I am an enthusiast of great short golf courses, by whatever name they are called and however they are supposed to be played. Par 3 course. Short Course. Executive Course. Pitch and Putt. Putting Course. Nine holes. Twelve Holes. Eighteen holes. The labels make no difference, so long as the golf experience is engaging and entertaining.
The Cradle at the Pinehurst resort might be the best nine-hole short course in the United States. Despite measuring only 789 total yards, this par 27 masterpiece from Gil Hanse provided as memorable an experience as the other four world-class golf courses that we played on this year’s Guys’ Getaway Golf Trip.
The Pinehurst resort, in the heart of North Carolina’s Sand Hills and the destination for so many once-in-a-lifetime golf experiences, is perfect location for a short course that should appeal to every golfer. Beginners, children, seniors, families, expert players, and especially golf trip members should all be equally comfortable playing across the Cradle’s Tifway Bermuda grass fairways and Champion Bermuda grass greens.
For our group, playing the Cradle on our evening of arrival on a warm August evening proved the perfect way to begin our shenanigans, providing ample opportunity to get in enough swings to knock the rust off from our long car rides.
The Cradle works for so many reasons, all of which contribute to an experience that sets the perfect tone for golf shared among friends.
The relaxed atmosphere that is not only tolerated but encouraged at the Cradle is one of the first things we noticed. One of the stunning ironies of playing Cradle may be its physical location within the Pinehurst landscape. The starter’s hut and first tee are located no more than a dozen yards from Pinehurst’s lawn bowling and croquet courts.
These lawn sports, staples of the turn of the last century recreation, require strict adherence to ancient formalities, including the requirement, apparently, that all players be dressed in white from head to toe. No exceptions for members or their guests.
Contrast that with how our motley eight-some showed up to play the Cradle and you’ll file down your fingernails scratching your head. Some of us wore gym shorts and flip-flops. Even for those of us in collard shirts, a tucked-in shirt may actually have felt out-of-place. The Cradle atmosphere could only feel more relaxed if shirts and shoes were optional.
Parked behind the fourth tee box we found the mobile bar and refreshment stand lovingly called The Pine Cone, where we could grab a cold cup of water, soft drinks, or anything you would expect from a grill room wet bar. The Pine Cone also doubled as the Cradle’s music deejay, blasting a variety of pop and rock songs across the course at an unobtrusive volume.
Another charming feature of the Cradle is the intimacy of such a small setting. The course occupies only 10 acres of turf, sand, and native scrub and grasses. Its routing is compact and efficient, both from tee to green in play and from the green to the next tee.
It’s a gentle walk up, down, and across a small elevation change between the upper and lower holes. The entirety of the course is readily visible from most anywhere in the routing, and the grand old Pinehurst clubhouse is certainly never out of view.
This means that the Cradle provides an intimate golf experience. It gave our guys, some of which hadn’t seen or talked to each other since the previous year’s Golf Trip, a chance to talk and laugh and cajole and catch up for nearly the entire round without having to raise their voices.
The short holes and compact routing also mean that there’s even the worst shots on the longest holes are never going to put player no more than one hundred feet or so apart from the rest of the group. It’s an ideal environment for some modest, good-spirited wagering, especially games allowing pressing and double-or-nothing escalation, as not only is each shot plainly “right there” in front of the player, it’s also right there in front of everyone else.
Our group followed normal etiquette, dividing out eight into two foursomes. Despite carrying on two separate games and conversations, a simple glance over my shoulder gave me a good idea of who was playing well and who hadn’t worked on their short game from last year.
Not only is the Cradle a small golf course, it is truly a short golf course. I played the course comfortably with three wedges and a putter, and probably could have gotten away with one less club. The 1st, 4th, and 9th holes were the only ones on which I could even think of taking a full swing shot on.
The 4th hole is the longest on the course, measuring 127 yards, but the green is significantly down hill from the elevated tee box, so it plays much less than that. For most of our group, it was either a full pitching wedge or gap wedge (Pro Tip: the smart play is to hood the wedge and play a punch and run up onto the green).
At the other end of the spectrum, there are three holes that measure less than 70 yards to the middle of the green. The pin was in the very front on the 5th hole, reducing the hole from a scorecard yardage of 56 yards to more like 40 yards, which proved incredibly awkward given the green’s elevation above the tee and magnificent contouring on and around the putting surface.
