The Challenge Course at Monarch Dunes: Challenging How Beginners Are Taught
March 3, 2015
And that’s no knock on Monarch Dunes, whose Old Course — well, the par-71 Damian Pascuzzo-Steve Pate design established in 2006 did open a full year before the first iPhone, so I guess it’s old — is widely heralded as the best track in San Luis Obispo County. (Although San Luis Obispo is an underrated destination for golf. You can play more than 20 courses on the border of the NCGA region along the Highway 1 Discovery Route.)
Golf Magazine celebrated the Old Course as the best new course in California, and Golf Digest called it the third best new course in the country, as well as one of the top 50 courses for women. The Old Course is a throwback in design taste, with large and wavy Tom Doak-like greens, ragged bunkers and a fescue-covered routing that cuts through Eucalyptus and over dunescape. It’s quite a surprising experience if you’ve only known Nipomo from Highway-101. Check out the 15th hole (and my lonely golf ball):
But the Challenge Course is a game-changer. It rivals the most enjoyable golf I’ve ever played, and I was a single teeing off at 8 a.m. Oh, and it only took an hour for me to play, walking, while taking more shots with my phone than my golf clubs.
And I’m not even the target demographic.
All I really knew about the Challenge Course before I played was that it was supposed to be a different kind of par 3 course. (There is also a Pascuzzo-Pate designed nine-hole Challenge Course in Idaho at the Club at Spur Wing. The Challenge Course concept was recognized by the American Society of Golf Course Architects with its most prestigious award in 2014.) The New York Times mentioned Monarch Dunes’ Challenge Course in the same sentence as Treetops Resort in Michigan, while writing a story about the Preserve at Bandon Dunes — attention-grabbing company. I had seen it listed by Golf Digest as one of the top five short courses in California, and knew it was the only public par 3 course to make the list.
But you really don’t get what the Challenge Course is about until you survey the first hole. There’s a green-checkered flag sitting right in front of you, exposed and welcoming. You also spot an orange flag popping up from behind a massive mound, well left on what could very well be a different hole. Maybe the first hole is a double green?
Nope. Every green has two flags — a checkered one with an 8-inch hole located in a friendly position, and an orange one with a regulation hole, tucked away as a sucker pin. You pick the flag, and fire away. The ultimate customizable course. Here’s a look from behind the first green:
I chose to play to the checkered flag on every hole, because, well, where else can you do that? Sure I could try to hunt down those orange Sunday pins, but that’s the same mentality as teeing off from the Tiger Tees, with one foot in the rough on the back box. I am exposed to plenty of that machismo and ego that pervades golf the rest of the year. I wanted to try something refreshingly different.
The Challenge Course is still plenty stimulating, even with 8-inch cups. Its greens average 8,000 square feet — not only so they can comfortably fit two flags, but for interest.
“The greens may be the most memorable features on the golf course,” says Pascuzzo. “Our idea from the first day of design was to create very large, very undulating greens that are rarely found on modern courses. Players will encounter ridges and swales running through the green that may change 3-4 feet in elevation. To accommodate this type of movement, the greens are about 8,000 square feet (or about 30% larger than normal greens). We have consulted with the superintendent, and he has agreed to keep green speeds a little more modest so that these undulating greens stay fun and playable. Designing that much movement in the greens let us create some areas on the green that are quite challenging when approached from the back tees. Players will have to think hard about how they want to attack the hole. By carefully examining where the flag is located, they may choose to play a lofted shot to a well-defended section of green, or they may find it better to take one club less and play to the front of the green, so that the ball will release back to the flag. Playing strategy will change every time out, depending on where the flag is that particular day, and what the wind is doing.”
Here’s another look as what Pascuzzo is talking about, when he describes the safe shot toward the checkered flag on the left, and the kamikaze mission that is aiming at the orange flag over the bunker on the right.
But by playing at the checkered flags, you unwittingly learn about course management and hitting safe shots. And since the hole looks like a basketball hoop, you are emboldened to try and actually make more shots. The bigger holes encourage a more aggressive, confident and positive thought process. I found myself trying to make chips and 40-foot putts, and I even caught myself thinking about a hole-in-one on the tee.
“We’re teaching those things subliminally, so that’s a cool thing to see,” said Minas Kaloosian, general manager at Monarch Dunes. “It’s there. We’ve thought about it every step of the way.”
I did snake in a 50-foot putt from off the green, and it was still exciting. But I also managed to three-putt, which was, embarrassing. Your speed control can become a little warped when you get carried away with trying to make everything. The other mental battle is how much break to play. Do you really want to give a hole that big away? Or do you just try to bang it in, hitting it hard enough that it won’t break 8 inches? All new and fascinating facets of this setup.
The 8-inch hole is big enough that you can play with the flag in, which is a sneaky way to speed up pace of play. It’s also much easier to sweep in those 3-5 foot putts. You could certain hold a less intimidating SpeedGolf competition on a setup like that.
