This will make purists squirm, but the par-3 course may be the most joyful layout in golf. When designed with care, these courses use elevation changes and raised tees, so an experienced golfer must demonstrate impeccable distance control with wedges and high irons, while a beginner can make significant progress playing a “bump-and-run.” The prevailing links-style landscape makes lost balls a rarity, while still rewarding staying on target and out of the long grass. Golf Digest describes a course like Bandon Dune’s Preserve as a “petite filet” — and these tracks undoubtedly satisfy the appetite for both the casual novice and the Q school pro. These thoughtfully designed, entertaining par-3 courses are challenging, but approachable, puzzling, but forgiving, and they take only about 90 blissful minutes to play. Here’s a selection of the country’s best.
Threetops hosted ESPN’s Par 3 Challenge from 1999 to 2007, so it boasts some of the biggest name recognition on this list — as well as an advanced degree of difficulty. The elevation changes are nonstop, with some as big as 140 feet; water and bunkers are constantly threatening; and the greens are full of ridges and breaks. The course, like Bandon Preserve, is part of a golf resort with multiple other tracks, so it can prove a worthy companion alongside another round of 18. As Phil Mickelson told TravelGolf, “I don’t know of any other course like this in the country.”
Location: Gaylord, Michigan
Designer: Rick Smith
Price: $49 for 9 holes
Short Course at Magnolia Grove
“The shattering of par without a proper challenge is a fraud,” said Robert Trent Jones III, the legendary designer who conceived this course (along with over 20 US Open Courses and 12 PGA Championship courses). “I make them play par.” Let those words ring through your ears while you are forced to carry nearly 200 yards over sand and water on #16 or battling the sloping greens of #7. The Short Course is Trent Jones III’s most affordable offering and among his most unique.
Location: Mobile, Alabama
Designer: Robert Trent Jones III
Price: $18 for 18 holes
The Links at Terranea
This links-style par-3 is nestled into an upscale Palos Verdes resort and boasts unhindered views of the Pacific Ocean and nearby Catalina Island. It is a resort course, so it skews more towards forgiveness than some others on this list, but it still crams 30 bunkers into 9 holes and features some tricky, undulating greens. And, even if you only play 9, you still get a chance to enjoy the top-notch facilities, locker room and food.
Location: Rancho Palos Verdes, CA
Designer: Todd Eckenrode
Price: $48 for 9 holes
Challenge at Monarch Dunes
“Our idea from the first day of design was to create very large, very undulating greens that are rarely found on modern courses,” designer Damian Pascuzzo said about The Challenge. “Players will encounter ridges and swales running through the green that may change 3 to 4 feet in elevation. To accommodate this type of movement, the greens are about 8,000 square feet, or about 30 percent larger than normal greens.” Pascuzzo’s unorthodox approach is a perfect reminder why this category of high-minded Par 3 courses is important, as these greens, for reasons of time, effort and cost, are not feasible at regulation courses. On these 12 holes, Pascuzzo offers something entirely fresh.
Location: Nipomo, CA
Designer: Damian Pascuzzo
Price: $22 for 12 holes
I’m standing on the 13th and final tee box at Bandon Preserve. I’m elevated, about 135 yards from the hole, with the Oregon coastline plunging into the fog on my left and a dangerous expanse of fescue sprawling to my right. I have a pitching wedge in hand for my practice swings, but pause before lining up my shot. “Consider putter on 13,” the marshall told me in the morning before I teed off. “There have been six hole-in-ones that way.” I decide to heed his words. Why not? I grab the flat iron from my bag, sling it back, and whack the ball down the hill. It starts high and left, riding the contours of the fairway and skating past bunkers that might threaten to gobble a sky-high wedge, then funnels back right and stalls within about 25 feet of the pin. Could be worse. My companion, a golfer just learning the game, steps up next to repeat the strategy. Hers finds a better line and, shockingly, finishes within about five feet. Tap-in birdie.
Before I arrived in Oregon, I had been plagued by a stretch of rounds skewing towards triple-digits. I had worked so hard to bring my game into the mid-80s, and I was watching it crumble round by round. I love golf, but what’s fun about chasing a little white ball through the bushes for five hours? I arrived at Bandon’s par-3 course just in time for it to make me rediscover some simple joy in the game. The Preserve and its ilk are not the divot-filled, uninspired dirt pasture charging $9. They are the golf equivalent of a fun house. At Bandon Preserve, the completely blind, 94-yard tee shot on #10, the cartoonishly small, deep bunkers guarding the pin on #1, the 75-yard expanse of green on #7, and the outrageous elevation changes and undulations are all features that make a golfer of any level pause and smile. It is proof that par-3 tracks can be ambitious, forward-thinking and fun.
This is the East Coast answer to Terranea, with the course sandwiched in between the Atlantic Ocean and Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway. It earned Golf Digest’s crown as “Best Par-3 Course in the US” twice, beating out even Augusta, and also landed on their “Top 50 Most Fun Courses” list. The course reopened in 2009 after former US Open champion Raymond Floyd donated his services to give it a fresh look.
Location: Palm Beach, FL
Designer: Raymond Floyd
Price: $49 for 18 holes
Top of the Rock
The price tag is steep, but aren’t you a little curious what a coterie of legendary course designers might do to a course? The name you may not recognize, Johnny Morris, is the founder of Bass Pro Shops, so this nine is crafted with great reverence towards nature and the beauty of the surrounding Ozarks. The course can range from 945 to 1,420 yards depending on tee selection, making it a great option for multiple skill levels.
Location: Branson, MO
Designer: Johnny Morris, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer
Price: $135 for 9 holes
Angel Park Cloud 9
This course offers replicas of some of the world’s most famous holes, including “Island Green” #17 at TPC Sawgrass, “Postage Stamp” #8 at Royal Troon, and the green from St. Andrew’s “Valley of Sin” #18. The course also includes lights that allow for evening play — because it’s Vegas.
Location: Las Vegas, NV
Designer: Bob Cupp…with lots of hat tips to other, more famous designers
Price: $25 for 12 holes
Augusta Par-3 Course
While the rest of the courses on this list are public, it seemed wrong to leave Augusta’s legendary par-3 track off the list. If you’re playing here, you’re in rarified company. Some memorable moments from this course include Toshi Izawa’s back-to-back hole-in-ones on #5 and #6 in 2002 and 75-year-old Jack Nickalus’ ace on #4 in 2015. While Augusta is typically full of straight-faced tradition, the par-3 course often provides for loose, touching moments, like Tiger Woods letting his daughter putt in 2015.