You will be able to play in your pyjamas. Travel time to the course will be a matter of seconds. You will be able to play for 20 minutes or 12 hours on almost any golf course on the planet.
The golf course of the future is already here and it doesn’t even exist.
Advancing even further from the simulators that have in many instances replaced the traditional driving range, Sony will soon bring the golf courses of the world directly to your lounge room via it’s VR-capable Everybody’s Golf on its PlayStation platform in 2019. A virtual reality (VR) headset and controller will transport you to any golf course of your – or another user’s – imagination in startling detail and realism. If you don’t feel like playing, you can walk a golf course – or anywhere else in the world, for that matter – using Google Earth VR.
“This reality is incredible,” wrote Reddit user Verona Dude… two years ago!
“I went to both my old course in Florida and St Andrews in Scotland. At my old course it was very difficult to tell from the real thing. Even the green tilt and break is easy to see. And the views are exact when looking around.”
In this ever-connected world, it is inevitable that you will soon be able to participate in virtual tournaments against gamers across the globe, many of whom may have never experienced the feeling of making pure contact to the back of a Pro V1 with a 5-iron.
But how did we get here and what does it mean for the 1,497 golf courses under increasing pressure throughout Australia?
An Uncertain Future
In 2050 the planet is projected to house some 9.8 billion people, 37.6 million of whom will call Australia home. Five billion people will live in water-stressed areas, two billion of whom will be in countries with absolute water scarcity. The average number of connected devices per person will be 25 and the forecasted global temperature rise, above pre-industrial levels, will be an extra 2 degrees Celsius.
This is not an imagined Hollywood disaster flick; this is happening in our lifetime.
This is not an imagined Hollywood disaster flick; this is happening in our lifetime.
For the past two decades golf has struggled against declining participation rates among increasingly time-poor people, yet the model for golf-course construction has remained steadfastly static; a course consists of 18 holes and nothing less.
Club boards strongly oppose any reduction in a par of 72, so convincing them to make better use of space by building 12 good holes rather than 18 average ones remains an argument few course architects can win.
“The golf landscape in Australia is fairly unimaginative when it comes to course length, par and the number of holes,” says Mike Cocking from Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead, the team behind the par-68, 4,872-metre RACV Healesville layout that is currently 79th in Australian Golf Digest’s Top 100 Courses ranking.
“With such a lack of diversity in this country, any time a slightly different proposal is offered it is typically met with negativity, whether that’s a reduced-length course or reduced number such as nine or 12-hole courses, which are gaining popularity elsewhere around the world.”
As the rate of golf course closures continues to rise and land becomes ever more valuable, the pressure is finally starting to tell. One American entrepreneur wants to get ahead of the curve by reshaping what we believe a golf course should be. TopGolf has shown that millennials are not against the game of golf itself but want it packaged in a different way and Allen Freeman wants to take it a step further with PinShot Golf.
“The pace of life has changed. Technology and attention spans have changed. But golf really hasn’t changed,” Freeman tells Australian Golf Digest. “The core of the game itself should never be changed – it has to be challenging and outdoors – but how the game is packaged to beginners and families has to change.”
“The pace of life has changed. Technology and attention spans have changed. But golf really hasn’t changed,” – Allen Freeman
PinShot Golf’s packaging is this: 12 holes (four par 3s and eight par 4s) built on 26 hectares around a central sports bar/clubhouse that serves as the entertainment epicentre. Golfers will never be more than two holes from the clubhouse area, video boards will live-stream play and update scores for those using the app and a ‘game clock’ guarantees a round will take no longer than two hours and 48 minutes.
If you can’t make better than double-bogey or complete the hole you’re playing in the allotted 12 minutes, you just move on to the next one. And you’re only allowed to use five clubs.
As councils continually look at the footprint golf courses make within the urban sprawl, struggling golf facilities within a high-density population shape as the ideal targets.
“Best-case locations will be the ‘inner ring’ – the area between a city centre and its suburbs – as these sites offer access to dense populations while often actively seeking redevelopment,” explains Freeman, who along with course architect Brian Huntley are still chasing their first PinShot Golf site.
