Can Grown-Up Putting Courses Fix the Crisis Facing Golf?

Legendary resorts like Bandon Dunes and Pinehurst are hoping that sophisticated putting-only courses will lure more golfers to the links

“WHAT DO YOU THINK OF our playground?” Michael Chupka asks me, as we skirt a 100,000-square-foot carpet of ice-slick “fine fescue” turfgrass, a swatch of land with more humps and bumps than a hasty battlefield burial site. Chupka is the lead evangelist (and director of communications) here at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the craggy coast of Oregon, and with him is Brandon Carter, one of the head pros. It’s midafternoon on the back slope of summer and the three of us are here to lay out the 18 holes that will transform this tabula rasa putting green into the Punchbowl—a sleek, challenging, “grown-up” putting-only course. The holes, reconfigured each day, bring to mind miniature golf, but a natural putting course like this one preserves some of the dignity you lose with artificial turf and windmills.

The point of the Punchbowl, according to Chupka, is to provide another opportunity to compete, but at a lower register. After looping around one or two of the championship courses—Bandon Dunes claims four of the 15 top-ranked public courses in the country— golfers will often move over to the Punchbowl for happy hour. While a championship course can run $300 a round, the Punchbowl is free to resort guests—or anyone who makes the four-hour drive from Portland. Bandon Dunes isn’t the first resort to roll out a “serious” putting-only course (see sidebar). But based on the attention surrounding its unveiling in 2014 and the number of developers who visit to take stock, it’s the Punchbowl that seems poised to lead a surge of courses like it in America.

By the time we stamp our 18th tee marker (complete with handcrafted cup holder) and flagstick into the green, players have already started on our front nine, Oregon IPAs and Columbia Valley chardonnays in hand. I hang near the 18th hole and wait for the first group to reach the final tee. Brad Klein, from Indianapolis, and Mike Wines, from Brownsville, Ind., were in Portland for a trade show, but drove four hours out of their way to spend the afternoon at Bandon—not to play one of the championship courses (“too damned expensive,” Wines says), but to see Bandon Dunes with their own eyes and get in a gratis 18 on the buzzy putting course.

“We’re playing for a beer, and it’s a tight match,” Wines says. “Otherwise we would’ve asked you to play along.” Still, they have me take a run at 18 with them. It’s straight up the hill from one preposterous flat to another, the dumbest hole we devised, as unlike something you’d see on a real course as the mini-golf hole that asks you to putt into the vent of a volcano. Absurdly, I make the putt. Klein and Wines rib me about sandbagging them and I confess that I co-designed today’s course. They seemed to have enjoyed themselves enough to justify the trip—the whole round took just 40 minutes—and I watch them hike up to the restaurant for another beer.

I didn’t expect a putting course to alter my thinking about the future of the game. By the time the sun fell over the edge (lights come up for night putting for special events), I was beginning to think of the Punchbowl approach as a novel—and eminently actionable—way out of the well-documented crisis in golf.

That is, this one: Coinciding with the Tiger “spike” of the late-’90s, an explosion of new young (and older) players triggered a proliferation of courses that charged a not-terribly-affordable amount and sought serious golfers whose commitment was taken for granted. In the past two decades, though, as the Tiger bubble burst and the number of young players dropped, a glut of underused courses have closed. Everyone from Golf Digest to the USGA to the PGA of America has encouraged nine-hole rounds in a semi-desperate effort to get people (like this golfer, who used to spend multiple days a week playing) back to the golf course in their ’90s numbers. A real solution, though, is going to require not just a tourniquet, but creative regeneration.

What’s missing is attention to the expansive middle ground between no golf and regulation-length golf. There are par-3 courses and executive courses—but there could be more. Options like Topgolf—driving ranges with bright lights, booze and arcade-style scoring—appeal more to nongolfers than golfers who just want a smaller-scale version of what they already love.

A serious putting course is golf distilled to its fundamental joy spots, like a trailer for a movie. The Punchbowl offers everything that committed players love about the game—the beauty of the course, the challenge, the competition—but simultaneously appeals to novice golfers. It’s the sort of thing every golf course and club should take a hard look at—not just for members but for the beginners and along-for-the-riders, who might transform a spark into a love affair. At an hour a pop, a putting course reminds you how good golf can be—the Punchbowl as regenerator of faith in the good stuff of the game.