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Golf courses with fewer holes could be the game's next wave

Brandon TuckerBy Brandon Tucker,
Managing Editor
Derrydale Golf Club - No. 3
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In suburban Toronto, Derrydale Golf Club reopened in 2010 as a 12-hole course. (Courtesy of Derrydale G.C.)

With time and money a premium these days, more golf courses are turning to less-than-18-hole layouts. Courses such as Scotland's Shiskine Golf and Tennis Club and Toronto's Derrydale Golf Club are thriving with 12 holes.

The Old Course St. Andrews was once as long as 22 holes. The first British Open Championship was staged on a 12-hole Prestwick Golf Club.

Even Musselburgh's Opens in the years afterwards were nine-hole competition rounds.

But today, 18 holes is the universal norm for a round of golf. And chances are, unless you're on vacation or retired, you probably don't have the time for it -- at least not regularly.

The 18-hole-or-bust standard may very well be one of the main reasons golf is in a state of decline. It's no secret that the number of rounds played each year is declining, and new golf course projects have slowed to less than two dozen worldwide this year.

The threats to an 18-hole round these days are many. Pace of play creeps up to five hours at too many courses, and maintaining a course is getting more and more expensive. New modern golf equipment doesn't help, as courses need more length and wider playing corridors to accommodate them.

Design Workshop, a landscape and architecture firm, who partner with Hale Irwin Golf Services on golf projects, have begun aggressively promoting the benefits of less-than-18-hole layouts. The partnership between the two firms is unique because they can plan both the golf and non-golf components to a property. They've found that some golf courses faced with the threat of closing aren't even thinking about the option of closing a few holes and existing with just 12 or 14 holes, while developing the remaining acres for commercial or residential development.

"The course says, 'We're done; we're going to lock our doors,'" said Jeff Zimmerman, a principal at Design Workshop. "Instead, you could bring in a firm like ours, and we could look at taking out five-to-seven holes and make that land some other revenue-generating operation and leave some golf there."

"Imagine a 14-hole course, where you could have two seven-hole leagues after work," said Steve Irwin, son of Hale and president of Irwin Golf Services.

Golf course architect Tom Doak has seen two of his designs close: Beechtree near Baltimore closed in 2008 after just a decade to make room for a residential development -- and his first ever solo design at High Pointe near Traverse City, Mich., is currently closed with an uncertain future.

Doak agrees courses are closing entirely without looking at all their options first.

"When I hear of a golf course that is closing, there is no instant demand to develop 200 acres," Doak said. "They ought to keep some part of it going as a First Tee facility or a course aimed at beginners until they're ready to develop all of it."

Can 12 be the new 18 in golf?

Twelve-hole golf courses are becoming a hot topic, especially after Jack Nicklaus told Golf Digest in 2007: "We should consider the possibility of making 12 holes the standard round. ... Eventually it would be accepted because it makes sense in people's lives."

There are already some fantastic 12-hole golf courses in the world. On Scotland's Isle of Arran, Shiskine Golf and Tennis Club is a 19th century links gem that had 18 holes for a short time until World War II and has kept its current 12-hole route since. Just a few miles north from Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon, the mysterious course Sheep Ranch, designed by Doak, boasts 12 holes that can be played in a variety of different routings.

Shiskine and Sheep Ranch are two of the world's best 12-hole designs, but they're also in the middle of nowhere. The 12-hole concept may work most effectively around larger cities, where land is at a higher premium but golf demand is high, too.

"A nine-hole course works great until you have about 100 golfers per day," noted Doak, who recently redesigned historic nine-hole Aetna Springs Golf Course in Napa Valley, Calif. "In a big city, you can hit that number pretty quickly."

A 12-hole routing offers more flexibility than nine-hole courses and can get more golfers around with the possibility of two or three starting tees, not just one. Get creative with the tee boxes, such as at Sheep Ranch, and you could easily create 18 different holes out of 12 holes worth of acreage and maintenance -- and keep golfers satisfied knowing the shot values will be as good as any 18-hole course.

"We've never assumed that because a course has fewer holes, it's not as good," said Zimmerman. "That doesn't matter in our minds. You could make some extremely good holes and almost dial the design up a bit."

Toronto's Derrydale Golf Club thrives with new 12-hole layout

One course that is experiencing a rebirth this summer as a 12-hole course is Derrydale Golf Club in Mississauga, Ontario.

A family-owned daily fee course open since 1970, they sold off 33 acres 2005 for development and went to a nine-hole design. They eventually realized they had three unused holes collecting dust and finally revealed a 12-hole golf this spring.

Halfway into its first season with the new 12-hole layout, the course is thriving.

"People love it," said Jim Holmes, owner of Derrydale. "Our green fees are up, and our number of rounds are up. The course fits people's time frame."

Holmes said it takes, at maximum, two hours and 45 minutes to play 2,541-yard Derrydale and books 240-260 rounds on busy days. The ninth hole finishes at the clubhouse, so groups can decide whether or not to play on.

It took Derrydale several golf seasons to realize what it had, and it's because golfers think in terms of nines, not a number that is best for the property. Design Workshop says that it's going to take some new thinking to make more courses open to the possibility of an abbreviated course, whether it's six, 12 or 14 holes. The group recently worked with the City of Portland on a plan that would've created a 12-hole golf course, Blue Lake Park, that was later shelved.

