Will Golf’s Future Emerge from Iceland?

By Tony Dear

All photos Brautarholt Golf Club; photography by Fridthjofur Helgason

 

Lost among recent news items that included the long-awaited sale of TaylorMade, Rory McIlroy’s signing with the Carlsbad-based company, surprise wins on the PGA Tour by Brian Harman and Si Woo Kim, and the European Tour’s rather contrived but undeniably enjoyable Sixes event in England, was an announcement from the Golf Union of Iceland (GUI) that it had dropped the 18-hole stipulation from its championship criteria.

What Iceland’s Golf Union gets up to tends not to have too significant an impact on how Americans play the game, but on this occasion the country’s pioneering effort could potentially have a profound effect on golf’s future.

Edwin Roald, a course architect and consultant from Reykjavik who works with governments, environmental groups, clubs, and communities mostly in Europe but occasionally other parts of the globe to maximize a property’s potential for golf, was the energy behind the initiative which has its roots in the ‘Why 18 Holes?’ movement he introduced nearly a decade ago.

 

Though an avid golf historian whose love of the game dates back to his childhood, Roald believes golf’s future would be better served without clinging to the centuries-old 18-hole standard. “When you have limited resources, you are forced to use what nature has given you,” he says. “You must work around problem areas, instead of attacking them with engineering. To do this effectively, you need more creative freedom. If only you could break away from the constraints of having someone else tell you how many holes you must build. It is the same as writing books, or making movies. Imagine if all books had to be exactly 200 pages, or a film had to last 95 minutes. Would they be as good?”

Roald had often spoken of the need for golf to adapt with the President of the Golf Union of Iceland, Haukur Birgisson, who, he says, didn’t need much convincing before the GUI adopted its more flexible plan for the future.

“Our paths have crossed often enough for these ideas to be discussed thoroughly and digested,” says Roald. “When the idea of relaxing the 18-hole regulation came up, it just seemed the right thing to do. By developing courses without the need to build 18 holes, we would make golf more affordable, more sustainable and more accessible. Clubs will hopefully be inspired to adopt a totally uncontaminated view towards how they use their land. One day, I would like to see a national championship played on a course where hole-count is properly adapted to the terrain.”

Roald goes further saying he’d really welcome a PGA Tour event on a random loop of the best holes found at a multi-course property—“some hole-count with no relation to the number 18 that can be played in two-and-a-half to three hours,” he adds.

The GUI’s announcement is only a few days old, but Roald says he has already received a great deal of interest from around the world. “I’ve heard from global golf associations and media, including Australian radio and governing bodies across Scandinavia,” he says. “More locally, we have already seen one club scaling back from 18 holes, and a municipality considering the relocation of an existing, problematic nine-hole facility to a more accessible seven-hole course on better land.”

Brautarholt, a Reykjavik course for which Roald has created a master plan and one of the best nine-holers in Scandinavia, will add three holes this summer, becoming a 12-hole facility. Roald is pleased to an extent, but also anxious not to see 12 become a new established benchmark. “I fear we will jump to a new 12-hole standard, producing an existential crisis with three types of golf—9, 12 and 18 holes,” he says. I would love people to adopt a mindset where anything goes, the way it was before 18 became accepted.”

Besides hosting championships on non-18-hole courses, Roald’s plan would also affect handicapping of courses. He recently spoke with the USGA’s Steve Edmondson, the organization’s Managing Director of Handicapping and Course Rating, about the implications for U.S. golfers. “Mr. Edmondson informed me that Decision 5-1 in the USGA Handicap System already allows golfers to post nine-hole scores, even after playing only seven holes, or 13 in the case of 18-hole scores,” he says. “You simply assume a net par for the remaining holes. It’s not ideal but the flexibility is there.”

Edmondson says the USGA is currently exploring options to better support the effort to promote shorter rounds “in a fundamentally different way. We are researching the matter, and will seek to collaborate with the GUI in the near future.”

As for the USGA holding its major championships over something other than 18 holes, John Bodenhamer thinks it highly unlikely. “We commend the Golf Union of Iceland for being open to innovation,” says the senior managing director of Championships & Governance. “But I expect the U.S. Open, U.S. Women’s Open, and U.S. Senior Open to remain as 18-hole competitions as their historical context and place in the game demand such.”

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Do you think it is important to have 18 holes on a golf course? If so, why? Tell us in the comments below!

23 thoughts on “Will Golf’s Future Emerge from Iceland?

  1. A logical answer to help offset the diminishing number of golfers. Lower green fees, less time, and more rounds played. The PGA and other professional organizations can continue with the 18 hole format and the rest of us can play the game we love more often.

  2. Brilliant idea. How many times have we heard people/golf raters say that “it was a great courses except for 2-3 weak holes.” Eliminate those weak holes and integrate them into the others and have a great 15 hole course. All matches will be played where best score wins, regardless of how many holes.

  3. It takes so long to play 18. How about 6? How many 18 hole tracts could be broken up into 3 distinct 6 hole courses? Maybe not every day. Have a 6 day. Lots of players have time to spend 4 or 5 hours out of their day to play 18. And you could still play 18 if you want. But maybe I can get in 6 during lunch more often. Courses could accommodate more players.

  4. Why not play 5-inning baseball? Half-hour basketball? 50-yard football? Why only fourteen golf clubs?

    Rules and the traditions of golf are important for it’s continued success! Open-ended golf course design will decrease competitiveness and reduce interest in our beloved game of golf.

