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It was the Old Course at St Andrews which established the template of 18 holes as the norm.
Posted on
February 8, 2024
Robert Green in
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

A couple of weeks ago I had a game with my son at a golf course in North London called the Arkley 9. You will gather it does not have 18 holes. Well, some at the club may argue that it does, a point to which I shall return shortly, but it doesn’t really matter. Nine holes or 18, it’s still a golf course and still a round of golf, with a nod to the past and perhaps to the future as well.

It was the Old Course at St Andrews which established the template of 18 holes as the norm. In 1764, William St Clair covered its then 22 holes in 121 strokes. This was an indecently good score in those days, and in the face of such sacrilege the town elders amalgamated the first four holes into two. Given the shared fairways and greens that characterise the Old Course, that meant the course now had 18 holes. Elsewhere in Scotland (which at that time, golf-wise, meant the world) Leith had five holes, North Inch at Perth had six while Montrose had 25. When the Open Championship began at Prestwick in 1860, that links had 12 holes, but eventually the St Andrews’ example became the exemplar.

Moving on to the present day, there are regular calls from people in authoritative positions in the game for 18 holes not to be regarded as some sort of definition as to what constitutes a ‘proper’ round of golf. Since you’re reading this it is likely you play golf, in which case you will know that while getting away from it all for a few hours is a great joy, sometimes you don’t really have the time for 18 holes. The length of time it takes to play a round is one of the barriers to people taking up the game, so there is a lot to be said for 9-hole courses.

Growing up, I played golf at Chapel-en-le-Frith in Derbyshire, which only had nine holes and didn’t have any sand bunkers – two matters that have since been rectified. The Cambridge University golf team uses Royal Worlington & Newmarket as its home course, and that only has nine holes. Mind you, it was designed by the great Harry Colt and it was described by Bernard Darwin, the renowned early golf correspondent of The Times, as ‘The Sacred Nine’, in acknowledgement of the eponymous muses of classical mythology. It may only have nine holes but it has been ranked in the top-100 courses in the British Isles. There never was any danger of that happening with Chapel.

To be fair, nor with Arkley, although it does have some holes of undoubted merit. I am in particular thinking of Nos 5/14 and 6/15, for example, if not 9/18, which are partially blind par-threes. But other than with those two holes, the Arkley does a good job of shaking things up with judicious use of different teeing grounds. To cite two cases, the 7th is a 183-yard par-three while the 16th (played to the same green) is a 288-yard par-four. The 8th is a 411-yard par-four whereas the 17th is a 505-yard par-five.

As I said at the beginning, some may say the Arkley therefore does have 18 holes, even if it definitely only has nine greens. What matters is that, whichever, it is a golf course.


You can follow Robert Green on Twitter @robrtgreen and enjoy his other blog

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About Robert Green

Robert Green is a former editor of Golf World and Golf International magazines and the author of four books on golf, including Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius. He has played golf on more than 450 courses around the world, occasionally acceptably.

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