Most modern golfers accept it without a second thought, but the evolution of the eighteen-hole golf course has been a long and varied one, and even today, some courses don’t quite conform to the standard configuration.
A standard golf course has 18 holes consisting of four par three holes, four par-five holes, and ten par-four holes. This was not always the standard setup and was only finalized around 1764 when the Old Course at St. Andrews changed from a 22-hole course to an 18-hole course.
Let’s tee it up on the first and take a walk along the ancient fairways of this glorious game to see how the golf course evolved to the eighteen-hole layout we all know and (mostly) love.
The History Of The 18 Hole Round
It should be considered that there is a difference between a golf course with 18 individual holes and a golf course where 18 holes constitute a completed round. The latter is how golf courses evolved were playing 18 holes became the standard number of holes around.
After 1764, it took another 100 years before there was an actual 18-hole golf course and not one where holes were played twice, once on the ‘out’ bound side and once on the ‘in’ bound side.
The old Course at St. Andrew’s was originally a 12-hole course with golfers playing 10 holes twice for a round of 22 holes. Each green had two holes, and before the 18-hole conversion, there was often confusion as to which hole to play on the green.
Each green had two holes for the round’s ‘in’ and ‘out’ sections. Eventually, this problem was solved by placing different color flags in each hole, with the white flag being the hole on the ‘out’ side and the red flag being the hole to play for the ‘in’ bound round.
Perhaps this is an insight into how the red and white color flags came into play, but that would be another discussion.
In 1764, St. Andrew’s became a 10-hole golf course where eight holes were played twice for an 18-hole round, and even then, other golf courses had some rather odd (by modern standards) layouts:
- The Leith Links, built-in in 1744, had 5 holes, with two holes added later on.
- Bruntsfield Links had 5 holes, and in 1818 and expanded to 6 holes where players would play each hole three times for a round of 18.
- The Old Course at Musselburgh started with 7 holes, then added another in 1832 and a ninth in 1870.
- Blackheath started as a five-hole course and then expanded to 7 holes in 1844.
- Montrose Links chopped and changed a few times. It started as a 7-hole course in 1810, increased to 14 holes in 1825, then reduced to 11 holes in 1849, and then a mind-blowing 25 holes in 1866 but reduced to some semblance of normality after 1874.
In 1851, some 87 years after St. Andrews changed to an 18-hole round, the Prestwick golf course boasted 12 holes, and at the time, this was not seen as odd or controversial, and tournaments were played over 36 holes.
With Prestwick, it was three rounds of 12 holes for a 36-hole tournament, and the first 12 Opens were held there; in 1882, they added six holes to make it an 18-hole course tied in with St. Andrews, who also had 18 holes by then.
If the Open was played at St. Andrew’s, it was two rounds; at Prestwick, it was three rounds, and at Musselburgh, it was four rounds.
When Muirfield was built in 1891 with an 18-hole layout, and the Open moved from Musselburgh to Muirfield, that left the three most prominent courses in the world with the 18-hole configuration that set the standard for courses to come.
While 1764 seems to be the date for the 18-hole round, it was only in 1864 that 18 individual holes on a course emerged, and since the rest of the world wanted to emulate the home of golf, most future courses were designed for the 18 hole format.
Read more: Why Golf Courses Have 18 Holes
Where Was The First 18 Hole Course Built In The USA?
The Chicago golf course was the first 18-hole course in the USA and opened in 1893 on the Downer’s Grove course and moved to its current location in 1895. The oldest golf club in the USA is Foxburgh Country Club, founded in 1887 and was a 9-hole course.
How Are 18 Hole Courses Broken Down By Their Par?
A standard golf course is 18 holes and par 72, but there are variations of this, with some courses being par 71 and even par 70, depending on the configuration and number of ‘scoring’ holes on each nine.
The distance for determining the par score for each is listed below for men and women:
Par 3: 250 yards and below
Par 4: 251–450 yards
Par 5: 451–690 yards
Par 3: 210 yards and below
Par 4: 211–400 yards
Par 5: 401–575 yards
Typically, the course will have five par four holes, two par three holes, and two par five holes on each nine-hole section.
Leaving the clubhouse and starting from the first hole, you are playing the ‘outward’ section, i.e., away from the clubhouse, and starting from the tenth hole through eighteen, you are playing ‘in’ back toward the clubhouse.
Not every course has 18 holes, and there is still quite a number that only has 9, so like in the days of old, to complete your 18 hole round, you would need to play each hole twice to get your round score.
When you have courses that are built with limitations on space due to the natural lie of the land or encroaching hazards like water or sand, course designers look for ways to innovate and produce courses that are still challenging and fun, even though they may not fit the standard par 70-72.
Are There 18 Hole Courses With Lower Par?
As there are golf courses with fewer and more holes than 18, many courses have less than par 70. Some courses are rated at par 54, but they have more par 3 holes in that configuration.
