Golf’s evolution over the last century and a half has mirrored that of many other sports. Technological advancement in the athletes, equipment, and a sport’s respective playing field have made power and speed more accessible.
The thing about golf that helps it stand out from other recreational sports is it’s ability to level the playing field on a regular basis between players. Various tee boxes and GHIN handicaps allow players of different skills to compete on the same field. Imagine showing up to a road race where the slowest runners were given a head start - 4-hour marathoners lining up at mile 13 while the elites ran 26.2 miles to try and catch them (I mean, I think I’d pay to watch that…). Or imagine a softball league where the fences were pulled in and out depending on how far the batter was capable of hitting it (I’m full of great ideas today…).
Golf has also allowed technology to explode - large, springy drivers and golf balls that spin a lot less and fly a lot father have made the game “easier.”
Golf equipment these days is more forgiving than Mother Theresa.
However, like all games, golf has traditions that are so entrenched that making a shift would categorically alter the sport.
In golf’s case, the 9 hole and 18 hole rounds are etched in stone as “proper golf.” A nice neat package of holes. When I poked around the Internet for people’s thoughts on 12 hole golf courses, a lot of what I found was written either in the late 2000s (when golf courses were hurting for money and needed to sell off land) or from 2019/2020 as the game has exploded and courses fill with golfers looking for a safe way to socialize and exercise. The Yards in Florida, which opened recently seems like it might be on the cutting edge of courses with fewer holes.
12 hole courses, and other various length courses, were played in the early days of golf. According to the website Scottish Golf History, a round at St. Andrews back in 1764 consisted of 18 holes, but players had to play some holes twice. Prestwick Golf Club, the first course to host The Open back in 1860 had 12 holes, Musselburgh Links started as a 7 hole course and since 1870 has been 9 holes. Many consider those three courses the Triumvirate of golf’s founding, not just due to their age but the rivalries that blossomed between the club’s players, massive money matches back in the late 19th century led to tournament golf, much of it due to the ego of those three clubs.
It’s believed that, like many things from the British Isles, the idea of an 18 hole course spread from St. Andrews out into the world because of the club’s clout. Members at St. Andrews played in other parts of Scotland and then England, and over time, cubs started considering 18 holes a “round of golf.” Those courses, however, didn’t even have 18 holes yet. Players would replay holes to reach 18. Even 36 became an important number of holes, as the earliest Open Championships at Prestwick was a one day affair consisting of three 12 hole rounds.
Clubs used the land at their disposal to build as many holes as they could. This is an important distinction, and one worth thinking about in the modern era of golf. 18 holes takes up massive amounts of space, even though links land was deemed useless for growing or living on, it was used to graze cattle. Instead, clubs built the best holes they could on the land they had. Now-a-days the expectation when a golfer pulls into the parking lot is they will have 9 holes or 18 holes to play. Some courses have become creative with their 9 hole layouts, like Sweeten’s Cove with their two flagsticks on each massive green; Groups play to different flags on their second time around. Different tee box options also offer a bit of variation between nines on any second loop around a 9 hole course.
Jack Nicklaus has a 12 hole course called Red Ledges that he built in 2007. On their website they describe it as: “One part ‘Golf,’ one part ‘Park,’ and countless parts ‘Fun.’ Multiple tee locations and a choice of standard or oversized cups makes the Golf Park as challenging as you want to make it. (It is a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, after all.)”
Here’s Nicklaus talking in 2011 about 12-hole golf and why it might be something golf’s governing bodies should “legitimize.”
12 holes, as described in a few of the pieces I read, could be the Goldilocks length of golf. Nine holes doesn’t quite scratch the itch, but a full round might be too much or take too long. In my experience, the last 5-6 holes of a round on a busy day can come to a screeching halt. This is for a few reasons: people are tired, people are drunk, people are gambling, and sometimes it’s all three.
This isn’t to say that 18 hole courses should be carved up and destroyed or that nine hole courses need to find three more holes on their land. I love playing 18 holes, and I find it rather satisfying. However, there are times when I have to say no to an offer because 18 holes just won’t fit into other plans for the day but 9 holes doesn’t feel like it’s worth my time.
Members of private clubs have the freedom to jump around their course during a quiet evening and create their own routing to find 7 hole loops and 12 hole loops. It’s part of what you pay for as a member of a course - the ability to create a personal routing for the sake of time and enjoyment.
