A plastic rhinoceros overlooks the 18th tee at the Midway Par III in Myrtle Beach, S.C. On the tee stands the Painter family—Mom, Dad and the two boys, all wearing Day-Glo outfits. Dad nestles his 50� golf ball on the green brush mat and thwacks a grounder. "Worm burner!" shouts his beefy son Tim, 20, who's decked out in turquoise shorts and a Hawaiian Tropic T shirt. Dad drops a mulligan, whacks it and is quickly followed by the rest of the family. "Where's my caddie?" bellows Tim as he sets off carrying three ancient rental clubs. Nearby, Calvin Whitehead, a farmer from Valdosta, Ga., practices his putting. "If you can putt on these greens, you can putt on parking lots anywhere," he says.
Welcome to the world of par-3 golf. There are 947 par-3 courses scattered across the American landscape. They offer the young, the old and especially the novice the opportunity to play golf free from fear—fear of being beaned by impatient foursomes in $100 Foot Joys, of offending the country-club dress code by wearing only coconut oil above the waist, of scoring a 20 on every hole.
Par-3s range in quality from Rolls-Royces to Rent-A-Wrecks. There's the Knolls Country Club in Lincoln, Neb., possibly the nation's only par-3 country club (swimming, tennis, dining included). Knolls has an 18-hole course featuring holes 200 yards plus, complete with rolling hills, water hazards and sand traps. Then there is Pipestem, located in West Virginia's Pipestem State Park perched high in the Allegheny Mountains. And the Peter Hay Course at Pebble Beach, Calif., a nine-hole shortie that offers players a gentle tune-up before they attack the great course itself.
Queen of them all is the beautifully buffed little layout at Augusta National On the Wednesday preceding the Masters, a par-3 tournament is held there, and it is far and away the world's most prestigious iron-only event. Indeed, the short game gets more international ink on that one day than it does all year.
At the other end of the spectrum are the low-rent operations, like Golf Land in Vernon, Conn., which has rubber mats for tees, holes that average 55 yards and—believe it or not—two holes on every green. Players are asked to move the flag from one cup to the other to reduce wear and tear, and the scorecard admonishes, in bold lettering NO HIGH HEELS.
For most golfers, par-3 courses fall into a kind of limbo—not regulation golf, but not quite putt-putt either. For the serious golfer, playing a honky-tonk par-3 is a bit like a food critic eating a Twinkie: There's a naughty pleasure in it.
But par-3s are not necessarily a lower form of golf. A top-quality short course (rare as it is) can offer seasoned golfers a chance to practice their wedge and pitch-and-run shots. Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper endorse the abbreviated links. Says Casper, "Par-3 can be great practice, especially since par-3s are probably the hardest holes in regulation golf." A surprising number of pros echo that sentiment. "There's no room for error on a par-3 tee shot," argues Casper, "whereas on a par-4 or- 5, you've got time to recover."
Whatever their value may be to the Palmers and Caspers of the world, for the below-average hacker par-3 courses are important for the simple reason that they are there. There is a shortage of regulation public golf courses in the U.S., especially near metropolitan areas. "About 15 million Americans play golf regularly, but perhaps 50 million would like to," says Geoffrey Cornish, a very busy golf architect, who has designed 187 courses, including 14 par-3s.
An average regulation course, with amenities, costs about $2.5 million to build after the land—at least 150 acres—has been acquired. Seventy-five percent of the courses now under construction or on the drawing board are parts of real estate deals in which developers sell housing lots along the fairways.
That's fine and dandy for a luxurious, 7,000-yard, 18-hole course that ambles over rolling acres of real estate, but what about a 2,000-yard par-3? It's way too small to accommodate condos along the fairways. Unfortunately, a lot of these courses are sitting on land that is perfect for putting condos in the fairway—which, of course, wipes out the course. Take the delightful Neipsic Golf Club in Glastonbury, Conn. This 18-hole par-3 course had grass tees, a 206-yard hole, bunkers, water hazards and manicured greens. Now the surveyors are deciding where in the fairways the condos will go. Neipsic will soon make its final pin placement—into the back of a pickup truck.