Worldwide participation in golf has declined in recent years and countless golf facilities now struggle to make ends meet.
Two main causes have been commonly identified; that a game of golf now takes too long and that it costs too much. Here, golf architect Edwin Roald suggests that golf's current 18-hole principle may no longer be relevant to people's available leisure time.
To summarize, 9 holes is too short and ineffective. Time, space and money does not support 18. Therefore, it's about time we return to golf's age-old but lost tradition, accepting that each course has its own unique number of holes, based entirely on local conditions. This enables struggling golf facilities to appeal to all stakeholders by simply abandoning a handful of holes, depending on their design, at little or no cost. This way, the golfers keep their course, they can play in less time at slightly lowered prices, while more land becomes available for general outdoor life and other forms of development. Everyone wins.
As explained here, restoring golf's lost freedom from today's design constraints can not only break golf's current deadlock.
It can unlock its true potential to entertain and contribute, and ultimately change how people think about golf.
to Edwin Roald discuss Why 18 Holes with Rod Morri on Australia's TalkinGolf Radio
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Early golf courses and how many holes they had
Today's round of golf is 18 holes because this is how many holes The Old Course in St. Andrews has. In 1764, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) decided to reduce the number of holes on the course from 22 to 18. The minutes of this significant meeting, here above, say: The captain and gentlemen golfers present, are of (the) opinion that it would be for the improvement of the links that the four first holes should be converted into two. They therefore have agreed that for the future, they shall be played as two holes, in the same way as presently marked out."
Note the words "for the improvement of the links", indicating that the motive behind the decision was simply to make the course more interesting to play. Can this be applied to your course today?
Minutes reproduced with kind permission from The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews
James II, King of Scots, places a ban on the game of golf, which is reported to have been played first on the Links in St. Andrews in the early 1400’s. Later references to the number of holes on the Links say 22 holes.
First account of golf played in Montrose. The course had as much as 25 holes.
First documented evidence of golf played at Musselburgh. Still 7 holes.
Leith 5 holes. Later adds 2 more.
Montrose 7 holes.
Bruntsfield adds one hole to its five hole course to form a layout of six holes.
Royal Blackheath, England's oldest golf club, extended to seven holes. Was still seven holes in 1893.
Musselburgh adds 8th hole.
Montrose eleven holes.
Prestwick Golf Club established, 12 holes.
The Monifieth Links, now Panmure, adds one hole to form a 10-hole course.
Incidentally, golfers at Lanark play their 6-hole course three times over to form a medal round of 18 holes.
Lanark adds a 7th hole and thus plays medal rounds of 21 holes.
The R&A updates its rules. The title was: Rules for the Game of Golf As it is played by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews over their Links.
This says: "One round of the links, or eighteen holes, is reckoned a match, unless otherwise stipulated."
As suggested in the title, these rules were to be applied to The Old Course in St. Andrews. Still, others soon followed.
Tournament at Montrose over 25 holes, one round on the course.
Mary, Queen of Scots, is reported to play golf at Musselburgh. 7 holes.
Montrose 14 holes.
“Golf is a wonderful sport enjoyed by millions around the world, providing healthy recreation in relaxing, natural surroundings. It does, however, have to compete for people’s time with other sports and leisure activities and greater flexibility in the number of holes being played may help more people to participate regularly in golf. Such an approach to the design of golf courses could address other issues such as the availability of land and the cost of their construction and maintenance. Edwin Roald makes a strong case for such flexibility and his views are certainly thought provoking and worthy of serious consideration.”
Director - Golf Course Management
World governing body for golf, outside USA & Mexico
Eliminating holes 5 and 6 allow players to walk directly from the 4th green to the 7th tee, which will become the 5th hole on a 16-hole course.
In some cases, the eliminated holes can be those that are in some way of lesser quality or value than the other holes, ones where safety may have been compromised with the addition of a nearby road or other land use. These may be holes that are more expensive to maintain, e.g. because of drainage issues. Also, these can be holes that include a tedious long walk, that the players will be happy to avoid.
Abandoning holes 3 through 7 will enable players to move directly to the 8th tee after playing the 2nd hole. This produces a layout of 13 holes.
This frees up more land, which can be used to appeal to all stakeholders within and outside the boundary. This may also eliminate safety concerns that may have surfed due to the compact nature of the holes in the center of the property, and provide an avenue for more public access through the course, and up to the clubhouse.
Taking out holes 11 through 14 allows golfers to go straight to the 15th tee upon finishing the 10th hole. This results in a 14-hole course.
Sometimes, a lot of land is locked in between golf holes. This option would free up a lot of such space, land that could be sold along with the actual golf holes to provide a quick cash injection to help turn the business around, and perhaps help solve some kind of a planning dead-lock that the city council may have been up against. Cart paths can even be partially re-used for general outdoor life. Something for everyone.
By eliminating holes 15 through 17, the player will play the 18th hole immediately after the 14th, setting up a 15-hole round.
This option opens up the center of the course and may provide an ideal and safe avenue for a public footpath right through it, perhaps linking the city's path network to the clubhouse that can be re-branded as a more multifunctional facility, increasing revenue and exposure. Imagine if this was people's view of golf rather than fences and signs saying: "Private property. No trespassing."
What are the benefits of adopting this new way of thinking for an existing golf course?
Take out 5-6
Take out 3-7
Take out 11-14
Take out 15-17
“The why18holes concept is a timely and refreshing idea that advocates a responsive and adaptive approach to golf course design. The idea that the landscape and resources available drive all fundamental design decisions, even how many holes there are, is a strong and compelling statement. We admire and encourage Edwin in his work and efforts to re-think elements of golf design that for so long were taken for granted and in his approach to seeking innovative solutions inspired by age-old values.”
Jonathan Smith, CEO
Golf Environment Organization
Use areas of various
shapes & sizes.
Available areas, damaged
land or land of low value.
Difficult to get large enough
urban areas for 18 holes.
Better urban location.
More accessible, requiring
less travel time and cost.
Introducing the game
to the youth.
Golf's long-term health.
More grounds for
win-win land-use projects,
collaboration with 3rd,
sector, NGOs etc.
land-uses and functions.
Mixed land-use projects.
Better public access to new,
diverse, open areas on/and
around golf courses.
courses with less distance
from green to the next tee.
Enjoying and promoting
the health benefits that
golf can bring for all ages.
Allow nature to dictate
the design and use
Better golf holes.
More fun to play.
Work around and
Design problems out,
Lower building cost,
in total and per hole.
Appeal to the customer's
desired playing time.
Maximizing golf's potential
as a meaningful contributor
in total and per hole.
Better golf for less money.
A flexible number of
between 9 and 18.
Golf becomes more sustainable, more attractive and more relevant as a public leisure option.
Edwin Roald is a golf course architect, golf sustainability advisor, writer and a longtime student of golf history. An accredited verifier for the GEO Certified ecolabel.
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