You might be asking yourself: What the heck is Golf Digest, bible of the 36-a-day addict, home of the 75-rounds-a-year "avid" golfer doing promoting nine-hole rounds?
Isn't that for Wednesday beginners who would think Tillinghast might be a new chardonnay? Isn't nine the world of couples twilight golf, or the unsatisfying consequence of an afternoon thunderstorm, a game you'd turn down, frankly, if that's all your buddy could come up with? I'd better work.
Nine? What are we thinking?
Here's what: We're thinking of the first (nine-hole) tournament a father ever played with his son when the kid says, "This is a tournament, Dad. Where are all the people?" Or a dusky nine shared by a young couple when he makes a hole-in-one and decides it's a message from God that she's the one. We're thinking of a million emergency nines, beverage in hand, or of the first round two brothers ever paid for at a beat-up course where the dandelioned fairways were like a bad back yard, but the french fries were perfect.
Look, rounds played have been dropping, and you're telling us it's harder to get out to play. So ... we're trying to help. We think you'll play a whole lot more golf if you get with a growing number of golfers who have come to love "partial" rounds. Eighteen is great. But nine is fine.
We're pleased to announce that PGA of America and the USGA agree with us. They will help us build a list of "nine-hole-friendly" courses and will encourage their members and member clubs to offer and promote nine-hole play. What's more, the USGA is contemplating various ways that it can encourage golfers to play nine-hole rounds, when they have the time, and wants to make sure that golfers understand that nine-hole rounds are compatible with the Rules of Golf and the USGA Handicap System.
Management consultant Kristin Maschka has calculated that we're way behind our parents in personal leisure time. She says the combination of increased time at the office—from 500 to 1,400 additional hours a year—and more time with the kids—an additional 440 hours a year—leaves us with at least 2½ hours less free time every day. No surprise that most of our leisure activities have shrunk to two hours, max: dinner, a movie, a workout, a (short) ballgame. Marathons have given way to half-marathons, and even cricket matches have time limits. Is it any wonder that weekend golfers have to adjust, too?
"In 1998 our percentage of nine-hole rounds was 30 percent," says Leigh Bader, who runs the Pine Oaks nine-hole course in South Easton, Mass. "In 2011 that was 70 percent. Nine holes is the staple. Even on weekends, the standard 18 is no longer true." At the tonier end of golf properties the same can be true, says Cathy Harbin, vice president of golf revenue at ClubCorp, which operates more than 150 resorts and clubs. "So few people want to go out and play 18 anymore," Harbin says. "That can't be our message in the industry. We have to say, 'You can do 18, but look, there are all of these other options.' "
At Blackhawk Golf Course in Janesville, Wis., one of nearly 100 KemperSports properties in 27 states, that means nine, six or three holes. At Billy Casper Golf's Kaanapali courses in Maui, nonresidents can pay for 18, play 12 or 13, and come back later in the week for the rest. And that message of "family nines" and partial rounds is making its way to most of Casper's 148 properties in 28 states. At PGA of America president Ted Bishop's courses in Franklin, Ind., you can play nine any day of the week after 4 p.m. for $19—with cart.
"Twenty-five years ago or so, as golf got more popular, golf management thought, Why did we need nine-hole rates?" says Casper Golf's Joe Goodrich. "We'd lost some of that flexibility. We're getting it back."
Flexibility can mean a "five-hole club" like the one Goodrich's wife, Cathy, plays in at their local course; a 125-strong "Morning Glories" league at the Falmouth (Mass.) Country Club, run by Casper Golf; a "huge response" to a 10-hole course in Washington, D.C.; or the option, even in New York or Los Angeles, to tee it up early on a weekend morning and get home for breakfast. "Golfers might not be aware of it, but there is an opportunity to play nine even at times when they're busy, when they have other things to do, like kids' soccer," says American Golf president and CEO Paul Major, whose company oversees 96 private, public and resort courses across the country. "We have nine-hole rates early so you can tee off on the back nine. Typically it's the best pace of play, at 6:30 or 7 in the morning. It's mainly an awareness issue that they're not used more." Sometimes, the owners say, those nine-hole rates are less than half of the 18-hole rate.
Worldwide, nine is already fine. In France, where 18-hole rounds dropped nearly 7 percent last year, nine-hole rounds were up a tiny bit. Fifty-five percent of South African golf courses are nine holes. In Australia, "the nine-hole format is gathering great momentum," says Australian Golf Digest Editor-in-Chief Brad Clifton, who has commissioned a story on it. In the Czech Republic almost half the courses are nine holes, and it's common for golfers in Prague to play nine before work.
In this country "there's been a stigma attached to playing nine," says Ryan Walls of Troon Golf. "Oh, you're a nine-holer; you must be a high-handicapper. But it's changing to where nine is more about time and experience and less about ability level." Corporate and industrial leagues aren't quite as popular as they used to be, say course owners, but social leagues have had an uptick.
"We said to our facilities, 'Why not promote nine-hole rounds?' " Walls says. "Some people are put off. They see it as a low-base, municipal kind of promotion. But it's coming." "What you hear is that pace of play is important to people," Major says. "When you dig into that, you realize it's that people want respect for 'me and my time.' "
We were surprised at how rarely owners feared that nine-hole programs would undermine 18-hole play. "No, you're really talking about a different element of player," Bishop says. Adds Major, who has some of New York City's busiest courses: "You don't want to negatively impact your core constituency. If they come around on Saturday morning and have to wait for three groups on the 10th hole, that's not a good experience. But generally there is capacity."
What about my handicap? we hear you asking. Nine-hole rounds are not a problem. Both nine- and 18-hole handicaps exist, and you can work with either. (Halve the 18-hole or just create a nine-hole.) "We agree that a lot of people don't know that," says Steve Edmondson, the USGA's managing director of handicapping, course rating and GHIN. "You're going to see some messaging from the USGA at counters and kiosks regarding nine holes and handicaps."
The real message, we think, is don't let the inability to play 18 pull the game away from you. "People kind of get in the rhythm of golf," Major says. "The more you do it—in any form—the more desire you have to do it."
Nine is fine.