“It’s more about location and current land use than targeting a specific type of course to replace. If an existing course is semi-urban and failing, that’s a target. Golf needs more traffic and visibility. Entertainment districts would be a home-run, but even our concept’s lesser amount of required land might be too expensive.”
The 2008 Global Financial Crisis instigated a trend in America that saw more golf courses close than open, a trend that has continued for longer than a decade. The Australian golf industry took note but has shown little intention to change.
“The reality is that in the past 10 years I can’t think of one course that has been developed new as a 12-hole layout or an existing 18-hole layout reduced down to 12 or so holes,” says Harley Kruse, a former design associate of Greg Norman and Thomson Wolveridge Perrett and now president of the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects.
“I have a client in Sydney that has a weak and dangerous 18 holes where a 12-hole option would actually solve their internal crossover holes and external boundary issues. The pushback, though, is that the membership still wants 18 holes.”
Paul Mogford, partner with Neil Crafter at Crafter + Mogford Golf Strategies, points out that the idea of a 12-hole course is not a new one. Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland was originally a 12-hole course before the 18 routed at St Andrews became the industry standard. He acknowledges that more consideration must be given to more adaptable golf facilities.
“The ‘gamification’ of golf, as proposed in PinShot Golf, isn’t for everybody however I’m sure there is a place for this concept in an evolving market,” Mogford said when asked by Australian Golf Digest to review the concept.
“We have seen TopGolf do this with great success and it is terrific to hear of the number of first-timers going to these facilities, in particular women and children. I believe there is a place for shorter format golf courses – be they 12 or six-hole courses.
“Pressures with the cost of and availability of nearby land and on the environment are real. Under these terms, golf on smaller footprints is inevitable.”
A Golden Endorsement
In 1851, Prestwick Golf Club opened in Scotland with 12 holes; 165 years later the 12-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Park opened for play at the private recreational community of Red Ledges in Utah.
There are examples of other 12-hole courses around the world – there are currently 420 courses in Australia with fewer than 18 holes – but the Golden Bear endorsement at Red Ledges generated widespread debate as to how many holes a golf course could have.
Some accused Nicklaus of promoting 12-hole golf as a way to stimulate a declining golf course construction industry, but five years earlier in an interview with now USGA chief executive Mike Davis, golf’s greatest Major champion urged a radical rethink.
“Golf takes too long,” reasoned Nicklaus. “My kids don’t play golf any more because they’re spending time on the weekends with their kids playing little league soccer, lacrosse, football, basketball, whatever it might be. They’re on a field for an hour, hour-and-a-half, so we’ve got to have a game that takes that amount of time.
“Everybody’s got 18 holes; what does it matter if people come in after 12 holes, play in two-and-a-half hours, put their scorecard in and go home and have lunch with their wife and spend the afternoon with the kids? We’ve got to figure out how to keep people in this stupid game, and the only way I know is to shorten it down from what it is.”
It’s a line of thought that is getting more and more traction in the United States. Since its opening in 2012, Bandon Preserve at Bandon Dunes – a 13-hole par-3 course – has received widespread acclaim, architect Bill Coore declaring at the time that he hoped it could become something of a “trendsetter” for golf’s future.
“A short course made of nothing but par 3s has many advantages,” Coore wrote in a piece for Golf.com. “It’s something everyone in the family can play and enjoy on equal footing – and do so in far less time (and often with far less expense) than if they were to play a regulation course.
“By my math, par-3s require about one quarter of the time of a regulation course with 90 per cent or more of the fun.”
“Par-3s require about one quarter of the time of a regulation course with 90 per cent or more of the fun.” – Bill Coore
The Challenge course at Monarch Dunes Golf Club – a 12-hole par-3 course – has been named California’s best par-3 course and architects Damian Pascuzzo and Steve Pate awarded the American Society of Golf Course Architects’ Design Excellence Award in 2015 for their work. Taking it beyond a mere shorter version of the game, however, Monarch Dunes course superintendent Tom Elliott later devised a concept to make it even more appealing for the beginner. The Learn Golf! program starts literally from the ground up, the first of two tees located just 30 feet from the green and – as the player develops – they move back to a second tee 50 yards from the green.
