Would 12 Holes Make Golf More Popular?

12-hole-golf-roundFormer mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani set off a firestorm of criticism when he suggested that golf could be made simpler by shortening the length of a round to 12 holes instead of 18. While it would certainly decrease the time required to play, it is nothing short of heresy to purists. But the idea is not as far fetched as most might believe and even has ties back to golf’s earliest courses.

A Game in Decline

Giuliani is serving as a strategic adviser to the PGA and in that capacity, fields many questions about the declining popularity of golf which faces statistics that look rather bleak. In the United States, the number of people who play golf twenty-five times or more per year decreased from 6.9 million in 2000 to 4.6 million in 2005, according to the National Golf Foundation. That decline has a cascading effect on golf courses as well. Course closings outpaced openings in 2013 for the eighth straight year. Viewership is down, sponsors are fleeing — overall a very challenging environment for the sport. But Giuliani’s suggestion to shorten a round is not the first time, in fact one of the greatest golfer to ever play the game has been an advocate of shorter rounds for some time.

A 12 Hole Round Experiment With the Golden Bear

In 2011 Jack Nicklaus created a stir when he organized an event at Muirfield Village with a 12 hole round. As a lifelong advocate for the sport, Nicklaus had been pushing for 12-hole courses since 2007 and even built a few. He felt strongly that the game needed a makeover to be more friendly to new players and pushed the idea into the forefront with his event. In an article with the PGA he said:

“With so many sports and activities fighting for the time and attention of families, we need to think of ways to make our game more attractive and thus more inviting, especially to children and young adults. Perhaps what Muirfield Village is trying over Labor Day can help open a few eyes and a few minds.”

The results were extremely positive. Club officials said that the event brought many first-time players to the course as well as many who had become estranged from the game. Those are two very important groups to reach for the sport to make a comeback.

Time For a Change

There is no single answer to the question of what’s causing the decline. There are plenty of surveys and ideas, but without a clear path the answer will require some creative experimentation. The leading idea is adjusting the amount of time involved to play.

As a society we live at a pace that borders on frenetic, yet golf can take up to 5 hours per round. The 12 hole round is designed to address this disparity between lifestyle and sport. The goal is a 2.5 hour round which is a duration that up-and-coming generations already associate with recreational activities. Lacrosse, soccer, softball, and other familiar sports all hover around the 2-3 hour mark and thereby seem to create an acceptable allotment of time to devote to recreation. Aligning golf to that time frame may make it a much more acceptable alternative.

Change Is Hard, But So Is Obsolescence

Change is always hard, but with a sport like golf, the resistance to changing any aspect of the game can be epic. However in this case, the history of the number of holes per round actually provides some precedence that should make the idea at least worthy of consideration.

While the origins of the 18 hole round have been researched for decades, St Andrews in Scotland is generally attributed with codifying the duration of the round, but it was a process that eased its way towards 18. Their old course had 12 holes laid out in a line and ten 10 of the holes were played twice, once out and once back, making a ‘”round” 22 holes. But the 22 hole round didn’t  stick. Several short holes were combined and The Old Course at St Andrews was reduced from 22 holes to 18 holes. This became the recognised format for the game around the world.

But it started with a 12 hole course and even the first British Open Championship was staged on a 12-hole Prestwick Golf Club. Something to think about for purists.

The Path Forward

There is no easy answer for reversing the decline that golf is experiencing, but something needs to be done. A leader like Nicklaus has enough clout to at least get the golf world’s attention, but more thought leaders will need to get onboard in order to create an environment where changes like a 12 hole round can take hold.

There is also an interesting positive trend in the statistics about golf that may help bolster the movement. The only bright spot in terms of the popularity of the sport is a resurgence in very young players. The PGA Junior League Golf has expanded from 1,500 youth participants in 2012 to 8,900 in 2013, a 490% increase. In 2014, participation doubled (18,000 kids). That kind of demographic may be particularly open to a change in the length of a round since they are just starting out. It’s a long shot but this powerhouse group may present an opportunity to introduce a dramatic shift in the game that could potentially be a pivot point.

What Do You Think?

Have you played a 12 hole course? Do you think it’s a good idea? Some people would say that if it’s a matter of time you should just play 9 holes, while others say 9 is not quite enough. Let us know what you think.