"We had three six-hole loops and could be played in reversible ways," said Todd Schoeder, a golf course designer with Design Workshop. "In the end, the advisory board couldn't buy into the concept."

But Design Workshop said that recently it has municipalities approach them and inquire about the possibility to try a similar project, and even the USGA has told the group they would consider rating 12-hole courses in the near future. Getting more of them off the ground starts with the traditional thinking that fewer than 18 holes means a lesser experience.

"With the right team involved, we can really help drive some new thinking and new ways to help grow the game," said Zimmerman. "It's something you can provide equally as good of an experience -- for less money and time."

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Blue Lake Park renderingMachrie Golf Club in Scotland
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Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker.

 
Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • The Open Championship

    Donald Campbell wrote on: May 27, 2012

    I wish writers like Brandon Tucker would stop referring to "The British Open".
    There is no such competition.
    It is "The Open Championship".
    By adding "British" he is pandering to the ignorant golfers, especially in the USA, who do not understand that the 1st of anything is not qualified, it does not have to be because at the time it started there was no other.
    There is the US Open, Canadian Open, French Open etc,etc. All have the country in the title because they were not the 1st.

    Reply

      • RE: The Open Championship

        Paul Hastings wrote on: Aug 5, 2013

        I have a feeling that referring to it as the British Open is a necessity. People in the US refer to their open as The Open, people in Australia refer to their open as The Open. It's fairly obvious.
        You probably refer to your club championship as 'The Club Championship', Not 'The xxxxx GC Championship'- even though it may not have been the first club championship in the world.
        I find your gripe somewhat petty.

        Reply

  • Shorter 18-Hole Courses

    Pete wrote on: Dec 24, 2010

    Current studies show there are three big issues holding people back from trying the golf game...Time...Cost & Difficulty. Courses with fewer holes may address the time & cost factors, but fail to solve the difficulty/frustration issue. Until this is resolved the game will continue to lose appeal with fewer entering and more leaving the golf game.
    The practical solution is not in reducing the amount of holes to 12, but in reducing the overall 18-hole course size and making it play bigger!
    Have you heard of the Hybrid golf ball, developed for a higher level of golfing enjoyment on shorter courses.
    This is the wave of the future.

    Reply

  • Golf Course with Fewer Holes

    Dave Brennan wrote on: Aug 25, 2010

    When golfers are asked in surveys what prevents them from playing more often "the time it takes to play a round" is always among the top responses.
    Reducing the number of holes a golfer is required to play by convention is a step in the right direction to help solve the "time" issue. The method by which one moves in that direction will likely be the key to its success.
    This is hardly a new issue. At the 1990 Golf Summit, myself and several others proposed to NGF, PGA and USGA leaderships to consider changing the mindset that golf must be based on 18 holes. Many in the industry agree that there's been too much talk on this topic and not enough action.
    There is one critical factor to consider if real progress can be made to overcome "time" as an inhibiting factor for play--the investment made for changes at the course level must be affordable. We have ~17,000 courses in the US. It's doubtful more than a handful are in a position to make costly changes.
    So what's the answer? First and foremost, the 18 hole mindset for "recreational play" must be jettisoned. Then, with convention aside, the solution could be right in front of us by looking at the current 18 hole layout in a new way.
    One suggestion would be to divide 18 holes into 3 segments of 6 holes. On almost any existing course one can play 6 holes in an 1 1/2 hours or less. This approach allows a golfer to play 6, 12, or 18 holes. To put that in a "time" context: about 1 1/2 hours for 6 holes, about 3 hours for 12 holes, and about 4 1/2 hours for 18 holes.
    "How do you coordinate tee times for three courses within one?" you ask. The same way that tee times are booked now except you have three starting tees; #1, #7, and #13. Tees are filled based on how many holes the golfer signs up to play or what's available in a given time slot. This obviously demands careful coordination but it's similar to filling in open crossover spots.
    Will all this take commitment, effort and coordination? Yes, a great deal of all of the above. Will the change be worth it? Yes, if we believe that overcoming "time" issues will increase play.
    We're seeing the alternative now and it's not pretty.

    Reply

  • 12 hole courses

    Terry LaGree wrote on: Aug 4, 2010

    This concept will indeed impact , in a very positve way, the future growth of the game. I founded a company called Prestwick 12 Golf that addresses the very concerns that are brought up in the article. This will help to save many of the existing course that are now struggling.

    Reply

  • 12 Hole Courses

    GolfGirl wrote on: Aug 3, 2010

    Shorter courses must be considered... also less "lush" "manicured" courses. Because in addition to time, cost must be brought down in order to avoid massive closures.

    Reply

  • 12 Hole Courses

    RonMon wrote on: Jul 28, 2010

    Adding to the lore...long live the Sheep Ranch!

    Reply

  • Shorter Courses

    Richard J Thorman wrote on: Jul 27, 2010

    Leaving behind a static non-open mind on this subject opens numerous possibilities. In areas where summer puts the temp in the 90's with humidity above 50%, less than 18 holes would be a blessing. Also much more comfortable when the winter temp is 40 degrees or less with some associated dampness.
    With the option to play 18 the regulation length course with less holes is beginning to show merit. USGA would need to come up with a GHIN system to cover the variables.
    Looking forward to progress in this area.

    Reply

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