Golf’s new direction: ‘Let’s play 18’ might become ‘Let’s play a dozen’

I grew up near a 12-hole golf course in suburban Chicago called Maple Crest. It originally was 18 holes, but when land was needed for the new tollway, it was reduced to 12.

I didn’t like it, simply because it was an unusual number of holes. The last three felt like practice.

This came to mind when I saw that the Golf Union of Iceland, of all places, had decreed that 18 holes was no longer a stipulation for championship tournaments.

A story about the decision quoted Edwin Roald, a course architect who advocates maximizing a property’s potential for golf by building whatever number of holes will fit. He also said he thinks the optimum time for a round of golf is 2½ to three hours.

In other words, about 12 holes.

This comes on the heels of all the talk in Major League Baseball about finding a way to make games take less time. The average game time is more than three hours, and the optimum, in the opinion of many, is somewhere around two or 2½. Some people even have advocated playing seven innings instead of nine.

So let me get this straight: They’ve been playing nine-inning baseball games for about 150 years, and just because people are busier these days and have a shorter attention span, we’re going to completely change the feel of the game by playing two fewer innings. Numbers are such a big part of baseball, and now 150 years’ worth would be thrown out the window.

Same goes for golf. Our great game goes back about 500 years, and the numbers we cherish date to around 1860, when they played the first Open Championship at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland (a course you definitely should play if you haven’t already – really cool place).

In 1764, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club reduced St. Andrews from 22 holes to 18, and that became the targeted number as other courses were built. It seems so random now when you think about it. I have no doubt that, if golf had been invented last year, 12 holes probably would have been the number.

So how should we feel about this? Well, here’s how I feel about it:

I am playing golf this afternoon. We will play 18 holes. I am looking forward to it. If it were 12 holes, I still would enjoy it, of course, but it wouldn’t be the same. It’s not as if I would be able to compare it to my other 12-hole scores.

Maybe that’s why I have trouble with this concept – there’s no point of reference. Par for 12 holes probably would be in the high 40s. It would take awhile for that to sink in, mentally. I am geared to a par of 36 for nine and 72 for 18.

But we all can see the trends. We can see where this is going. Somewhere – whether it’s in Iceland, the United States or somewhere else – they’re going to build a 12-hole golf course. It might even be popular with people who don’t want to spend four-plus hours out there. Maybe it will spark the building of more courses like it.

Or, if the planners are smart, they’ll build 18-hole courses where the 12th hole isn’t too far from the clubhouse. Maybe they could set it up where another hole – maybe the sixth – is like that, too. They could sell golfers on the idea of playing six holes or nine or 12 or the full 18.

I don’t think this is feasible for most courses. When I think of courses I’ve played, it always seems as if the 12th green is about as far from the clubhouse as possible. Courses would have to be re-routed to make this work, and in many cases it might not even be possible. But designers could make it a consideration for new courses.

Back to Maple Crest, the 12-hole course of my youth. It was in danger of closing back in the 1980s, but they saved it by plowing it under and creating a really neat nine-hole course, now called Flagg Creek, that has been ranked among the 10 best in Illinois.

See? It became acceptable because it was nine holes. They realized that 12 was just not going to work, in the eyes of most golfers. Most people want nine or 18, not something in between.

So before we start building courses of 12, 13, 14 or whatever number of holes other than 18, let’s think about this a little. Why not just adapt some of the courses we already have or build new ones that can offer shorter rounds in a convenient fashion?

Whatever we’ve got to do to get more people to play golf, I’m all for it. And maybe, someday, I could learn to like playing a 12-hole round of golf. But seven innings for a major league baseball game? Sorry, but that’s just a whiff.



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