The Old Course at St Andrews was a 22-hole layout before a sensible reconfiguration of the grand old dame in 1764 pruned it to 18, and a figure the game has known as standard ever since. But ‘standard’ in 21st century life is an increasingly diluted and near-redundant term, even in golf.
Yet a history of rigidly sticking to tradition has made the task of encouraging nine-hole rounds more difficult than it needs to be. Some golfers in Australia who’ve been fed a steady diet of 18-hole rounds, particularly in club competitions, still view nine-hole rounds with the same disdain that one might react to eating half a pizza or consuming half a beer: it’s good but it’s not the real thing. Modern reality dictates, however, that shorter is often better – or if not better, at very least more practical. Which means nine-hole rounds are the real thing. The five-hour slog of an 18-hole competition round in a group of four with an accompanying pre-game warm-up and post-play drowning of sorrows can be replaced by a more manageable two-hour loop. Playing nine holes still hones and maintains skills, provides exercise, gets time-poor golfers on the course and is eminently better than not playing at all. And playing nine can still impact handicaps, which is part of the message our national body likes to convey.
“We’ve had fantastic feedback and in-depth interest in the Play 9 concept,” says David Gallichio Golf Australia’s participation manager. “We’ve been working with our member clubs to promote nine-hole golf as a viable alternative.”
The first year of the Play 9 initiative was an exercise in dipping a toe in the water for the organisation. It ran for four-and-a-half months and, for logistical reasons in order to determine finalists ahead of the Australian Open, the timeframe included just one week during daylight saving time. That will be rectified in 2019 when Play 9 begins on January 1st, allowing more post-work windows of time for a quick nine during the parts of the year offering more daylight.
All clubs have to do is run a dedicated nine-hole competition. Some facilities have enquired about simply taking nine-hole scores from within an 18-hole competition, but it doesn’t work that way. The very concept is predicated on being genuine nine-hole events.
Further support has come from the R&A, which created space for two Australian golfers in its corresponding initiative during the British Open at Royal Portrush next July. Participating in nine-hole competitions at club level this year (as it did last year) opens the door to being one of 24 qualifiers touring The Lakes Golf Club in a nine-hole event staged during the Australian Open next month. From there, two golfers will travel to Northern Ireland to compete in the R&A’s nine-hole championship final prior to the long-awaited return of The Open to the famous Portrush links.
Even considering the lure of such an incentive, the number of nine-hole competitions held has been a revelation: 45,000 rounds were logged in two months spanning June and July. Not only is that figure taken from the depths of winter, it is 15 percent up on the same two months last year. Starting Play 9 in January next year should further boost those numbers.
Gallichio says a combination of the reduced time required and a novelty factor coupled with the ease of running a nine-hole competition has boosted interest. “Many golfers have only got time to play nine holes,” he says.
Pining For Nine
Golf Australia estimates there are 400 nine-hole courses among the 1,700 or so golf facilities scattered across the nation. They’re urban and rural, both remote and right around the corner. And from an architectural perspective, many of our best nine-holers are just a breath behind the elite ‘big’ courses. King Island, for example, is home to a well-established nine-hole layout beside the sea that is ridiculously good and pre-dates its more vaunted 18-hole siblings on the island by decades.
Incidentally, it is Australia’s smallest state that has the most nine-hole courses, when considered on a per capita basis. Tasmania is today highly regarded for its rising number of world-class 18-hole courses, but a healthy host of nine-holers is a critical part of the state’s golf heritage.
“I would suggest it’s a bit of a sociological phenomenon,” says Stuart Eaton, Golf Tasmania’s golf operations manager. “A lot of the courses are located in small towns, with some having very, very small membership numbers.”
Nationally, some nine-holers ask golfers to play the identical course twice if they wish to quench their 18-hole desires, while others sprinkle a little variety by creating alternate tees on some or all of the nine holes. Your correspondent spent his late teens as a member of a club with a nine-hole course. At my golf-mad peak, I once played those nine holes six times in one day, to which the club pro quipped: “You must be dizzy going around that many times!”
My take then, as now, is that regardless of how many holes a course might contain, each circuit brings its own set of challenges. One newish course on the outskirts of Bangkok, called Nikanti, is an 18-hole design with three distinct six-hole loops. Playing as few as six or even three holes is not only allowed but encouraged. The message is: 18 holes is the maximum on offer at most courses, not the minimum, and certainly not the rule.
Above is a collection of appealing nine-hole courses from each state, along with a few alternatives. (We’ve focused on standalone courses rather than nine-hole layouts with an attached 18-holer, such as the Cups nine at The Dunes in Victoria or Royal Sydney’s Centenary course). But such is the nature of these pint-sized parcels, chances are that with a little exploration you’ll surprise yourself by finding a little course with a big heart.
King Island Golf & Bowling Club
The original King Island course shares much of the seaside majesty of the newer 18-hole additions to the Bass Strait locale. Long regarded as one of the best nine-holers in Australia, the King Island layout comprises windswept undulations and dramatic scenery on an exposed and volatile site.
Also worth playing: Quamby Estate, Tasman Golf Club.
Binningup Golf Club
Known to locals as Lakewood Shores, a full 18 holes was originally on paper for Binningup but the second nine never materialised for the seaside site north of Bunbury. The nine-hole version has a reputation for amazing vistas and the quality composition of holes.
Also worth playing: Nedlands Golf Club, Sea View Golf Club.
Copperclub Golf Club
Another course initially intended to be an 18-holer, the Greg Norman design on the Yorke Peninsula features broad fairways and eye-catching bunkering in a location where the wind and weather will determine the difficulty of the challenge.
Also worth playing: Oakbank Golf Club, Regency Park Golf Course.
Boomerang Farm Golf Course
Tucked away at the foot of the Gold Coast hinterland, here is an Aussie bush oasis that is welcoming to all. If you are a fan of downhill par 3s, ‘The Farm’ has three beauties ranging in length from 110 metres to 160. The sight of the ball sailing in front of the bush canopy is one that never gets old.
Also worth playing: Noosa Valley Country Club, Tamborine Mountain Golf Club.
Frankston Golf Club
Known as the “Millionaires” club by some and the “Little Course” by others, Frankston is a tidy nine-holer with a smart routing containing two sets of tees and is highly regarded for its pristine surfaces. There’s a definite touch of the Sandbelt in the course’s bunkering and green sites.
Also worth playing: Cheltenham Golf Club, Geelong Golf Club.
New South Wales
Tathra Beach Country Club
The tiny coastal town in the state’s south owns an impressive layout, so much so that it once claimed to be the best nine-holer in the country. While the land is flat and not overly inspiring at first glance, the course twists to make use of a turn in the nearby Bega River that is a key feature on several holes.
Also worth playing: Bondi Golf & Diggers Club, Lord Howe Island Golf Club.