  5. I understand the idea of using the available land, and part of me appreciates the idea of not being bound by arbitrary numbers such as 18 for the number of holes. However, the game of golf is built around 18 holes, and while a 7-hole course built on a suitable piece of land might be attractive and entertaining for the people who live in the area, I think few serious golfers will travel hundreds or thousands of miles to play such a course, and I can’t see any serious tournaments being held on such a course. Should baseball consider playing with two bases instead of three? Tradition isn’t always a bad thing. Bottom line, in certain locations, for municipal courses or courses built to appeal to the casual or family golfer, odd numbers of holes would be fine, but I think it’s an idea that is not going to take over the golfing world.

    1. The game of golf is not built around 18 holes. Tournament golf is. You’re logic is like saying all running is a marathon and anyone who runs anything less, well, that’s not really running. Golf
      Is a purely struck shot,
      A lipped out three foot putt, sand saves, and learning to move a ball around a natural setting. Imagine if all the trees on a golf course didn’t bend a little when the wind blew, we’d have no more trees.

  6. 12 holes makes a lot of sense. Let’s not forget that the First Open at Prestwick consisted of 12 holes, but only 10 greens; the one day tournament consisted of three rounds or 36 holes.

  7. All reasonable derivatives of golf should be explored and tried if possible. Five years ago no one in golf believed TopGolf would work, let alone help grow the game. There is not one single idea that will be the answer to growing the game again. It will take many ideas and open minds to move the needle upward.

  8. I think 18 is not enough maybe we could do 24 I like playing 36 some days and some days I only like playing 9 so why Limit building a 7/12 hole course or what ever number

  9. How about baseball playing 45 innings or basketball 2 minute games or some football teams playing 3 100 minute quarters and others playing 20 one minute quarters. Gee, I guess they wouldn’t be the same game. Golf is golf. If you want to create a new game, fine but do not call it golf. By making the ball go further and straighter, cutting down the trees, and making par 5’s reachable with fairway woods and wedges and par 4’s reachable with irons, it is already no longer golf as we know it; people are already losing interest in golf as a sport.

  10. Keep it an 18 hole game…just make it easy and simple to play 9 or 12 or 15 so that the game fits into someone’s time and money slot! It is not that complicated…we don’t have to change tradition to change how the game is approached by people.

  11. Many courses started as 5, 6 and definitrly less than 18 holes; some started with 22 holes. My ideal would be 15 great holes, played in less than 3 hrs.

  12. I think this is a great Idea.
    There is a short Municipal Golf Course by the Airport in Ocean City NJ. I think that it used to be 18 Holes bit the Airport needed some land for Runways and it is now 14 or so holes. Still a great little course to walk.

  13. The bottom line is many choose not to golf because it takes too long. I guarantee you 12-hole courses would attract more people. If you think its not enough then just loop it twice an get 24 in.

  14. Bowling has duck pins. Tennis has platform tennis (or something like that). Squash, handball and racquet ball all have similarities, but are distinctly different games. Same with baseball, softball and cricket, and little league vs. standard size baseball fields. Point being, all of these games are similar yet distinct. So it could be with golf courses varying in number of holes. I think it would be fun to have a course with maybe 3 or 4 really difficult holes, and the remaining holes playing quite easy.

  15. As Gordon said above, Shiskine is a fantastic round of golf and it is 12 holes. It’s not a “day of golf” but a “round of golf”. Most folks’ lives ( even us retired guys) are pretty darn busy. If anyone doubts that a 12 hole golf course can be a satisfying and enjoyable round, the ferry over to Arran on your next trip to Scotland. You’ll be convinced that it can work.

  16. This is great!!!! The golf experience for each individual is unique and the activity (or sport) can be done on a worldwide experience spectrum. This idea is another great addition to that spectrum. Very few other activities can be done on such a varied offering of unique platforms (facilities). Think about it…from the jeans/cutoffs and t-shirt wearing while swilling brews facility to the traditional staunch private facilities on the classic courses. Golf has every type of offering in that spectrum. Thus Roald and the GUI are right on track, as are the USGA, PGA Tour, R&A, YOC, etc. The golf industry is finally getting away from player development (i.e. finding the next Tiger) and focusing on the how to make the existing activitiy/sport of golf evolve to fulfill the needs of different people. The golf industry is also finally trying to figure out how to value the “Natural Capital” that exist with all golf facilities. Many or most are not there yet, but given the adoption of more environmental best practices, golf facilities are some of our world’s most valuable green spaces. Check out Science of (the) Green at the University of Minnesota. Also, think about this…20 or even 10 years ago the USGA would not have even responded to a request for comment to this article. Golf is coming into an age of their own enlightenment. Keep up the good work.

  17. Because golf has been around for 500 years and has been somewhat dictatorially ruled by the R and A, tradition has overruled common sense. The sports culture worldwide has changed dramatically in the last two decades or so, and golf must change with it, or cease to exist. The traditional old world courses in the U.K. probably won’t change much, and that’s o.k. But for rank and file average (or below average…) golfers, the game must figure out what it’s going to take to keep the new generations interested, because most participant sports are going the other way from golf. That is, making the changes necessary to survive.

  18. I am 79 and occasionally shoot my age. I would do that all the time if I played a 12 or 13 hole course……………….

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