Now Reading
9 Is Too Many and 18 Ain’t Enough: The Case for 21 Holes

9 Is Too Many and 18 Ain’t Enough: The Case for 21 Holes

An examination of the most arbitrary rule in golf.

Andy Ogburn

Why play 18 holes?

It sounds absurd — surely this was decided a long time ago — but why are there eighteen of them in the first place? We’ve probably all wondered it at some point or another, only to have our minds wander elsewhere. Or, vague mumbles like “St. Andrews” and “links” have put the question to rest as if either are suitable answers.

Follow your curiosity and, yes, the truth will go way back to St. Andrews, before Christopher Columbus even hopped on a boat. When the first golfers walked The Old Course in the mid-1400s, there were 22 holes in the ground. But other courses? They had five holes, six holes, ten holes — there was no standard. Many in Britain had seven holes. When Mary, Queen of Scots, teed it up and pulled out the big dog in 1567, she played seven holes.

Rumor has it Mary Queen of Scots hit all seven greens in regulation.

According to golf architect and author Edwin Roald, it wasn’t until 1764, some 200 years later, that the R&A took hold of the game and standardized the count to 18 holes in the ground. The rationale wasn’t perfectly sound — that’s just how the locals wanted it at St. Andrews. In gruff Scottish accents, the leaders of golf’s governing body decreed, in essence: “22 holes is a bit much. How about 18?” And that’s how it’s been ever since. 

Fast forward two hundred fifty-some odd years, and golfers will rightfully romanticize the 18-hole loop that takes you away from the clubhouse and back again at the end of your round. The effect is at its finest walking a classic links design, where even an amateur can recognize the literal INs and OUTs of the layout.

A lot has changed since 1764, yet the highest-level idea of the golf course has not. Even with modern course routing through suburban neighborhoods (where often few ‘links’ are discernible and sometimes every hole looks startlingly alike), we have two options: play nine, or 18. Even with golf carts, the pace of play on popular public tracks ticks up close to five hours after playing 18 holes.

And that is good! For a lot of people who enjoy the game and aren’t in a hurry. But for a lot of other people not yet on a golf kick, four and a half hours can be a drag. It can be prohibitive. It’s an alley-oop setup for Jerry Seinfeld’s punchline in his description of golf:  GET-OUT-LEAVE-FAMILY.

A friend once told me: “Some days, even nine holes is too many. Other days, eighteen holes just isn’t enough, y’know? That’s why every course should have 21 holes. ”

Like any good joke, it’s rooted in truth. Instead of two 9s, Mark’s perfect golf course has three 7s. And the more I ponder it, the more it makes sense for golfers and course professionals alike. Hear me out:

Splitting the course into 7-hole segments is better for everyone. Seven holes is the perfect amount for beginners, experts with a temper, time-crunched executives, children, and prisoners on a work release.

See Also

14 holes is perfect for those who want to keep going. And when you’re done? It’s barely been three hours.

21 holes is for everyone who’s ever birdied the 18th hole. I don’t foresee any objections if you’ve ever flashed a smile while walking off of a finishing hole.

One of the most talked about courses in golf, Sweetens Cove, only has 9 holes. What’s so different about 7?

Plus, the modularity of three separate 7s lets starters and club professionals better manage pace of play across the course. It can help the golf course architects of the future get creative with less — or more — land at their disposal. I can see 7-hole gems popping up like Sweetens Cove in Tennessee, or 21-hole complexes being built for your next big golf trip. How ‘bout another 7 at sundown?

Picture it: you’ve got a heated skins match with a golf buddy you always want to beat. You won on the first bet, but he won the second bet. (He probably gave himself a better lie after that pull-hook on 12.) Either way, with the 21-hole format, you can avoid a tie and know for certain who deserves the bragging rights this week. And you can relive every shot over some beers at the 19th — I mean, 22nd hole.

View Comments (9)
  • I like the idea, but it seems like it goes so much against the established standard. This might make it difficult for early adopters. What about 3 sections of 6? Keeps it 18 so it’s more typical for the majority of players, but begins to explore into the new idea of 1/3 instead of just a front and back.

  • Interesting concept for the future but please NEVER let people think 5 hours is acceptable for 18 holes of golf. 3 1/2 in a fourball maximum 2 hr 45 in a 2 ball.
    3 hrs for 14 holes? My definition of hell.

  • I’d love the idea of playing 21 holes, normally find I only hit any sense of rhythm by the 14th or 15th hole anyway. My concern would be what this would do to many golf courses in cities that are limited on space already and would now be stuck and outdated with their 9 or 18 hole layouts. Also watching Bryson play 21 holes would be even more slow and painful than 18.

  • I have wanted to create a 12 hole course for a long time. You can finish quicker but get more then 9 holes in. And would even like a very short par 3 course with like 6 holes on it. Some days you could play a full 18bising the par 3.

  • I really like the idea of more options on a course and the flexibility you can make depending on the day. But I think it will be a hassle to create 3 more holes to many courses. Why not have 3 courses with 6 holes each?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

© 2020 Random Golf Club. All Rights Reserved.

Welcome to Random Golf Club

All are Welcome