Why we play eighteen holes today

"If you accept that the Old Course at St. Andrews is The original course (and there is precious little argument), then all courses created since are to some degree copies. We build in good faith, courses of 18 holes (and not 15 or 20) in emulation of the original. We build sand bunkers in the mountains of Japan or in the swamps of Florida only because we are trying to copy the Old Course and its features."


- Peter Thomson, Hazards.


Little needs to be added to the words of five time Open Champion Peter Thomson. Still, it is important to recognize why the Old Course has eighteen holes, and not 15 or 20. The Old Course originally had 22 holes, ten of which were played twice - once in each direction - first on the outward journey and again going back towards the town. The 11th and 22nd holes were only used once during each round.


In 1764, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews reduced the number of holes to eighteen. This later became a standard because the Royal and Ancient Golf Club gradually became a leading authority in the game. Dare I ask if we have fully understood the intention or message that is involved in the R&A’s decision from 1764? The minutes from this significant meeting are as follows:


"St. Andrews 4th October 1764.


The captain and gentlemen golfers, 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.


Wm. St Claire (William St. Claire, Club Captain)"


Note the words: "for the improvement of the links". The holes eliminated were the first and last holes of the course. They occupied the area now known as The Scores behind the R&A clubhouse. For those who have been to St. Andrews, this is the place where you will now find the Martyrs' Monument. It is fairly easy to see that this area is of lesser quality to that of the remaining eighteen holes on The Old Course.


After this change - and the gradual strengthening of the R&A's status as an influential body in the game - other clubs soon followed the Old Course model. Still, this did not occur until the 1870's and 80's. Until then, there were many courses all over Scotland that had a different number of holes. The Open Championship (British Open) started in 1860 on a twelve hole course in Prestwick. Allan Robertson, the professional and ballmaker at St. Andrews, once laid out a 10 hole course in Barry. Montrose once had 25 holes. Musselburgh had seven. There are many more examples.


Long learning curve


It is interesting that it still took more than a century for this trend to take shape, almost the same amount of time that has now passed since eighteen holes became the norm. It is easy to get stuck in the status quo, but if we try to think in centuries instead of decades, it does not sound so unlikely that two hundred years from now, people will look at these last 120-130 years as a mere learning curve for the golf industry.


We have followed the eighteen hole standard now for roughly 130 years. We still do it, even though we can perhaps all agree that today’s parameters are vastly different from those that applied to the game in 1764 or in 1890, when Tom Morris laid out two outstanding eighteen hole courses: Muirfield in Scotland and County Down in Northern Ireland.


The R&A’s decision in 1764 is perhaps the most significant single decision that has been made in the history of golf so far. But what is its true message? Can it not be understood that the number of holes on a golf course should simply be dictated by the nature of the terrain, how much land is available and how the holes may be reasonably arranged to form the most pleasurable layout? Will it take us more than a quarter of a millennium to reach this conclusion?


Try asking yourself this: Do you think that those who attended this meeting in St. Andrews in 1764 ever considered or expected that 250 years later, people would still be investing a great deal of effort and money to produce courses with the same number of holes - no matter what - even if the available land did not really suggest it? Do you believe that this is what they were trying to establish?