Avante Garde Golfer

A Journal of new ideas in the world of golf - published quarterly for the avant garde golfer

Spring Quarter 2020


Short Par 4 Course Opens in LA - Leave Your Driver at Home

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A most unusual golf venue opened recently in Los Angeles - a short "Par 4"course. Traditionally, length alone determines whether a hole is par 3, 4 or 5. A par 3 hole has a green reachable with a tee shot, and is under 225 yards in length; a par 4 hole is generally 300-450 yards, and par 5 over 450 yards (somewhat longer in professional tournaments). Certainly no hole under 225 yards is purposely designed as par 4. Until now.

None other than former PGA star and golf course architect Greg Norman has designed the nation's first 'short par 4' course. Every hole is less than 225 yards, and every hole is crafted to be played (by the best players) in 4 shots. How can this be?

"The answer," says Norman, "is in the unique design of each hole. When Buddy (course owner Buddy Zalonga) came to me with this proposition I was very intrigued. Basically he had this small plot of land in eastern LA county that he wanted to make into a short golf course. It's only 70 acres, not nearly enough for a regulation course (usually about 150 acres or more). He asked about making a par 3 course that professionals and good players would find challenging, and one thing led to another. We did some research, and wondered, 'why not a short hole that plays to a par 4?'. (Norman won't say who wondered first.)

Norman and Zalonga built a test hole on the property, to see if the idea was feasible (now hole #1). They invited several dozen golf professionals and top amateurs from the LA area, and said to them: "see how low you can go." Their scoring average on this hole, playing from just 200 yards, was 4.25 strokes. (By contrast, according to the PGA, other 200 yard par 3 holes in professional golf average 2.89 - 3.23 strokes). Basically, the green is designed to not be reachable from the tee box, since in this case it is hidden behind a grove of trees. To the left of the trees is a large apron of fairway, the landing area for tee shots. The landing area sits about 20 feet below the elevated, two tiered green. From the apron you chip or pitch onto the green and (hopefully) two putt. There is almost no trajectory from the tee box that will allow a tee shot to hold the green; if you do attempt it, you are liable to end up either in the trees, in a deep greenside bunker or, worse, in a large pond beyond the bunker (ditto if the ball goes beyond the landing area). If the ball lands short of the apron, a lob wedge can be attempted over the trees and onto the green, but that is risky.

FIGURE: Schematic - Hole #1, Zalonga Par 4 Golf Par 4 Hole #1

Norman's playing pals liked the hole, didn't feel it was 'tricked up' or gimmicky. Eight more holes were quickly built, taking up about 35 acres. Also, to assure commercial viability, Zalonga built a Norman-designed traditional 9 hole, par 3 course, a 9 hole putting course, and a driving range. Zalonga Golfworks, as the entire venue is called, is a golfers delight; one can spend several hours here without blinking a eye. There is also a casual restaurant and pro shop.

Norman designed two sets of tees for the par 4 course (called Baby Par 4), and not just for different handicap players. About half the patrons play 2 nines in succession to get in a full 18 holes; hitting from both sets of tees actually changes course management, and makes the short course more fun than just duplicating the same nine tee shots. Counting both sets of tees, the holes range from 85 to 224 yards in length. For five of the holes have the green is designed to be unreachable from the tee box; of these five, Zalonga says there has never been a hole in one. The green is reachable on the other four holes, but the smarter shot is to lay up since a tee shot will likely not hold on the green the way it is shaped.

Norman had to deal with other problems, such as slow play and blind shot attempts when the green can't be reached. Information at the pro shop encourages hackers to play Zalonga Golfworks' traditional par 3 course, and this helps keep inexperience players off the Baby Par 4 course. Perhpas a bigger deterrent to poor players is price. 18 holes on the Baby Par 4 course is $65 (9 holes is $35), making this one of the priciest short courses around. The par 3 course is only $20 for 9 holes. Pull carts are included in the price of both courses (no motorized carts).

But what about blind shots from the tee on those five Baby Par 4 holes? It shouldn't be a problem, because the course is designed to avoid going for the green. Yeah, right. You know someone is going to go for it anyway, unless they know players are on the green. Several ideas were investigated so that players can know when someone is on one of the blinded greens: an all clear gong, large mirrors to show the green, and even video. The problem with video was reliability, and concern about theft and damage. In the end the Baby Par 4 went low tech. Easily visible from the tee box is a large sign that players must pass on their way to the green. The sign contains one moving part, a large board that rotates: one side is bright red and the other bright green. When players arrive to the area they rotate it to the red side. When they leave the green they rotate it back to green. The signs are engineered so that rotation is easy and quick. Remembering to make the sign change is no more difficult than replacing the flag stick.

There is a small learning curve when playing this course. Each tee box has a beautifully wood-carved sign, showing the layout of the hole and the suggested landing area. For the six holes with blinded greens there is the following message.

