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Making The Case For Nine Holes

By John Hopkins – Global Golf Post

I had a number of fixed points in my childhood: my home, Stinchcombe Hill Golf Course, which was barely a 7-iron from our house, and school. Even now a half century or more later, I can remember another one, albeit hazily.

Westonbirt is a village 10 miles or so from where I grew up in Gloucestershire. It is best known for its eminent girls’ school and a world-famous arboretum. I remember it though for its nine-hole golf course. From time to time, we would climb into my mother’s Austin Seven, nicknamed in the family “Gently-Gently,” and drive gently to Westonbirt for a game.

u24705163The pleasure of Westonbirt’s course is joined in my memory by recollections of visits to my maternal grandparents and playing at Brecon golf course (the old course on the edge of town), another nine-holer. It was laid out on land owned by the late Albert Evans, one of the great figures in Welsh golf.

Perhaps it is the memory of these courses, 60 or so miles apart, that inculcated in me an affection for nine-hole courses that has never left me. (And how could I forget Winter Park near Orlando? READ MORE) In loving nine-hole golf courses, I am not alone.

Bernard Darwin, a predecessor of mine as golf correspondent of The Times, once wrote: “If I were the sole owner of King Solomon’s mines I would not have more than nine holes. I would not have St Andrews as a gift but Prestwick inside the wall, or Worlington – there would be perfection.”

An explanation here: Worlington, aka Royal Worlington & Newmarket, is the nine-hole course near Cambridge University where hundreds of golfers from that university, including Darwin, played. Darwin described it as the best nine-hole course in the world.

A friend of mine once explained why foursomes golf had not caught on at his club. “Not enough ’itting,” he said. You might say the same thing about nine-holers. “Not enough ’itting.” Against the fact that you hit the ball only 40 or so times instead of perhaps twice that many must be weighed the advantages of time. In my youth, a round took 2 hours for 18 holes so nine holes would have taken the Hopkinses 1  hours, even playing gently.

Time is one of the greatest enemies of our age. “Haven’t got time,” you say when you don’t want to do something – and sometimes when you do. “If only there were 25 or 26 or 30 hours in a day,” you sigh sometimes when a task has not been completed. “Can’t play golf on Sunday. We’re going out to lunch.”

Photo courtesy Twitter
Photo courtesy Twitter

The length of time it takes to play a round of golf is one reason why golf is less popular than it was 15 years ago. Yet the answer is not to play 18 holes, but nine holes.

The R&A held a nine-hole championship at Royal Troon for 30 qualifiers from golf clubs throughout Britain and Ireland on the eve of this past Open. “People who want to play golf are increasingly struggling to find the time to play and so positioning nine-hole golf as a legitimate alternative makes a lot of sense,” Pádraig Harrington, twice Open champion and an ambassador for the R&A, said when this competition was announced. “I am sure this competitive format will encourage more people to get out on the golf course and play nine holes.”

In this, the R&A are following the lead set by the USGA, which started a “Play 9” campaign in 2014 in addition to the “Time for Nine” program launched the year before. USGA officials have estimated there are 4,000 nine-hole facilities in the US, many more than in the United Kingdom.

David Normoyle, an expert on Darwin and himself a graduate of Cambridge University, champions nine-hole courses and a nine-hole national championship. “The whole prescription for 18-hole golf was … an historical accident,” Normoyle, an American member of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society, said. “St Andrews was nine holes, then 22 before settling at 18.”

He and Dottie, his wife, whose maiden name is Pepper, play their golf at a nine-hole, par-35 course in Saratoga, New York, and they often play nine holes first thing in the morning or last thing at night. “That’s how you fit golf into your life,” Normoyle said.

An R&A survey on pace of play noted that 60 per cent of the participating golfers said they would enjoy golf more if it took less time. Among 25- to 44-year-olds, 21 per cent wanted to see playing time reduced by as much as 1 hours while 19 per cent said they would welcome the chance to play nine holes more often.

“One of the messages that came through … is that people would play more golf if they could do so in significantly less time” Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, said. “Nine-hole golf is not new but … is often overlooked as a perfectly valid way to play the sport either with your family and friends or competitively.”

Could the current interest in nine-hole courses be an example of golf looking at its past to improve its future?