You could hold any competition, really. The Challenge Course has the flexibility to test any golfer. A college team could have a qualifier to the orange flags, and I would take Old Man Par against the field. The yardages range from 82 to 198, and its quite possible you could hit every iron in your bag over the course of 12 holes. You can play H-O-R-S-E with friends. You can adapt Wolf, and take odds while playing to the orange flag, while your opponent goes to the checkered one. The two holes could serve as a virtual handicap. (I’d venture to guess the scoring average between the two is close to a stroke apart.) You can create your own course by mixing up the sizes of the holes. You can create your own points system, or a brand new game. The Challenge Course makes golf a game — which is what it was supposed to be, right? Instead of bogging down in stroke play, stroke play, stroke play, golf can move back to fun, competition and camaraderie.
“It’s like apps,” Kaloosian said. “The first one was made, and then a 100 better ones came out. We want to give you a game board, and let you come up with more games. We are going to get some great ideas that can make it even better.”
But as I mentioned earlier, I am not the target demographic of the Challenge Course. While I would have loved to practice and play and compete at the Challenge Course as a high school golfer, this course wasn’t created with juniors in mind, either. The setup was completely reimagined two years ago — and has gone through some 30 iterations — to literally teach golf to beginners of any age. Its goal is to do something the golf industry struggles to accomplish: hook beginners and develop them into real, comfortable, lifelong golfers.
A program called “Learn Golf” lives on the Challenge Course. You can see its curriculum on the first tee. There are four sets of tees, and someone who has never stepped on a course can play in the same group as a scratch player — and both will have great times.
“If you can play miniature golf, you’ll be able to do this,” Kaloosian said.
There are green tees set up within 10 yards of every green. A putter, 9-iron and balls are provided to all players who declare themselves beginners. And they can putt to those 8-inch cups on rolling greens reminiscent of the Himalayas Putting Course at St. Andrews. It’s miniature golf on a real course, with greens maintained in the same condition as the Old Course. (The tee shots from the back tees are as good as the approaches that you’ll find on the Old Course, too.) Even golfers who have played their whole life can drop a ball at the green tees, and if they want to create a wild miniature golf hole, they can take aim at the orange flag.
“Everything that we’ve done is geared toward the beginner,” Kaloosian said. “Not kids, not older people. It’s simply the beginner. But you’re playing real golf.”
So custom scorecards, pars, goals, swing advice and tips on etiquette were made up for each tee. Golf vocabulary is defined, and not so intuitive things such as how to set up a tee time, when you should arrive and how to find your way around the course is explained.
“Even though I’m not a pro golfer, I know too much,” Kaloosian said. “Every time we ran into a road block – how do we make it easier for beginners, how do we make it more fun for good golfers – we went through every step of the process to make sure that it makes sense to a brand new player, or a golfer who has been playing for 30 years.”
The forward tees were moved so that they avoid the five ponds on the course, and any other forced carries that would unnecessarily punish beginners. Even the lips of the bunkers have been flattened, so a beginner can putt out of the sand and onto the green.
“This is a true collective thing that everybody here thought about from their angle,” Kaloosian said. “We are sitting there and going, ‘How do you learn golf right now?’ They give you a club, they show you the grip, here’s how you make a swing, you hit balls on the range, and once you start hitting them straight, then we’ll show you how to play on the course. Not many people will have the tenacity to go through with that.
“So we flip that on edge. Instead of teaching you how to hit the driver – which everybody claims to be the fun things to do – we’ll go with a quarter swing from the green tees, to a half swing from the yellow tees, to a three-quarter swing from the orange tees, to a full swing from the black. So we taught it backwards.”
Once beginners feels comfortable moving to half-swings, they can graduate to the yellow tees, which have yardages from 41 to 86 yards. After they have learned the rhythm of the swing (they are encouraged to think seven-teen: say “seven” on the backswing, and “teen” on the downswing), they can move back to the orange tees, and even take on some of the smaller orange holes.
“They get into it,” Kaloosian said. “It’s like a game board or a video game, where they have levels that they have to accomplish. It’s intuitive now.”
By the time they reach the black tees, they have learned etiquette, punch and flop shots, and can even hit a fade and a draw.
“Ultimately, we want to transfer them from the Challenge Course to the Old Course,” Kaloosian said.
Rounds increased by 15,000 on the property in 2014, including an additional 5,000 rounds on the Challenge Course.
“We do fine, just being a regular golf facility,” Kaloosian said. “But the Learn Golf program, that’s industry-wide.”
And it costs just $12 to play the Challenge Course. That’s $1 a hole.
“We needed to increase rounds of golf, not just for here, but for the industry,” Kaloosian said. We got together and said, ‘Guys, we are going to be a dying breed.’
“There is true love for this game. But for the beginner, to go from that level to where we are at, there’s a huge bridge to cross.”
And Monarch Dunes is trying to build it.