Morri: does golf really need to be 18 holes?

The Old Course at St Andrews began the trend of 18-hole golf more than 250 years ago.
October 4, 1764. It’s not a date etched in most golfers' minds but perhaps it should be because it marks one of the most significant milestones in the game’s history.

It was on that day that the Old Course at St Andrews officially changed from a 22-hole layout to 18, a move that would have been seen as nothing significant at the time but has had a major impact on the game for more than two centuries.

Many golfers have likely wondered at some point why golf is played over 18 holes and despite the entertaining and romantic notion that it’s because there are 18 nips in a flask of whisky, the truth is that it’s because that’s how many holes there are at the Old Course.

But, at a time, when the number of hours it takes to play a round is cited as a major turn-off for the game, perhaps some fresh thinking is in order.

Iceland-based golf course architect Edwin Roald began pondering the question of why golf needs to be an 18-hole affair some years ago when asked to design a course on a spectacular cliff-top site in his nation's capital city of Reykjavik.

“Very dramatic views and many sort of natural looking playing corridors and natural sites for golf holes,” he says in describing the land he was given to work with.

“I tried my best to fit them all in and make use of them and when I did I kind of just ended up with what I thought were 17 world-class holes.

“So I wondered why should I dissect one of these holes into two lesser ones in terms of quality and playing experience?

“That got me going a bit and I started doing a bit of research.”

What Roald discovered eventually led him to set up a website called why18holes.com and to campaign for a drastic change to the way we think about golf.

“Golf has been around for 600 years but for about 450 years it was played on courses that had an extremely varied number of holes,” he says.

“The number of holes was simply a product of the terrain. Leith had five, Musselburgh had seven, Montrose had as many as 25.

“Prestwick, where The Open Championship started, had 13 and then 12 and, last but not least, the Old Course at St Andrews had 22 before they scaled it back to 18.”

It was that last fact that stirred Roald who says the reason for that change, which has set the benchmark for golf courses worldwide ever since, is as relevant today as it was in 1764.

“I had a very good meeting some years ago with Peter Dawson (former R&A chief) at his office in St Andrews and he sent me the actual minutes of the meeting that was held in 1764 which is when they decided to eliminate or merge a few of the holes so the course was shortened from 22 to 18,” he says.

“The minutes actually stated that: ‘The gentlemen golfers present are of the opinion that the first four holes be converted to two for the improvement of the links.’

“That’s all it says. The message being sent there is that the course was more interesting to play.”

And herein lies the key to Roald’s argument, an intriguing one to consider once you recover from the shock of realising that golf doesn’t need to be strictly a nine or 18-hole affair.

In fact, if you think about all the golf courses you’ve played in your life, it would be fair to say most could easily lose a hole or two (or nine) and be better for it.

The assumption that every facility needs to be either nine or 18 holes is simply a product of precedent. And many golf courses are worse for it.

“They (the Gentlemen Golfers of St Andrews) thought the course was more fun to play with only 18 holes,” says Roald. “And I think that can be the truth in so many cases.”

Roald’s website encourages existing clubs and golfers to think outside the box in terms of what a round of golf actually means and says considering removing some holes is a viable option for many.

In an environment where more than 50 per cent of Australian golf clubs report being in financial distress, the loss of several holes from the course – and associated maintenance costs – might actually be a sensible way forward.

On the flip side, it’s not just the financial health of clubs and better quality of golf holes that could be improved with a new way of thinking.

The obvious but undeniable truth is that the game would take less time to play if golfers simply played less holes. And that’s a notion that may well appeal to future generations.

“Some leading management thinkers have said that we are facing extreme changes in the way our society works and this whole issue of time is becoming incredibly important,” he says.

“I think golf will have to adapt and respond to that and how better than to encourage more flexibility in golf course design which is actually, in turn, a homage to the essence of the game and its history?

“If golf was a one-hour-old sport, it’s been played over a standard round of 18 holes for about 15 minutes.”

Roald knows many golfers aren’t open to the concept of reducing the number of holes they play and building courses with flexible numbers of holes.

But his ideas have met with some success in his home country where the Golf Union of Iceland has officially removed any reference to 18 hole counts from its championship criteria.

The move paves the way for official tournaments to be played over varied numbers of holes and, while unlikely to start a tidal wave of support, is an important first step in having rounds of less than 18 holes accepted as legitimate golf.

“People need more options,” said GUI President Haukur Birgisson in announcing the move last month.

“We should not stand in the way of innovation among our member golf clubs. Therefore we are introducing more flexibility.

“For us, this is appropriate on many levels, because the focused concept of golf’s return to flexible hole counts comes from Iceland.”

That last line is a reference to Roald and the years of work he has devoted to convincing people golf would be better served by a more flexible model.

His website is worth checking out and his reasoning is worth considering. And next time you reach the 14th tee, stop and ask yourself whether you’d really feel shortchanged if your round was about to end.

You might be surprised at your own response. 



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