THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Golf without pretense: Pitch, putt and party, the best par 3 courses in Houston
Cool crept into the night breeze. Stadium lights made the holes rise from the darkness in glowing cat-eye green, and the hypnotic clatter of a distant freight train filled the deserted golf course on Wednesday night.
I sliced big on the last hole, smiled, and dragged my bag toward the light.
Even without the beer and giant squirrel testicles, this was the par 3 experience I remembered.
My 15-year relationship with golf is like that of a casual lover. Every few years we get in touch for a good time, usually involving alcohol. Afterward we go our separate ways, having learned little and committed to even less.
The crescendo of this fleeting summer love came a few years ago when I happened across a par-3 course in north Idaho that matched perfectly my lax skills and casual attitude toward the game. Ponderosa Springs’ mascot is a generously-endowed, iron wielding squirrel immortalized in a large wood carving near the parking lot. Signing in took place beside a fridge full of cheap beer, a cooler filled with ice and a stack of plastic bags to carry both around the course.
I’d play nine, inevitably smacking a couple of 50-cent used balls into a lake the color of Mint Listerine, and retire to the air-conditioned clubhouse to drink white Russians with the pot smoking Californian who ran the bar and held court in all its wood-paneled, late '70s glory.
Alas, I’m afraid that place is one of a kind. Even without the drunken, gem-state weirdness, though, the essence of the par-3 experience is easy to find in Houston. At Melrose Golf Course and a handful of other par threes around town, casual duffers can enjoy the sport without the pretension or expense you’ll frequently find on a larger course.
“It’s more family oriented,” says Sheila Walton, who runs Melrose for the city with her husband Jimmy.
At $12 for 18 holes on the weekends, the miniscule greens fee mean even the youngest or most butterfingered players can tone up their game with little to lose. The lights stay on until 10 p.m. in the summer, and mid-week rates are even cheaper: $10 Monday through Thursday, when seniors and students through high school play for only $6.50.
“We have a couple of players who’ve played here since they were 2 years old,” Walton says.
The most credible rumor on the course’s origin has it that a company went around the country 50 years ago developing a bunch of 18-hole, par-3 courses. Surprisingly, they went bust, and the county wound up owning the tax-delinquent enterprise, later passing it along to the city of Houston.
Popular 9-hole par three courses around town include Mulligan’s, Hillcrest Night Golf and others. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the First Tee of Houston Junior Golf program and its affiliated kids-only course.
So if you’re new to golf, or if you score your game by the number of balls you lose rather than how many strokes you take, don’t be afraid to try your hand at the sport of Scottish kings. With the right course, the pleasant pastime of executives and country clubbers opens itself to just about anybody.