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Is it Time For More 9 or 12 Hole Golf Courses

By: | Thu 25 Jan 2024

There was palpable fury when 360 Maple, owners of Farrington Park Golf Club in Somerset, revealed controversial plans that will see the venue redesigned into a 12-hole course to accommodate new facilities, including padel tennis and pickleball courts, a children's play park, outdoor gym and maintenance hub.

Responding to the outcry, a spokesperson for 360 Maple said: "Keeping things as they are at Farrington Park is not an option. Without investment it would not be able to continue, not least because the golf course irrigation system is redundant and the drainage system is in need of urgent upgrade.

"360 Maple are proposing a significant investment to make Farrington Park more inclusive and family-friendly by reinvigorating the game of golf and providing new sport, leisure and hospitality facilities to appeal to people of all ages. These will include pickleball and padel tennis, an outdoor gym and eco cabins for guests to stay on site.

"The team at 360 Maple have appointed the world-renowned golf course architect Tom Mackenzie (of acclaimed designers Mackenzie & Ebert) to ensure the golf course is fit for the future. This will be a 12-hole course which is an evolution of the game."

Work on the course won't begin until early April at the earliest, with the current 18-hole routing remaining open until June. The shortened design will be completed and ready for play by the autumn of next year.

Tom Mackenzie commented: "This move to 12 holes is not intended to be a golfing revolution, but it is an important moment in the evolution of the game.

"It is accepted and anticipated that some golfers will find this concept hard to accept, but are confident that many will enjoy what will be offered. That is world-class, family-friendly golf that can be played quickly, which is hardly revolutionary."

Such rationale has done little to dispel the anger among the membership when the concept was unveiled, with many of them abruptly leaving to join other clubs in the area. 

Farrington Park

However, this isn't the only story of this kind. 100 miles away in Surrey, Chiddingfold Golf Club (which is under new ownership) is currently undergoing a development (to be completed by March) that will see its main course reduced to 12 holes, with the existing 18th hole being converted into a five-hole academy course, while the 17th hole will become an all-weather practice range.

The question is whether these individual stories could reflect a wider shift in the landscape as the game evolves to meet the demands of modern society and to position itself for growth into the future.

Is it Time For More Shorter Golf Courses?

A "proper" round of golf has been traditionally viewed as being 18 holes. Back in the days of King George III, the links of St Andrews consisted of 22 holes, before changes were later made that reduced the number to what became a template for the wider game to follow.

That said, you only have to count up the nine-holers across the country (there are 170 of them in Scotland alone) to see how land was always used to accommodate shorter courses. 

And that's without even considering those rarer layouts that diverge from both nine or 18. Historic Prestwick Golf Club - birthplace of The Open Championship - spent the first 30 years of its existence as a 12-holer. The spectacular Shiskine on the Isle of Arran notably consists of 12 holes, while Port Bannatyne on the neighbouring Isle of Bute boasts an even more unique 13 holes.

Having spent a significant part of my youth playing the Kingarth course on Bute and Muthill Golf Club in Perthshire, I have experienced just how rewarding nine-hole courses can be to play. If different tee locations are introduced, then completing two loops for 18 holes offers ample variety to satisfy golfers.

The R&A's revolutionary Golf It! facility on the edge of Glasgow consists of nine-holes alongside a driving range, adventure golf setup and other attractions that appeal to all age groups, meaning that those at Farrington Park and Chiddingfold may just have some logic behind their contentious decisions.

A Template For The Future?

Jack Nicklaus has previously spoken about his perspective that 12 holes could offer the ideal layout for contemporary life, demanding that governing bodies "legitimise" the concept of having two sixes rather than two nines. 

On Golfshake, we have frequently surveyed golfers, both club members and nomadic, to understand their perspective on the future of club memberships. Ultimately, overall concerns relate back to a pair of factors that are joined; time and cost. When golfers don't have available hours to play regularly enough, the expense for an annual subscription is often difficult to justify. 

Perhaps having a shorter, more adaptable course is a solution when you only have a spare couple of hours to spend during the week.

Additionally, we only have to glance at our own bills and receipts to see the impact of the cost of living crisis. Golf clubs aren't immune to these pressures either - it's hugely expensive to run and maintain an outdoor facility of that size to the acceptable standard.

Reducing the number of holes is a natural way to limit that acreage - and the daily extra expense of managing it, which could help to make more venues financially stable and reduce the demands on both members and visitors when it comes to fees. It also provides an environmental benefit as the game seeks to become more globally sustainable.

Beyond that, the extra space that is now available can either be sold to raise significant funds, or more imaginatively could be used to accommodate other amenities - perhaps in the manner of Golf It! - like driving ranges, adventure golf facilities, cafes and restaurants, all of which diversifies and expands the business, introducing potential investment that will attract families, children, young people and make the golf club more than just a regular course.

We only have to follow the success of Topgolf and other entertainment-style leisure facilities to understand the growth possibilities. Having shorter courses makes it possible to use that area for offerings that bring people to the venue who otherwise would never step inside the door.

You can't have a better in-built pathway from adventure golf, the range to the full-course all in the same place.

Do We Really Need a Change?

Many will understandably dismiss these suggestions as we have already established that there are many nine-hole layouts out there for golfers who prefer that length. 

A lot of golf clubs are in a strong place with their membership and visitor numbers, so there is no reason to consider another vision for the future. That is undoubtedly the case for hundreds of places in the UK. That said, despite the boom of recent years, there are still venues that are struggling, meaning that alternative structures and inventiveness could present a chance to reverse declining fortunes and establish a setup that is suited for the years and decades to come and the societal demands that will soon become unavoidable.

While 18 holes (or two loops of nine) will remain the bedrock of what we consider a round of golf, there is room for those perceptions to evolve and 12 holes - when adopted in just and democratic circumstances - could offer an exciting platform for many clubs to thrive into generations of the future.

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