By Steve Eubanks, Contributor, Golf Business
You don’t know what to expect until you step on the property. Then it hits you like a blinding light from the sky. Spend 10 minutes at The Hay, the par-3 facility just up the hill from the Inn at Pebble Beach, and you realize you are witnessing the future of the game.
This isn’t your grandfather’s par-3. For starters, the open-air restaurant with firepits and bench seating gives you the impression you’re at a ski chalet. Then you see the enormous 20,000 square-foot putting course, just steps from the street, full of rolls and dips and sidewinder hole locations. It’s all you can do not to jump out and hit a few putts before saying your first hello.
The first tee is about three steps from the putting course. When you look at it, you realize that on most of the holes, a reasonably fit athlete could throw a ball from the tees to the greens. But then, a golfer says, even par is not a guaranteed score.
“As Tiger (Woods, who designed the course) described it, The Hay can be enjoyed by people at the beginning, the middle and the end of their golf journey. I thought that was a beautiful way of putting it,” said John Sawin, vice president and director of golf at the Pebble Beach Company.
“The great part about it is that it can be played by anyone. My four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter can go out there and run the ball onto the green from eight of the nine tees. Tiger was big on that, because young beginners have a hard time getting the ball in the air. But at the same time, we set it up so that at the U.S. Women’s Open (in July) we had the player/caddie challenge and we put in some demanding setups and it more than held its own. Some of the world’s best players shot over par.
“It is set up to be fun or as challenging as you want it to be.”
Like The Cradle at Pinehurst, The Hay requires three clubs, one ball and a good attitude. You can get around it in an hour, hearing music every step of the way. Then you can stop for lunch or a drink before heading to the putting course for another half hour of fun.
“In 1953, the property was developed as one of the first par-3 courses in the country,” Sawin said. “Peter Hay was the first golf pro at Pebble Beach. It was that same 9-hole par-3 all the way through the 2019 U.S. Open. The problem with it was that as our special events grew in scope, whether the U.S. Open or the AT&T or the Concours d’Elegance classic car show, those events would take over that eight acres for their build out. It became the spot for their tents, entrances and activations.
“The golf became secondary and unfortunately the property was constantly in a state of recovery, so only about half the year was it used for golf. It wasn’t professionally designed, and it wasn’t maintained to the professional standards we expect at Pebble Beach.
“So after the 2019 U.S. Open, we had the opportunity to rethink how we used that property. We had put 70,000 square feet of tents on it and it was unrecognizable when we took those tents down. We asked ourselves, is this model working for us?
“We decided we wanted to make the area a great golf facility. To do that, we had to commit to removing our special-event infrastructure from that eight acres. We went to our partners at the USGA, the PGA Tour and the Concours car show and we figured out how we would host those events without using that land. That was a big exercise, but once we got over that hurdle, we got the board’s approval, and we went out and hired a great architect.”
Enter Tiger Woods, who has not only become a great architect but also a leading advocate for advancing the game through innovation. If you’ve ever been to a PopStroke facility, Tiger’s cool putt-putt and entertainment complexes where you have drink stands on every tee and you can see a jumbo television from every hole, you understand the vibe at The Hay. A good player will be tested, but your favorite cousin who has never held a club will have a great time.
“Tiger was really big on the putting course,” Sawin said. “It’s only eight acres and we were taking half an acre for putting. We were cognizant that the course was already on the shorter side, and we were taking a combined acre away for the restaurant and the putting course. The actual short course did get shorter, but it also got better.
“Tiger was absolutely right. Locating the putting course at the entrance and making it free and open to the public creates a magnet for the facility. People come and see what he describes as the literal onramp to the game. Everybody can putt, whether you’re two or 92. You put that (putting course) right at the entrance and it gets people on the facility, into the restaurant, and, sooner or later, onto the golf course. It’s really cool how that all works out.”
It’s also a model that will travel. Every course owner has an old parking lot with cracked asphalt and a broken fence, or a cluster of trees and kudzu that hasn’t been touched by God or man in decades. It doesn’t have to be much – just seven or eight acres – and you can create a wonderland that not only becomes a major revenue center, but also an entrée for families, juniors, and beginners.
“It was also really important to us to keep a connection with junior golf,” Sawin said. “The old Peter Hay Golf Course only did 10,000 rounds a year – it was highly underutilized - but about half of those were junior rounds. Juniors played for free. That was something that we wanted to maintain. So now juniors 12 and under can still play the course as often as they would like for no charge and teenagers can play for $5. That represents more than 10,000 rounds today, which is fantastic for us.
“We’re doing just shy of 60,000 rounds now, which is something we’ve had to put the brakes on a little bit because of maintenance. We came flying out of the gates and realized that we couldn’t maintain it to our standards, so we’ve had to put some maintenance time in there.
“When I grew up playing the game, we did not have something like this in Philadelphia. But now, seeing my kids and other kids on the facility, it’s such a natural fit. Whether you’re serious about getting into the game or just wanting to go out and have fun with your friends, this is the perfect place and perfect way to do it.”
And the popularity is staggering. The restaurant is always full, and every hole has a group.
“It’s not a perfect analogy, but Pickleball is so popular these days because it’s tennis-lite,” he said. “It’s more approachable than tennis; it’s easier to learn; it’s not as hard on the body. Short-course golf is almost that way. You can play in an hour. Anybody can fit that into their schedule.
“We have people who might be here at the resort for three days and they play The Hay three times while they’re here. They go out before or after every round.”
And no matter how much Pebble Beach Links beat you up during the day, you can always look forward to a good time on the short course.
“We want golf to be fun,” Sawin said. “That was the guiding principle behind all of our design decisions and the restaurant culture and everything else out there. The question was always, is this fun? Will this be fun for everyone involved? I think we found that right balance with everything.”
This article was featured in the September/October edition of Golf Business Magazine.