The following is excerpted from Routing the Golf Course, by Forrest Richardson (©John Wiley & Sons, 2002)
The late Fred Hawtree, a golf course architect and an extremely thoughtful man, writes in his book, Aspects of Golf Course Architecture, “It is tempting to suggest that the first tiny seed of golf course architecture was sown in October, 1764. A meeting of the Gentlemen Golfers of St. Andrews expressed the view, ‘That it would be for the improvement of the links that four first holes should be converted into two.'” The act described by Hawtree seems to have been a matter of convenience to the society. Nowhere does the record mention any grand scheme to the plan. It was not necessarily to make the course a longer length, although that was its effect. No drawn plan survived. In fact, we do not know if a formal plan was ever drawn, nor do we know who carried out the work. Rather, in just two short days, the idea was formally adopted, and soon St. Andrews Links consisted of only nine holes (ten holes dug into the ground) where before there had been 11 (12 holes dug into the ground). A round of golf, at least at St. Andrews, was now 18 holes.
It is very likely that there was not much work to be done to physically make this change. With no improved greens, no teeing areas, no fairways (to speak of), and none of the components of modern courses (sprinkler systems, cart paths, drainage, and on and on and on) that we take for granted, it was a simple task of filling in a few holes and changing whatever markers were in use at the time.
Pace-of-play expert Bill Yates, who has studied The Old Course in an effort to keep play moving in the 2000s, theorizes that the change very well could have had something to do with congestion on the links, even way back then. “If I analyze the course as it might have been with extra holes in those parts of the round, the waiting times might have driven the members a bit nutty,” he notes. Decongestion is as good of theory as any. And why not? Golf is an experience to be enjoyed. Imagine four short holes to begin a round, about 200 yards each. While it might not have been so bad with the limited length of the balls of the time, this configuration still could have caused players to wait, as short holes seem to beg congestion, especially when bunched together. It may also have provided another distraction in that the closing holes, as the holes were played in reverse on the way in, were of the same short length. Hardly the type of finish one would want on a challenging test. Taking the rough dimension of 800 yards (the approximate total of the original first four holes) and removing two holes raises the yardage of these three opening holes — and three finishing holes — to around 400 yards each. Each of these holes — the first two and the last two – are today all par 4s, and, yes, their yardages are, in fact, just under or slightly over 400 yards apiece. This configuration sounds infinitely better than what we envision to have been there prior to 1764. Even with the first stroke play being mentioned in 1759, match play would have been undoubtedly better suited to this design as well.
But, despite its influential membership of gentlemen and lords, the change to 18 holes did not mean the immediate change of all courses across Britain, as many believe. For three-quarters of a century, courses continued to be laid out with fewer than 18 holes, and occasionally more. Nine-hole layouts were popular, and few of these were configured with holes to be played twice (out and in), as at St. Andrews. Until the 1840s, half of Britain’s courses had either nine holes or some other number than 18.
Then, finally, The Old Course began to be taken as a role model. With the 1834 bestowment to royal status, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club began a tradition of rule-making and governing that still pertains. Competitions, along with the new game of playing for the fewest strokes, drove the 18-hole standard until The Old Course was the standard. Right or wrong, 18 holes became a part of the vernacular that changed the course of golf history.