The Loop

Did you know: Why does a golf course have 18 holes?

March 26, 2020
Old Course

David Cannon

The coronavirus pandemic has hit a giant pause button on fans being able to watch golf on TV, and in some cases, even kept people off courses. But while we hunker down and hope for a speedy return to normalcy, we can also use this time as an opportunity to learn more about the game we love. Here’s our first installment of “Did you know?”

In the beginning, there was St. Andrews. And this old course that is most appropriately named THE Old Course had 18 holes. Well, near the beginning it had 18 holes, that is. And eventually, other courses were copycats.

Those are the broad strokes of how a typical golf course came to have 18 holes. Sadly, as Snopes confirmed, the number has nothing to do with how many shots are in a bottle of Scotch—though that makes for a much more fun story.

In any event, if you love golf, 18 holes is great because it takes a long time to play that many. Of course, if you love someone who loves golf, it’s not as great. But again, it took a long time for this to become standard. Even longer than it takes to play 18 holes at a public course today.

So how did St. Andrews come to have 18 holes? There must have been some special Scottish reason for this, right? Wrong.

The first courses actually varied in number of holes, and even St. Andrews had 22 at one point. TWENTY-TWO! Too bad it didn’t stay that way, huh? According to the website Scottish Golf History, the number was cut to 18 pretty arbitrarily when four short holes were combined into two (played in two directions) in 1764. And this still wasn’t a template right away for other courses as evidenced by Prestwick Golf Club opening in 1851 with just 12 holes.

In fact, Prestwick’s dastardly dozen (Not an actual nickname, but something I just made up. Like it?) hosted the first 12 British Opens—sorry, Open Championships—beginning in 1860. That makes Willie Park Sr.’s three-round winning total of 174 seem a lot less impressive, huh?

It would have been a baker’s dozen of Opens to start, but there was no tournament in 1871 because Young Tom Morris was allowed to just keep the title belt (yes, an actual belt) that year because he had won the three previous years. Man, they had some crazy rules back in the day.

Anyway, when the Open returned in 1872 at Prestwick, it remained a 36-hole event and stayed that way when it moved to St. Andrews (two rounds of 18) in 1873 and Musselburgh (four rounds of 9!) in 1874. And you thought the current Open rota was tough to keep track of.

In 1881, Prestwick finally joined a number of other courses in getting on board with having 18 holes, because, again, everyone was trying to copy the Old Course, which also happens to be where the Royal and Ancient Golf Club is based. And when you're regarded as "The Home of Golf," people tend to follow your lead. It's just too bad they didn't stick with 22. . .