Zalonga Baby Par 4

  • It is not likely that you can hit this green, or hold it, with your tee shot. This hole is designed to play as a par 4, by aiming your tee shot at the suggested landing area. There has never been an ace on this hole.
  • Do not hit your tee shot until the greenside sign shows green.
  • If you play this hole again the same day, we recommend using the alternative tee, as this will change the shot design for the hole.

What about the four holes where the green is visible from the tee box? There have been aces, and ironically this aspect has attracted many top golfers: the opportunity to ace a legitimate par 4 hole. But is a 200 yard hole with a visible green really a par 4? The average score on the green-visible holes, by scratch golfers (according to Norman and Zalonga), is 4.05 strokes. That's right. Just over 4.

The green slopes away from the golfer, into the water. A high tee shot that hits this green will likely zip right over it and into the pond. This is avoided by laying up, so that the 2nd shot gets to the top of the green, then allowing you to two putt.

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Manhattan's west side to get golf course: barge golf on the Hudson

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The row created by plans for a 9-hole golf course in Central Park has a silver lining. While the Park plans are dead, the borough has decided to go ahead with "barge golf on the Hudson." Barge golf has been played for several years in a handful of cities with river or bay frontage, and this will be New York's first installation.

Operated by Barge Golf, Inc., a privately held St. Louis firm, barge golf is essentially a golf course spread among the surfaces of numerous giant connected barges. The course is made of up of real dirt and grass, layered over the barges, which are in turn linked together to form 9 relatively short holes. Each hole includes a teeing area, a fairway, and a green. Manhattan's course will be docked along the Hudson River, just north of the Intrepid Museum at 50th street, and will occupy an estimated 15 acres of river frontage.

Advantages of barge golf are quick installation (about a week to set up, once the barges arrive), location in the virtual heart of any city (with a waterway), and operation 16 hours a day; lights on the barges make the course playable at night and typical operations are 8 a.m. to midnight. Barge Golf spokesperson Bridget Manning expects the Hudson River course will be open year round, and closed only for inclement weather (snow, thunder and lightening, heavy rain).

While the concept seems simple - dirt and grass on a barge - in fact the technology is actually sophisticated. The barges grow a special type of bermuda grass that is much hardier than what grows on land. The company was founded by landscape architect Easton J. Smith after he received a patent for 'Bermudez 450Z', the hybridization of two well known existing strains, 100Z and 345Z. The hybrid grows quickly on thin topsoil, is very thick and resistant to injury; it also grows year round, as long as there is exposure to sunlight. According to people who have played barge golf, the grass is akin to some artificial turfs, although you can take a divot from it.

Each individual barge is equipped with a specially-designed irrigation system to keep the grass from dying or growing brown. As on a regular golf course, the grass has to be mowed almost daily, and a special barge is devoted to storage and maintenance of equipment . Routine maintenance will take place when the course is closed, midnight to 8 a.m. The grass mowings will not be dumped in the river but will be carted away in - you guessed it - another barge.

Ms. Manning stresses that the course will not be just a bunch of barges tied together at random. Each course is designed so that the barges fit together uniquely to form a playable course, like a jigsaw puzzle. For the 9 holes 22 barges will be used, each 150 yards in length and 30 yards wide. And the course will not be barge flat; in addition to the gentle rolling a golfer might feel from wave action (as when a large boat passes, or on a windy day), each hole is designed with undulations and sand bunkers to make the play interesting.

Each 9-hole barge course, including the one coming to Manhattan, actually has 10 playable holes. One hole is rotated out of commission every several days for reseeding and special maintenance. Another change from most courses: because of the close proximity of the barges to one another, some netting is erected to prevent errant balls from hitting players on adjacent fairways. Barges at the perimeter also have railings to prevent people from falling into the drink (out of bounds here means the Hudson River).

Manhattan's course, to be called Manhattan Barge Golf, is scheduled to open early summer. It will play to approximately 1750 yards, including one par 4 hole of 275 yards; the rest will be par 3's playing from 95 to 180 yards. There are two sets of tees, and the shorter set will play at about 1550 yards. New York City will lease the course from Barge Golf, Inc., which will run the operation under a 5-year lease. Under this arrangement the company pays no dockage fees or taxes, and the city shares in half the profits.

Estimated cost per player for 9 holes will be $45, including a pull cart (no motorized carts). Club rentals will be available. Ms. Manning expects the Manhattan site will be the company's busiest, with about 60,000 rounds a year. Typically, each round lasts from 1.5 to 2 hours. In peak hours a timed ticket system will be used, as is now done for crowded museums.

Barge Golf's Ms. Manning states that other sites - - St. Louis, New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C. -- are all profitable. There is no 18 hole facility in operation (the standard number of holes on a golf course), and none of the courses yet has a Par 5 hole (generally longer than 450 yards). A regulation 18 hole course is easily achievable by adding more barges (maritime navigation rules prohibit operating a larger barge on the nation's waterways). The company has plans on the drawing board for an 18-hole course that is 6000 yards long, incorporates 63 barges and covers 105 acres; the course can be assembled as soon as any waterway community finds it a home.

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