Where To Golf Next

In defense of golf course difficulty

Some golfers may opine that new courses, designed to be difficult, are hampering the game. A diabolical short course in Arizona and a historic venue on Long Island prove there’s a place for challenging layouts. They just require players to adopt the right attitude

Spanning only 972 yards, the nine-hole short course at Scottsdale National Golf Club — appropriately named the Bad Little Nine — is as challenging a test of golf as you’ll find anywhere in the world. With holes named Boot Camp, Ambush, and Waterboard, the scorecard provides a tiny bit of insight into the difficulty that awaits, but only if first-time players don’t assume it to be hyperbole.

Noted course architect Pete Dye found joy in designing holes that forced golfers to think their way around a course, putting them in uncomfortable positions and testing their mental toughness as much as their physical capabilities. However, it’s not implausible to think that some of the Bad Little Nine’s tiny pot bunkers might bring a tear — rather than a sparkle — to the revered, late course architect’s eye.

The Bad Little Nine was conceived to be as difficult as possible — without being unplayable — and it was created by Jackson Khan Design, whose co-founders David Kahn and Tim Jackson utilized a Playstation video game with a course-creation tool to simulate shots on the holes they were conceptualizing and to better understand the parameters of the project.

“When you’re designing something that’s teetering on the edge of impossible, you have to learn where the new boundaries are,” Kahn said. “We didn’t really know where that bar was being shifted to. We didn’t know what limits we could push. We had to redesign the limits of the mathematics of a golf course and we didn’t know what they were.”

The course they created is never easy, but on the club’s challenge days — when hole locations are placed in the most extreme locations — the Bad Little Nine is downright diabolical. Holes that require only a flip of a wedge from the tee will often produce double-digit scores; yet laughter still echoes out across the aggressively sloped greens and from within those cavernous bunkers as members and their guests traverse the course.

Scottsdale National GC — Bad Little Nine
Course architects David Kahn and Tim Jackson utilized a Playstation video game to help them design Scottsdale National Golf Club's Bad Little Nine course that was purposely designed to play as difficult as possible.

As Bob Parsons, the founder of Parsons Xtreme Golf equipment manufacturer and owner of Scottsdale National, acknowledges that the Bad Little Nine’s identity as an imposing, short-game gauntlet is a crucial element of the course’s appeal.

“That has worked like a charm,” he said. “We’ll have members bring a group, and after 18 or 36 holes on the championship courses they’ll go over to the Bad Little Nine and order a round or two of cocktails and hoot and holler and laugh. They’re expecting that it’s going to brutal for them, and it absolutely is and it becomes a fun thing. They line up all day to take an ass beating.”

While the vast majority of golfers will never have an opportunity to test their mettle on the Bad Little Nine, a handful of equally difficult and arguably more famous courses around the country are readily accessible, tracks such as Whistling Straits, The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort, Pinehurst No. 2, and the Bethpage State Park Black Course. At all of those destinations, the aforementioned courses are paired with additional layouts that are less penal and generally more playable for the average golfer. Such is also the case at Scottsdale National, where the club’s two 18-hole, championship-caliber courses represent fairer tests of golf.

In that way, Kahn looks at golf courses like ski resorts, advocating that a place exists for extremely difficult layouts, provided they’re balanced by courses that cater to (or at least accommodate) less-skilled players.

“I’m not a good skier, so I’m not going to step on a double-black-diamond slope,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean those shouldn’t exist. There’s not a mountain out there that’s just full of double black runs. There’s something for everyone, and that’s an absolutely critical component.

“We’ve got 15,000 golf courses in this country. Some should be hard, some should be easy, and some should be in between.”

Once the golfing season resumes in earnest after the COVID-19 pandemic, plenty of golfers will venture to Bethpage State Park, specifically to A.W. Tillinghast’s infamous Black course. When they do, many (most, if we’re being honest) will struggle to make par.

At times, they’ll likely struggle to make bogey. And yet, as Rees Jones observes, the average golfer — plagued by a poor swing and proficient at hitting more bad shots than good ones — will enthusiastically tee it up on the Black course and mostly enjoy the four-hour bludgeoning that the 7,468-yard layout often doles out.

Bethpage State Park's Black Course — warning sign
An iconic warning sign advises golfers of the impending difficulty as they approach the first tee at Bethpage State Park's Black Course.

“When they’re at an historic facility like Bethpage, they’re almost as pleased when they hit their first shot as when they hit their last shot,” said Jones, who has renovated and tweaked the course periodically since the late 1990s, prepping it for major championships. “The majority of players don’t worry about their score, they’re just glad that they’ve had an opportunity to engage the golf course.”

As Jones acknowledges, Bethpage Black, like Pinehurst No. 2, is more playable for the average amateur because it is generally devoid of water hazards. Consequently, it’s not devoid of hope.

“Being in a water hazard is like an airplane crash,” said Jones, sharing a line that his father, Robert Trent Jones Sr., often used. “There’s no hope. But being in a bunker is like being in a car crash. There’s a chance for survival.”

The lack of water hazards on Bethpage Black also increases the odds that golfers can remain upbeat even if (and when) they’re getting beat up. “Losing golf balls is like getting a parking ticket,” Jones quips. “It doesn’t make you feel very happy.”

Surviving a round on Bethpage Black requires players to simply keep the ball in play.

“The real test is to stay out of the fescue rough,” Jones said. “If you really hit it off line you’re in some pretty terrifying stuff.”

But enjoying a round on Bethpage Black often requires golfers to heed the advice that Parsons shared with his members the day that the Bad Little Nine first opened for play. “If you don’t take yourself too seriously,” Parsons told them, “you’ll have one hell of a time.”

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