The question: “Why 18 holes?” has kept golf historians engaged for decades. It even has a well-known witty answer, based on how many swigs are in a whiskey bottle. But with leisure time and disposable income scarce, the why-18 question is no longer so benign. Golfers and course managers are starting to ask it differently, wondering: Can’t we get our rounds of golf over with much quicker?
No less a figure than Jack Nicklaus endorsed the idea of 12-hole golf several years ago, telling Golf Digest it was the logical solution to people’s busy schedules. Around the same time, a startup company called Prestwick 12 Golf took up the cause, taking its name from the original 12-hole Prestwick course (host site of the British Open for its first decade of competition). The company offered consultation expertise to developers plus design and construction templates based on returning six-hole loops.
More recently, an Icelandic architect and opinion writer, Edwin Roald, has been touring the U.S. and getting a good hearing for his stock presentation, which is even titled, “Why 18 Holes?” For a profile of Roald on the golf website TheAPosition.com, writer Jay Stuller queried the USGA about handicap issues and received assurances they could be solved. “In reality, the USGA Handicap System is flexible enough to adapt to these unusual instances,” USGA official Rand Jerris told Stuller.
Meanwhile, alongside the heralded Bandon Dunes golf resort on the Oregon coast, a free-form layout of 12 holes called the Sheep Ranch further legitimizes the concept.
At Monarch Dunes in the Central California town of Nipomo, the 12-hole Challenge Course (pictured above) is an emerging example of fewer-than-18 as a viable business model. Monarch Dunes owner John Scardino acknowledges the value of having his 12-holer, which is a par-3 layout playing 1,858 yards from the back markers, paired with a full-length 18-holer. Golfers have a tricky psychology when it comes to golf that isn’t 6,500 yards-plus and par of at least 70. To equate it with dining out, they don’t mind ordering a smaller dinner portion, as long as it’s not off the kid’s menu.
“The golf that you play on our Challenge Course is inspiring, it’s a true test and visually it’s an eyeful,” says Scardino. “There just isn’t as much of it as you get on the standard golf course.”
The architects who had designed the par-72 layout at this planned community were given clear instructions for the short track a true wow factor. Working off a budget of several million dollars, Damian Pascuzzo and Steve Pate followed Scardino’s directive to make the course dramatic and, from the back tees, difficult. Having pulled that off, they found themselves with a golf asset that is relatively cheap to maintain and an easy sell to consumers. Paying a green fee of $21 ($19 weekdays) and completing their 12-hole circuits in about 90 minutes, golfers of widely varying skill levels are walking off the course all smiles, according to Scardino.
“We’ll have a full range of players out there at any given time,” he says. “New players, grandparents with grandkids, avid mid-handicappers, all the way up to tour professionals.” In seminar talks to managers and other developers, Scardino urges more original thinking about shortening the golf experience. “I have a reverence for golf but irreverence for same-old, same-old ideas,” he explains.
Ironically, the ready availability of nine-hole rounds seems to have obstructed the idea of fewer-than-18 as a golf experience. “Nine holes isn’t enough,” comments Scardino. “Plus, playing nine has been an option for so long, it doesn’t have the novelty you need to change golfer attitudes and expectations.”
He had originally planned the 60-acre site for nine executive-length holes. Then the number 12 jumped into his head. “A lot of heads were shaking when I brought it up,” Scardino says. “Then they saw my intention, which was to give the course every possible great attribute, other than length.”
His every-trick-in-the-book strategy includes rippling, linksy fairway contours and greensites that are bold and intricate. The tee boxes on The Challenge seem to pop up everywhere, requiring power golf over large scrub areas or easing the way of youngsters and newbies with far-forward locations.
While the Monarch Dunes experiment was unfolding, a similar break-the-mold approach was being followed in Mississaugua, Ontario. Derrydale Golf Club, once a regular-joe 18-holer, sold off part of its acreage, converted to nine-hole status then realized it had three usable holes heading for weedy oblivion. Derrydale owner Jim Holmes put those three holes back into play at the beginning of the 2010 season and began selling 12-hole rounds, at a higher green fee and with higher satisfaction levels than his 18-hole routing were garnering.
For nearly the first century of 18-hole golf in the U.S., play proceeded at an up-tempo pace. Then a series of factors gave birth to the five-hour round. John Scardino seems to wonder whether a round of golf is actually based on time—and when that magic number of hours and minutes runs out, the golfer is ready for drinks and conversation. “If every grill room was located next to the 12th green,” he muses, “you’d see 90 percent of golfers quit right on the spot.”