“One Tuesday last summer, I found the course packed with kids,” shared Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten. “To remind me what it was like to be a newbie, they had me play the orange level using left-handed clubs. Humbling.”
Pascuzzo and Pate are also in the early stages of a project that would see an under-performing 18-hole course transformed into a 12-hole regulation course with driving range and short-game area. It is expected that the developer will have the capacity to build $US225 to $US250 million worth of high-density homes on approximately 70 acres.
“It’s interesting that so many of my friends and colleagues in the golf industry are not only comfortable with the idea of 12-hole golf courses but see all of the logical reasons to support it,” Pascuzzo adds.
While momentum may be growing in America, the same can’t be said for Australia. Despite 1,001 clubs conducting nine-hole competitions in 2018 – resulting in a growth in nine-hole rounds of 14.7 per cent on the previous year – any proposed reduction from the regulation 18 holes is most often met with icy glares.
“Many years ago our firm was asked to pitch on the design of a new course that had to be a certain length and a certain par (72). Fairway widths, number of tees and the like were all documented like some sort of checklist as to what makes a great golf course,” Cocking reveals. “The fact that this was and had been a members course for its first 100 years seemed forgotten, all in an effort to create what they perceive makes a great course.
“Perhaps the brief should have read, ‘We want to make the best course possible on this piece of land, irrespective of whether it’s a par 70 or 5,600 metres. Above all we want this to be an interesting, strategic, thought-provoking members course. Oh, and we want it to be fun.’
“Too often the number of holes or the length of the course is how people judge the quality. I would happily play 12 holes at Kingston Heath than 18 at an average golf course. It should be about quality not quantity. After all, would you prefer to drink a 500ml bottle of Grange or a litre of Cockatoo Ridge?”
The Old Course continues to allocate Sunday for residents of St Andrews to walk their dogs and enjoy the hallowed green space. ‘Municipal’ courses in the United States were founded as a way for ordinary Americans to access the game of golf as exclusive private golf clubs continued to erect increasingly higher gates at their entrances.
As golf’s popularity spread, so too did the building of public golf facilities “in such a decisive fashion as to make it only a matter of time when each city of large size will have a course of its own for the rank and file”, noted The New York Times in 1913.
Possessing a vastly different ownership structure, Australia’s public courses have long been regarded as community hubs but as participation has steadily fallen, questions have been asked as to how much of the community a golf course actually serves.
It is this premise that saw Arizona-based architect Andy Staples draw up a white paper outlining a concept he titled ‘Community Links’. At its core was a vision to return deteriorating sites with average golf courses into assets enjoyed by the entire community.
In 2015 Golf Digest named Rockwind Community Links in New Mexico the seventh-best new course of the year, but it is what happens off the golf course that has proven to be most successful. There is a dedicated walking trail system within the 27 holes, open space reserved for sanctioned events and public use, a classroom built in the clubhouse for the use of younger golfers and a five-acre lake centralised in the property for community enjoyment.
“The selling point that streamlined this project was the idea of a municipal facility for the entire community,” Staples said. “Strong civic pride is invaluable, and municipal golf facilities that can cross-promote themselves to their entire community through activities, programs and events will strengthen their sense of community and position themselves for future successes.”
According to Harley Kruse, it is this engagement with community that represents the greatest potential for growth among Australian clubs simply battling to break even.
“As a lifetime sport, golf can and should be encouraged for all, whether eight years old or 88,” Kruse points out. “Golf facilities both public and private need to be more family-orientated where multigenerations of parents, grandparents and the kids can all go there and enjoy a range of activities.”
More than anything right now, golf clubs need people. If they are pressed for time or have scant interest in the game at all, we must find ways in which to engage them. Because if we can’t, we face a reality of the golf course of the future having no holes whatsoever.