, sandy waste areas. The transitions, from pristine fairways to unruly scrub and from scrub to duneland, are abrupt and spectacular. "I'd call the Dunes an American parkland course with a Pine Valley feel," says Keiser, who formed the private club with five friends (membership has since ballooned to 61). "It amazes me that more people haven't tried to emulate the best features of Pine Valley: big waste areas, sand paths, the opposite of manicuring. I like that because it's so different."
Different is the norm at the Dunes. The tee boxes, for example, could be more accurately described as tee complexes featuring as many as six platforms staggered in distance and elevation. The par-36 course can play as long as 3,465 yards or as short as 3,141. There are no tee markers. Golfers may tee it up anywhere they like, and a local rule stipulates that the player holding the honor decides where the group puts in its pegs, sort of like a game of H-O-R-S-E.
"With all the tee options, the holes are diverse enough that you could play there all day and never play it the same way," says PGA Tour veteran David Ogrin, who set the course record (65) at the Dunes in July. "That's the mark of any great course. It's as pure a round as you can play, and the fact that it's only nine holes makes it totally cool." So cool that club pros from Illinois and Michigan vie to play in the Dunes' annual Ryder Cup-style tournament, and Michael Jordan and the rest of the Chicago golferati make regular pilgrimages to New Buffalo.
The greens at the Dunes are contoured, but not overly so. Most of them sit comfortably on natural shelves with ornery scrub bunkers bleeding off in all directions. In a bow to Hell's Half Acre, the waste area that bisects the 7th fairway at Pine Valley, the two par-5 holes at the Dunes call for second shots across large sandy expanses. "Scrub works," says Keiser, who this June began work on a 54-hole resort called Bandon Dunes on 2,000 acres of sandy linksland near Coos Bay on the Oregon coast.
Keiser likes sand and trees. When he was 24, he dropped off the waiting list at Harvard Business School and launched his company, which uses only recycled paper. The firm's motto: Trees like us.
"Mike is an unabashed tree-hugger," says Nugent. "During construction I thought he was going to tie himself to a few of the trees, so they went sparingly, with much debate." Nugent lost the argument on the par-5 8th, where a monstrous oak guards the left side of the green. Consequently, if your second shot isn't positioned well to the right, your approach will be stymied. The oak is controversial, but Keiser likes the quirkiness it creates and the mature feel it brings to his young course.
Any similarities to Pine Valley do not extend to the clubhouse, which might be as big as a Dairy Queen but doesn't have half the menu. Only four items are offered: bratwurst, chicken sandwiches, hamburgers and hot dogs. There are no high-back leather chairs here. The pro shop could be mistaken for a walk-in closet, and the locker room is actually an alcove with 30-odd pairs of seasoned golf shoes (no metal spikes, please) stuffed into cubbyholes. "We've tried to make this place feel like home," says Keiser. "Go in the kitchen and get your own beer instead of waiting to be served. There are no ladies' days or men's days. Kids are welcome. I'm not much for rules, so we have very few."