Depending on the pin position, there are multiple holes where the most prudent shot may be to try something creative, like putting from the tee or trying to spin the ball off of a hillside, rather than trying to hit an extremely awkward pitch or chip directly at the hole.
Perhaps the determinative reason that the Cradle is so endearing and works so well is that, despite the course’s diminutive yardages, the greens are perfectly scaled and incredibly captivating. They contain all of the contouring and strategic protections that you are likely to find on full-sized courses at the Pinehurst resort and putt as smoothly as any high-end course with Bermuda grass greens.
The greens are on the larger side and there are only two true forced carries on the course, lending a player nearly innumerable options of how to approach most flags from the tee. The large greens size also means that there are pin position options for the course that may dictate a given hole’s strategy differently from day-to-day.
From a technical perspective, the variety of the holes and the shots required at the Cradle is what made the experience so much fun, and so different from almost any par three course I’d had previously played elsewhere. There are several greens that form natural amphitheater style bowls that can be used to peel a ball back towards a flag from above and behind, which might be the most fun shot to watch in golf.
The Cradle required variety of shots, many of which requiring more creativity than some entire 18 hole big courses require. In our two loops around, I hit full shots, three-quarter shots, half shots, running chips, punches, draws, fades, and putts from both on or off the green. Not a singe shot was routine or boring.
The strategy for each hole was much more sophisticated than I had ever seen on a short course. Standing on the tee, there was always an obvious area to avoid, usually a sandy waste area. Depending on the pin position, there was also usually another miss around the green that left a player absolutely dead due to the upside-saucer nature of the greens and their pushed-up qualities.
Our starter informed us that they were as close to Pinehurst No. 2’s greens as we would see all week without playing the famed No. 2 course. While we got around just fine for our two loops, I think I could play the Cradle ten times and still not have unlocked all the secrets of how to best play the course. And I don’t think I’d ever play a hole the same way twice in a row, either.
There are no “bunkers” at the Cradle; there are sandy waste areas instead, which, even under the 2018 rules of golf, meant that there was no penalty for grounding our clubs or testing the surface of the sand areas, as opposed to the strict protocols involved in playing out of traditional bunkers. It was a nice introduction to the sandy areas that were treated the same way on each course we visited in the Sand Hills.
The Cradle also served as a good guide for the easy playability and short time it would take to place most rounds of the courses in the Pinehurst area. We arrived at the Pinehurst clubhouse with, nominally, about two hours of sunlight. The starter told us that it would take us at least an hour to get around the course comfortably.
However, with the course nearly empty due to the searing August heat, we figured we could probably get around twice in about two hours, which proved accurate. And at no time did any of us hurry; we were having too much fun playing golf, talking trash, making bets on our side bets, and enjoying not being in a car any longer that day.
Little did we know how relaxed the staff at Pinehurst would be, because we finished under the cover of complete darkness and all of the golf staff had gone home, but no one had shooed us off the course. No one was there to give us stern looks as they tapped their toes and looked at their watches like we were breaking curfew.
We were allowed to play as much golf as we wanted to, which turned out to be two loops around before our hunger required us to seek entertainment and sustenance elsewhere.
The Cradle experience is not inexpensive; at $50 per adult, anyone would probably want to get around twice to feel like they “got their money’s worth.” However, kids 17 and under play for free with an adult, and the $50 greens fee is good for all day, so there would be nothing from playing with the family at the Cradle periodically throughout the day.
I have two young sons, and I am eagerly awaiting them to get just a little older so we can all go play it together. I can’t think of a better use of 45 minutes or an hour of golf time.
The Cradle exudes what recreational, short-course golf should embody in the modern era. It’s high on fun and low on physical demands. It’s quality golf in a relaxed environment without any pretense or judgment.
Resorts and golf destinations adding or enhancing their short course options is a full-blown trend around the world, most of which have received rave reviews. I was immediately smitten with my Cradle experience after one night and have a hard time imagining that any par three course exceeds its quality of experience. I cannot imagine ever again visiting the Pinehurst area, “The Cradle of American Golf,” without playing The Cradle course. It’s that excellent.