Reconsidering the 18 hole principle

by Edwin Roald

Along with water - the source of life - land is the most significant resource used for the game of golf. Golf is a fairly land-demanding leisure activity, and in recent decades, golf courses have needed more and more land to respond to the perceived ever increasing ball flight. While people, communities and businesses strive to become more sustainable and responsible contributors to society, golf‘s increased land-use leaves a lot to be desired.

I find it difficult to expect land prices to go anywhere but up in the future, especially in or near urban areas that are, of course, important if the game is to be accessible. This raises questions on how affordable the game can be in the future.

I therefore ask: considering the rising global population and the increasing awareness and focus on our use of resources, will the game of golf exist as a realistic leisure option for the masses in a few decades time? How can we ensure the game's future? Furthermore, how can we maximise the potential that I believe it has to serve as a meaningful contributor to society?

Countless golf courses are now struggling to make ends meet. Debate has revealed concerns over the game being too expensive and eighteen holes taking too long to play.

I would like to present one option, hopeful that there is an answer that can both solve the problems of today and open new opportunities for tomorrow.

I believe that the eighteen hole principle is no longer relevant considering the way we live today and that we should think openly about the idea of allowing each golf course to have its own unique number of holes, based entirely on the available terrain. By doing this, we would be going back to the origins of the game, the hundreds of years during which the number of holes varied tremendously between courses. In Scotland, Montrose had 25 holes, Prestwick had thirteen, Musselburgh had seven and – last but not least – the Old Course at St Andrews had 22 holes.

Why do we play 18 holes?

In fact, we play eighteen holes today because this is how many holes the Old Course has. In 1764, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews reduced the number of holes on the course from 22 to eighteen. The minutes of the meeting are as follows:

'The captain and gentlemen golfers are of the opinion that it would be for the improvement of the links that the first four holes should be converted into two. They have therefore agreed that for the future they shall be played as two holes in the same way as presently marked out.'

I consider this the most significant decision ever made in the history of golf. I am particularly interested in the words 'for the improvement of the links'. To me, they indicate that the gentlemen golfers simply wanted to make the course more interesting and fun to play, even though it meant reducing the number of holes. Could it be that this principle can be applied to your course?

Almost a full century later, in 1858, The R&A published an updated set of rules, titled 'Rules for the Game of Golf as it is Played by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews over their links'. The first paragraph includes the following:

'One round of the links, or eighteen holes, is reckoned a match, unless otherwise stipulated.'

Although the title suggests that these rules were to be applied principally to the Old Course, this seems to have started a trend in which eighteen holes became the target in the laying out of new golf courses and the reconfiguration of older ones. Dare I even suggest that perhaps the standardisation of the number of holes occurred through some kind of a misinterpretation of the conditions from 1858 or a plain desire to emulate the Old Course – the true original among golf courses – while free from modern day issues and constraints?

This means that golf has only followed the eighteen hole principle for around 140 years of its 600 year history, less than a quarter of its age. When seen in this context, I consider the change I am proposing not to be as radical as it may sound. 

What does this idea solve?

When laying out a new golf course, or reconfiguring an existing one, avoiding a fixed pre-conceived number of holes provides a great deal of freedom in the design process. Our ability to use land that has been deemed unsuitable in the past, i.e. too small for eighteen holes, is improved dramatically. This is important as suitable land is now harder to find and using damaged land may be the only option for urban golf to exist in the future. This does not always come in the 'right' size and shape.

More creative freedom also provides a much greater ability to use existing infrastructure that may be found on site, such as buildings, roads, underground pipes and wires, helping keep costs down and allowing us to charge lower green fees.

Free from constraints, we are able to reach new heights in the way we mix golf with other landuses, mostly path networks for other outdoor recreation, as well as wildlife habitats, archaeological sites and other environmentally sensitive areas that should be protected and worked around.

This way, the golf course may find a new future as a catalyst for the transformation of damaged land into havens for wildlife and public recreation, even in cities, opening new opportunities to better access and greater affordability through shared cost between stakeholders, government support, etc.

This increased flexibility should also allow golf course designers to come up with more walkable layouts, with shorter distances from green to tee. I believe this is an important part of paving golf's way into the future, to reduce the need for golf carts as much as possible so that people may enjoy the health benefits that golf can offer.

I can also imagine that this new (old) approach will eventually broaden horizons in golf course architecture and produce better courses, since we will enjoy greater freedom to use only the best natural playing corridors that occur on the site. This requires less earthwork and therefore reduces cost – possibly leaving a better product for less money. In most businesses, I believe this would be considered a good idea.

Existing Courses: From Problem to Opportunity

As I mentioned before, many existing golf facilities are experiencing financial difficulty. Most of these could possibly turn a problem into an opportunity by adopting this more open-minded approach and simply eliminate a handful of holes. The exact number would depend on the routing of each course, since the idea is to make sure that the remaining holes form a loop of connecting holes that can be played and enjoyed within the desired time window.

In some cases, these are the holes that occupy land of lesser quality than the rest of the course. Also, these can be holes where safety has become a concern, either internally on the course or at the course boundary, and where recent nearby development, for example a new road, may have had a negative impact on the playing experience. These are often the weakest holes on the course and can in some cases be the most expensive to maintain.

If more freedom with regard to the number of holes is to be adopted, a great number of existing golf facilities will be able to lower their running costs, enjoy a quick cash injection through the sale of the excess land, while in essence improving their golf course or making it more relevant to the customer's needs. Interestingly, this approach will increase the number of tee-times that the operator can sell each day, since the shorter rounds will allow the last tee-time of the day to be pushed back.

What is the magic number?

This raises an interesting question. If I view the building of a stand-alone golf course purely from a business perspective, I would like to build as few holes as possible with only one thing in mind – ensuring that the golfer has played for long enough so that he/she does not want to tee off again from the 1st tee. This avoids a common problem found on 9-hole courses and will allow me to sell and book my tee-times in advance without hesitation. How many holes is this? Are we talking about thirteen, fifteen, or as little as eleven holes? From the player's perspective, I can imagine that most golfers are satisfied once they have played in excess of twelve holes.

Adopting a new standard number, twelve holes, has already been discussed. I feel that this suggestion has been brought up more in the context of the pace of play. People are simply giving up in the fight against slow play rather than looking at the game in the wider perspective of considering the game's use of resources, its place in society as well as its accessibility and affordability for the future. With all this in mind, I feel that the key is avoiding a standard number.

When compared to today's eighteen hole norm, the status quo, the approach suggested here surely requires less land and costs less. If applied, once we have become accustomed to this new concept, this may help turn golf into a more suitable and realistic leisure option for people for whom time - like land - is a limited resource.