Golf courses come in a variety of configurations, but the standard number of holes is 18. This number was not arrived at randomly – it evolved over time as the sport of golf developed. Let’s take a look at the history and reasoning behind the 18-hole standard.
The origins of golf and early course development
The modern game of golf originated in Scotland in the 15th century. Early golf was played on linksland – rugged, windswept coastal terrain with few trees. The first courses were rudimentary – essentially holes dug into the ground in coastal dunes and parkland.
These early courses featured anywhere from 5 to 22 holes. There was no set number, and courses often changed configuration frequently. The holes were short – some just a few dozen yards in length. Golfers would often play multiple rounds of the holes in one outing.
In the late 18th century, St Andrews emerged as the preeminent golf course in Scotland and the world. Golfers from across Scotland and beyond flocked there to play. The course initially had 22 holes, but it was reduced to 18 holes in 1764.
Having 18 holes at the legendary St Andrews course strongly influenced other courses in Scotland and England to follow suit. Eighteen holes became the de facto standard, though some courses had more or fewer.
The influence of the Old Course at St Andrews
The Old Course at St Andrews solidified 18 holes as the ideal number in several ways:
- The 18-hole configuration fit the terrain well and provided a good mix of hole lengths and challenges.
- With 18 holes, golfers could make a round trip out and back along the coastline. This was an efficient routing.
- An 18-hole course took up a reasonable amount of land area. More holes would have required too much real estate.
- An 18-hole course could be played in one long day of golf. Fewer holes was not enough for a proper outing, while more holes would be too time consuming.
- Having 18 holes allowed flexibility in how the course was played. Golfers could play the holes multiple times in different sequences and still complete a satisfactory round of golf.
- The 18-hole round could accommodate matches between pairs of golfers or teams of 2-4 players.
So while not randomly selected, 18 emerged as the ideal number of holes, providing the right blend of variety, efficiency, and flexibility desired by golfers at the time.
Standardisation in the 19th century
As golf grew rapidly in popularity in the late 19th century, courses began opening across Great Britain, North America, and beyond. Golf course architecture was also advancing as a profession during this era.
Leading golf architects like Old Tom Morris, Charles Blair Macdonald, Alister MacKenzie and others studied the Old Course at St Andrews and other early Scottish courses. Their designs were heavily influenced by these venerable links courses.
Consistent with St Andrews, they almost exclusively built courses with 18 holes. On occasion they would design 9-hole or 12-hole layouts, but 18 was the norm.
This standardization around 18 holes catalyzed its dominance worldwide. By 1900, 18 holes was firmly established as the standard. Virtually all new course construction from then on conformed to 18 holes.
Factors that reinforced 18 holes as the standard
Several factors reinforced 18 holes as optimal through the early 20th century:
- Golf club ownership – Most golf courses were (and still are) owned and operated by a golf club. Clubs standardized on 18-hole course to suit member needs and interests.
- Rules and scoring – The formal rules of golf are all based on 18-hole rounds and scoring. Handicap systems and tournament formats revolve around 18-hole rounds.
- Course routing – Architects became highly skilled at routing 18-hole courses over a property in creative and strategic ways. Deviating from 18 holes introduced design challenges.
- Maintenance – Grounds staffing, maintenance practices and equipment were optimized for 18-hole courses. Varying from this was seen as inefficient.
- Pace of play – An 18-hole round could be completed in 4-4.5 hours, suitable for a leisurely day of play. Significantly shorter or longer rounds disrupted player expectations.
- Satisfying play – Golfers enjoyed the variety, pacing and rhythm of navigating 18 diverse holes in a round of golf. Other totals were seen as unsatisfying.
The spread of 18 holes worldwide
By the early 1900s, 18 holes was entrenched as the standard across the British Commonwealth countries and throughout Europe. At the same time, popularity of golf was soaring in North America.
Scotland and England remained the epicenter of golf course architecture. Renowned architects continued designing 18-hole courses across the continents. Given golf’s origins, anything other than 18 holes was seen as eccentric.
Countries just taking up golf in the 20th century like Asia, Africa and South America immediately embraced the 18-hole standard established in the traditional golf nations.
While exceptions exist, the vast majority of courses in the world are 18 holes – from famous championship venues to humble municipal courses to resort layouts. It is impossible to imagine golf without 18-hole courses today.
Variations from 18 holes
While 18 holes is sacrosanct, variations do exist:
- Executive courses – Shorter, smaller scale courses aimed at beginners, families and practice. Typically 9 holes but can be 12 or 18.
- Par-3 courses – Short courses with only par-3 holes. Popular for warming up, casual play, kids and night golf. Usually 9 holes.
- Six hole courses – A recent trend especially at resorts. Allows for very fast play for golfers looking to squeeze in a quick round.
- Mini golf / pitch & putt – Casual putting and short-game courses with 18 or fewer very short holes. More recreation than golf.
- Historic courses – Some venerable courses like St Andrews Old Course and Musselburgh Links have extra holes or configurations allowing flexibility in routing.
- Specimen holes – On golf architecture projects, architects occasionally design extra demonstration holes not part of the main course.
- Residential courses – Within housing developments, small amenity courses with 3-6 holes cater to residents.
So while there are some variations, 18 holes remains the dominant standard. Courses diverging from this norm represent a tiny fraction of overall facilities.
Why 18 holes persists as the standard
Golf has evolved tremendously since its origin 600 years ago, so why does the 18-hole standard remain nearly universal?
- It works well logistically and financially for golf club operations. Other totals would disrupt club management.
- Architects continue mastering the craft and subtleties of routing 18-hole courses. Deviations add complexity to design.
- Golfers prefer the pacing, rhythm and completion of playing 18 different holes.
- Handicapping, tournaments and record keeping are all based on 18-hole scoring. Changing would be complex and controversial.
- Golf tradition and conservatism resists fundamental changes to the time-honored 18-hole standard.
- Other than occasional experiments, golf industry provides 18-hole courses to meet customer expectations.
While not technically mandatory, 18 holes is overwhelmingly preferred by golfers, golf architects, golf clubs, and golf industry executives. It has stood the test of time as the ideal number for a regulation round of golf.
The future of 18 holes
Will future golf courses evolve away from the traditional 18 holes? While provocative new ideas always exist in golf, 18 holes remains firmly entrenched:
- With land and water scarcity, constructing full new 18-hole courses is rare. But established 18-hole courses have resilience and staying power.
- New course construction favors shorter formats like executive and par-3 courses, but these complement rather than replace 18-hole courses.
- Innovation is occurring on technology, play formats and amenities to modernize golf, but the 18-hole course itself persists.
- As golf rebounds from its downturn in the 2000s, demand and economics again favor premier 18-hole courses.
- Millennials and younger golfers still aspire to play renowned 18-hole courses at places like St Andrews, Pebble Beach, and Augusta National.
Golf is never static, and change happens gradually. But the 18-hole standard has proven its worth over centuries and shows no sign of going away. The question “How many holes are golf courses?” can confidently be answered – 18 holes.