Wouldn’t it be interesting, though, if a public course that had the design already in place to offer a 12 hole rate? I played Wayland Country Club last fall, a short 18-hole course that’s excellent for beginners. The 12th hole comes back to the clubhouse, and my playing partner for the day decided he was going to head home as I pressed on to the thirteenth hole (maybe it was the poor company that chased him away…). He had forked over his 18 hole fee and decided to swallow the extra cash. Maybe a 12 hole fee brings out a few more golf groups each week, especially on those weekdays when 18 isn’t possible and nine isn’t enough.
Wouldn’t it also be interesting if new courses were designed to have 6 hole and 12 hole loops, allowing for various lengths of rounds (and more starting tee boxes too)? A parent with a child who is just starting the game might appreciate a cheaper fee for 6 holes knowing 9 holes might not be in the cards.
Golf is a numbers game. The traditional numbers are 9, 18, 35, 36, 70, 71, 72. We play 9 or 18 holes. We expect a par of 35 or 36 for nine holes and 70, 71, 72 for 18 holes.
Playing a 12-hole course throws those numbers out of whack and sends some golfers off kilter. Golfers like to share their scores with one another after the round (in some cases they like to share their scores days, weeks, or years after the round…). Without context a player can say, “I broke 80 for the first time” or “I shot 95 today.” When a course isn’t a “normal” par, like Southers Marsh in Plymouth which is a par 61, a qualifier has to be added.
Golfers will say, “I shot 76. But it was a par 61.” Even courses that are a par 69, like Plymouth Country Club, have to prove itself a bit more. I’ve played plenty of par 70 courses that wouldn’t hold a candle to Plymouth CC, but those numbers matter to people. I’ll be honest, they used to matter to me, too. A 12 hole course would have a par of 48 if we followed the “four shot” average per hole. As mathematical luck would have it, shooting 60 on a par 48 is the same as shooting 90 on a par 72 (bogey on every hole).
This numbers game reminds me of baseball’s 162 game, 9-inning conundrum. It’s an issue of records and tradition in baseball, too. 7-inning double headers have been introduced in Major League Baseball this year.
What a cool idea, and based on the talking heads I’ve heard on the radio and TV, it’s working. The games are tighter, the strategy changes, and the intensity is higher as every out matters just a little bit more. But old school baseball people value the records that exist in the game: home runs, hitting streaks, the chase for .400, strikeouts in a game/season. Some of those records are less achievable (home runs, hits, strikeouts) with shorter games and some are more achievable (batting .400).
On Instagram I recently posed the question: “Would you play a 12-hole course on a regular basis?” The response was higher than a Family Feud poll, so I’ll take it as a valuable bit of information. 55% of the respondents said they would play 12 holes on a regular basis. As luck would have it, Sam Cooper, a man driving the coast of Scotland in a van with the goal of playing every links in the country, posed the same question after he played 12 hole Shiskine Golf course recently. He had 58% say that they’d play 12 holes.
Golf could possibly endear itself to more people, especially younger and older golfers, if there was more flexibility around the length of a round of golf. If we thought about it like running, then 18 holes is a marathon (36 is an ultra-marathon and 54 is sicko-territory…). Nine holes would be a half-marathon. But there are other options for runners: 5k, 10k, 20 mile races and everything in between. In order to run a successful marathon, runners have to build up to that 26.2 length. Running a half marathon is nothing like running a full marathon.
Playing nine holes is nothing like playing 18. Why not give people that extra step in the process to build up to 18 holes? It doesn’t have to be 12 holes, it could be 13 or 14 holes, whatever might work for a course’s design and available land.
Some people never end up running a marathon, they just love to run and are content clocking 13-18 miles if they’re up for it every now and then. Maybe another day they only have time for a 30-40 minute run.
We also have to consider the future of the game and the space that is provided for golf courses. An 18 hole golf course requires a lot of land, toss in a clubhouse and possible other amenities (practice facility, pool, tennis, etc…), and it’s tough to do it all on 300 acres. All that land needs to be maintained and cared for, which is expensive. A 12 hole course on a smaller plot of land shrinks the cost and if the land is right, there’s no reason 12 excellent holes can’t make for a wonderful experience.
How many 18 hole courses exist that have 4-5 holes that just don’t seem to work? Maybe it’s the last few holes that are jammed in to make 18, or there’s a couple holes in the middle that are routed oddly because the architect wanted to return players to the clubhouse after the 9th hole. Think about the course you play the most and give it the Marie Kondo treatment - Does the hole bring you joy?
12 holes might be a number that doesn’t fit in with the other “golf” numbers. But it should. I’d love to walk into the clubhouse and declare I shot a 53.