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
"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
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."
Except for one: No carts, not even pull carts, are allowed at
the Dunes. "When we opened, the locals assumed we'd have carts,"
says Keiser. "Well, I hate carts. 'No golf carts,' I told 'em.
'We're going to have caddies.' Without exception, the locals
said, 'You won't get caddies. It'll never work.' But we figured
if we paid the caddies well enough, they would come."
Unlike many clubs where a caddie might burn an entire day before
getting a loop, caddies at the Dunes are arranged for in advance
and are only called to the course if they're needed. Keiser also
encourages generous tipping. The system works. The Dunes doesn't
get much play, only 3,300 rounds a year, yet it has an active
list of 50 caddies.
Keiser had a sense for what might work in New Buffalo (pop.
2,300) because he has owned a house in the resort community
since 1982 and spends summers there with his wife, Lindy, and
their children: Leigh, 22, Dana, 20, Michael, 16, and
Christopher, 9. Keiser would often play wilderness golf (pick a
tree and get your ball to it anyway possible) on the future site
of the course, but didn't immediately see the property's
potential. "I bought the land defensively to keep it from being
developed into town houses," Keiser says. "It took me two years
of wandering around the land to see its similarities to Pine
Valley. It finally struck me that with all this sand and one big
ridge, there were the makings of some good golf holes here."
Because New Buffalo's sandy soil is easily manipulated, and
because of Nugent's minimalist design, Wadsworth Construction
built the course in only three months and for less than $1
million, all out of Keiser's pocket. "It was definitely a
stretch," says Keiser. "If I had tried to borrow the money, no
bank would have lent me a dime. I suppose I'm drawn to dicey
projects, feeling that if we do them well enough--be it greeting
cards or golf courses--there's a good chance to excel."
Keiser hit a home run with the Dunes Club.
NINE MORE TOP NINES
Geography is critical to any discussion of nine-hole courses.
Ask a Westerner if he has played any good ones lately and he
might look at you sideways. Ask a New Englander and he may never
shut up. It's a question of space: Where the sky is big and land
plentiful, there are few nine-hole courses. Where land is in
short supply, the countryside is littered with them. After the
Dunes Club, here are the nine best nine-holers in the U.S.
--Whitinsville (Mass.) Golf Club. The clear-cut No. 2,
Whitinsville has two things that the Dunes Club does not: a hole
that's a consensus choice as one of the top 100 in the country
(the 446-yard par-4 9th) and the imprimatur of one of the
world's most respected designers (Donald Ross). Opened in 1925,
the course's greens feature the subtle deception that is the
mark of Ross. Brian Silva, who has restored the bunkers, calls
Whitinsville "a first-rate piece of land that was used
brilliantly. It's everything that's great about vintage design."
--Fisher Island Golf Club, Miami Beach. Living in a playground
for the rich where 200-foot yachts compete for mooring space,
Fisher Island residents would sooner carry their own luggage
than play a second-rate course, and this P.B. Dye design is
plenty good enough to satisfy them. It's good enough for touring
pros, too. The regular and Senior tours have held unofficial
events here. If you stay at the island's pricey resort, you too
can play this extremely well-maintained course, which is
accented by huge undulations on the greens. Bring Dramamine.
--Puakea Course at Grove Farm, Lihue, Hawaii. The course on
Kauai won't open until mid-November, and it isn't likely to be a
nine-holer for long, but Grove Farm is too spectacular to keep
off our list. Dramatic in the extreme, the course offers
fabulous views of the Pacific and is built amid volcanic cliffs,
massive ravines, giant sinkholes and lush, tropical undergrowth.
Steven Spielberg filmed part of The Lost World: Jurassic Park
nearby. Designer Robin Nelson wisely decided not to compete with
the untamed surroundings and kept the contours simple. "The
developers are thinking about another nine; desperately praying
for it, actually," says Nelson.
--Highland Golf Links, North Truro, Mass. Perched on the rugged
tip of Cape Cod and exposed to the Atlantic, the Links is about
as close in spirit to the storied seaside courses of western
Scotland as an American course can get, yet it's everything most
great courses are not: inconsistent (three holes are mediocre),
public and designed by a couple of unknowns, Willard and Isaac
Small. Opened in 1892, Highland is one of the oldest tracks in
the country--Francis Ouimet played there after the course
replaced its sand greens with grass in 1908--and has been
significantly altered over the years. But the current routing
still has a timeless quality as windswept holes run up and down
huge escarpments, into ravines and alongside a working lighthouse.
--North Haven Golf Club, North Haven Island, Maine. The
underrated Wayne Stiles laid out this beauty in 1932, and it
remains pretty much as he designed it. Generous landing areas
funnel down to demanding greens, many perched splendidly but
precariously at the water's edge. North Haven is also extremely
well-conditioned, unlike many of Maine's island courses.
Everyone talks about the 3rd hole, a 130-yard par-3 along
Waterman Cove, but there isn't a single dud among the nine.
--Ansley Golf Club, Atlanta. Most turn-of-the-century city clubs
abandoned their courses and opted to rebuild at newfangled
country clubs. Ansley, though, held onto its course, and it is
now a private oasis in the heart of downtown. Built in 1912,
Ansley is tight, unorthodox and well-maintained. The greens are
old-fashioned and funky, but players will better remember the
ancient oaks that blot out the encircling urban landscape.
Ansley also has a unique set of alternate tees and greens. For
example, the 4th hole is a par-4, but the 13th is a par-5 that
plays to a separate green, which is surrounded by the
second-most-famous azaleas in Georgia.
--Elkhorn Valley Golf Course, Lyons, Ore. Thirty-five miles east
of Salem, Elkhorn Valley is off the beaten path but worth the
trip. It took 11 years for owner Don Cutler to cut through the
red tape and to design and build this daily-fee course, which
forms a tree-lined loop in the shadow of Mount Horab in the
Cascades. The layout is clearly homemade, but also great fun,
affordable ($14 for nine) and drop-dead gorgeous. Two of the
three par-3s play across canyons, and bears, coyotes and deer as
well as elks roam the fairways.
--Birchwood Country Club, Westport, Conn. A private course only
an hour from New York City, Birchwood has greens that are
something special. Fabulously contoured by Orrin Smith, they
feature velvet bent, a unique and supremely fine strain of
grass. The smoothest-putting grass of them all, quality velvet
is seldom found this far south, but the grass thrives at
Birchwood, giving the course a mystical, tree-grows-in-Brooklyn
--Sunnylands, Rancho Mirage, Calif. On the exclusivity scale,
there's private and then there's personal. Everyone assumes that
Sunnylands, Walter Annenberg's personal course, is very good,
but testimonials are hard to come by because so few people have
played it. "Sunnylands is my favorite nine-hole course in the
world," says one of the chosen few, Raymond Floyd. "Dick Wilson
did an amazing job of routing the holes to nine greens from very
different tees." While the 2nd green serves the 2nd hole, it
also serves the 17th hole, but from another direction.