While having 18 holes, these golf courses are often limited in space due to natural topography or incursions by roads and other developments that force them to redesign and reduce hole lengths to accommodate:
- Kobe Golf Club in Hyogo, Japan, is a 4049-yard par 61.
- Audobon Park in New Orleans is a par 62.
- Goathill Park in California is a par 63 course.
- Iona Golf Course, Scotland, is a par 66 at 4491 yards.
- Dunaverty Golf Course, Scotland, is also par 66 and 4479 yards.
Another par 66 golf course is found in England at Church Stretton and is 5030 yards in length. You will also find the 4831-yard par 67 Painswick course at Stroud in England.
In Australia, the par 68 RACV Course at Healesville is 5328 yards, and Claremont CC in Oakland, California, is also a par 68 course at 5495 yards.
You can see that all of these courses listed here are under the 6000-yard mark, and the lower par ratings would indicate less available space to accommodate the longer distance holes.
However, don’t be fooled by the short par rating; many of these courses play as tough if not tougher than their par 72 counterparts.
Mashie Golf vs. Nine Hole Course
There is a difference between a nine-hole golf course and a mashie course (known as a par-3 course in the UK), which is usually nine holes, and we will see how the different length holes are defined in terms of par three, four, and five, respectively.
The nine-hole golf course is a full-length course with par threes, fours, and fives laid out per the configuration above. The mashie course is shorter and aims to improve approach iron play that can be applied to a full-length course.
As you would not require long clubs on a mashie course as the distances involved are not long enough, mashie golf is a great way to work on shorter iron play and the short game without the pressure of hitting drivers and other long clubs.
Mashie courses only go up to a par three, and they are useful to play when you don’t have the time to play a full nine or eighteen holes on a golf course.
Golf Courses That DON’T Have 18 Holes
Even today, several courses in the USA and worldwide don’t have 18 holes as their standard layout but have some truly odd numbers of holes. For example, Jack Nicklaus’s private Muirfield course in Ohio held 12-hole tournaments over Labour Day weekend about 10 years ago.
Let’s look at some of the non-standard golf courses that don’t have 18 holes, and then you can decide if you’d like to play a round on any of those.
France and Austria have four-hole golf courses, as did the course at Okemo in Vermont initially, but this seems to have changed to an 18-hole course.
If you’re planning on going to Iceland, they have a five-hole par-three golf course for juniors and beginners. Not sure how the round is calculated on that one!
Glenlaurel Scottish Links course has 8 links type holes and is traditionally played on sandy greens using hickory clubs and a golf ball that only travels about 2/3 the distance of modern balls.
So you can take a trip into the past and try your hand at a round there and see how using the antiquated gear compares to your modern set.
Above 9 holes, there is a 10-hole course at Kukio in Hawaii – again, not sure how an 18-hole round would be played there, and in Gilroy, California, there is an 11-hole course! Seven of the holes are played twice but from different tee positions, which, of course, changes the hole for the golfer.
When it comes to 12-hole golf courses, Shiskine Country Club in Scotland is one, and Nipomo, California’s Monarch Dunes’ Challenge Course, is another 12 holes par-three course complementing its public 18-hole course.
Bandon Preserve is a 13-hole par-three golf course, and Country Meadows Course near NY had 14 holes but closed in 2016 after being opened in 2000.
The European Club in County Wicklow, Ireland, has 20 holes mainly because the designer, Paul Ruddy, decided “we have enough space and we’re here to play golf and has two extra par threes” in the layout.
Another 20-hole golf course can be found at Haig Point on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina. This Rees Jones course also has the two extra par three holes like the European club in Ireland.
Parkersburg Country Club in the Ohio River Valley started as a 6-hole course in 1922 and is now a 21-hole course rated at par 73, so if you thought 18 holes were tough, why not give the 21-hole course a bash?
It’s worth remembering that many golf courses started life as anything but an 18-hole course, and St. Andrews was a 22-hole course before being reduced to the 18-hole configuration we see dominate courses today.
In 2007, Jack Nicklaus talked about reverting to the 12-hole course layout per the Prestwick layout of old. Still, even with his private Muirfield course, most modern course developments follow the traditional 18-hole layout.
When answering the question, “how many holes in a golf course?” you can see that the history of the 18 hole golf course and its evolution from 6, 10, and 12 hole courses is indeed a colorful and interesting part of the game and the fact that there are still some courses in the world that have more or less than 18 holes may spark a desire to play them.
My home course slowly expanded too, starting with 9 holes in 1913. The club was gradually able to afford to buy more land and first jumped to 12 holes before finally reaching 18 in the 1960s.
So the next time you want to shake up your golf, why not take your playing group and find a few courses that are out of the ordinary and test your skills on those greens and fairways – it will undoubtedly give you a new-found respect for the golfers of old!