Golf's Obsession with 18 holes has to stop - for the good of the game

Iceland's new 13-hole championship was a vision of golf's future, says architect Edwin Roald

Article in Golf World MagazineOctober 2017

The way we think about golf course design has to evolve. The future is golf courses whose number of holes is dictated not by history or tradition but by the terrain and the resources open to them. If the game is to flourish, courses must reflect and accommodate people's busy schedules, instead of being predetermined at 18, nine or increments of three and six. Our whole mindset needs to change.

As technological breakthroughs, population growth, urbanization and higher living standards shed new light on our lifestyles and resource use, golf equipment innovation and player athleticism have seemingly done anything but reduce golf's time and resource consumption, and today, particularly among younger generations, time is key.

While much can be said about pace-of-play, raising player awareness of good course etiquette can only achieve limited results. In these changing times, responsiveness and adaptability in golf seem almost unachievable in our deeply rooted sport. Eighteen holes is the mantra, but surely we must open our eyes and stop the chanting if we're to make the game more accessible, less costly and sustainable.

I started my career working on the smallest and purest of courses is rural Iceland, one of the world's most vibrant golfing nations, thanks to the availability of land, abundance of daylight, and a mild climate allowing turf to thrive with limited inputs. Over time you understand how important these elements are to the health and wellbeing of golf - and then you ask why golf was exported from Scotland, all over the world, without an adaptation to shorter days, less land and more severe climates. This has required extensive irrigation, storm drainage and other costly inputs.

Limited funds and resources breed creativity. My environment taught me how I could get more quality out of a site if I didn't have to return to the clubhouse with a fixed number of holes.

Traditionalists say golf has to be 18, but why? The 18-hole benchmark dates back to 1764 when The Old Course was re-configured from 22 holes to 18 "for the improvement of the links". However, the 18-hole trend did not take off until after 1858 when other clubs followed the R&A's stipulation of 18 holes as one match in their local rules.

Evidence therefore suggests golf adopted a predetermined hole count through some kind of a misinterpretation of the resolution made in 1764 and the 1858 rules change that was actually intended to be applied only to The Old Course.

We have followed the 18-hole principle for around 140 years, only a quarter of golf's history. Isn't it therefore fair to ask if golf's true essence is found in the older, resource-driven approach to golf course design?

Earlier this year, Iceland's Golf Union scrapped the 18-hole requirement for championships and played its National Match-Play Championships over 13 holes.

I hope other nations follow suit and that the pro tours and, eventually, the majors do so too. It's vital for the game's future. Course owners and stakeholders won't depart from 18 if golf's most influential events don't.

Long-term, it would benefit them, because of golf becomes more accessible, a growing market should generate increased prize money.

If we're willing to draw inspiration from golf's past and properly reflect where we are in the present, we can catapult the game towards a far better future.

Edwin Roald is the author of, a golf architect, EIGCA Member and a GEO sustainability associate.