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.
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.
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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.
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.
Andy is a writer and the Editorial Manager at RGC, tending the pin for any words you see from Random Golf Club. On the course, Andy believes himself to be the "Flop Daddy", but he also knows that you can't choose your own nickname. Out of bounds, he enjoys live music, taking a shower, and a good pair of sneakers. He no longer sleeps in a van.