For more than a century, Winter Park Country Club, in the leafy northeast Orlando suburb of the same name, has served as a city park with pin flags, a recreational-leisure amenity on par with a swimming pool or tennis court, a community hub with golf as its centerpiece.
Golfers at this nine-hole layout pass not one but two churches, tip toe past a cemetery, hear the whistle and roar of a train all while crossing the street on six occasions. In its dotage, those who played WPCC regularly loved it, but it was hard to ignore the truth: it was a neglected jewel, a loss-leader for the city in need of capital improvements and sitting on valuable acreage. In short, it was on the verge of going the way of persimmon like many other courses during the ongoing market correction that spans more than a decade.
Had it not been for city leaders who valued its green space and decided to invest in a large-scale renovation, WP9, as it now is affectionately called, could have been another statistic. City administrators wisely conceded they were out of their league and established a task force in 2014 to help select the architecture team of Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns to oversee the $1.2-million project.
Nine-hole courses are golf’s sandlots, a breeding ground for future golfers and a farm team of sorts for future private-club membership rolls. They often serve as the foundation for learning the game, as well as its customs and etiquette.
Built in 1914, WP9 is a par 35 of just 2,480 yards, and the shortest of the finest nine-hole layouts in America highlighted in Anthony Pioppi’s new book, The Finest Nines. “What it lacks in length it makes up in bodacious green contours and a handful of deep, steep bunkers,” wrote Golf Digest architectural editor Ron Whitten.
WP9 is an example of golf’s need for courses that are urban, have fewer holes and built on smaller footprints. It also gives hope to other nine-hole courses that a resurgence of interest in playing these small wonders is afoot.
In 2017, revenue from memberships at WP9 soared to $81,000. Prior to the renovation in 2015, it was $32,000, Johns said. Tee time revenue also skyrocketed from $400,000 to $775,000. Most telling of all: from 2011-16, the course averaged an operational deficit of $150,000. In 2017, the first year post-renovation, the course was in the black, and did over 40,000 rounds.
“The parking lot isn’t big enough for all these people,” Johns said.
AN EMERGING MOVEMENT
Nine-hole golf has a rich tradition. The first U.S. Open, in 1895, was played on a nine-hole course. Less than 30 years ago, almost half of the golf courses in America had nine holes.
Today, there are almost 4,000 nine-hole facilities in the U.S. – about 27 percent of the total supply – and 2/3 of them are daily-fee courses. Another 19 percent are municipal properties while 15 percent are private. Iowa, with 254 nine-hole courses, leads all states, but New York (209), Texas (207), California (193) and Illinois (183) aren’t far behind, according to the NGF’s facility database. (Fourteen states have more than 100 nine-holers, the majority of which are in the middle of the country.)
At some point during the golf boom of the late 20th Century, 18 holes of “bomb and gouge” became the accepted definition of golf, and nine-hole golf was reduced in status. That may be changing. Recognizing the pace of our busy lives, there’s an emerging movement that returns to the very roots of golf in the U.S. and the configuration by which many rounds were originally played.
“I wish I knew how it happened, but somewhere along the lines people came to the realization that golf doesn’t have to be 18 holes,” Pioppi said. “It’s OK. The goal is to play golf.”
Nine-hole rounds are a fulfilling way to enjoy the game in half the time, often at a reduced price and in a format that is more welcoming to friends or family members who may be less experienced. People are busier today and spend more time at the office. Leisure time is precious, and the extra hours spent on an 18-hole round is not something everyone can afford.
Golf industry leaders, led by the PGA of America and the USGA, joined forces with Golf Digest to promote the nine-hole round in 2013, with the tagline “Nine is Fine.” Last year, 24 percent of golfers who posted official scores to the USGA’s GHIN handicap system played at least one nine-hole round, up from 17% in 2015.
“Every other recreation, it seems, takes more or less two hours: movies, dinner, cocktail parties, tennis, bowling, going to the gym,” said Golf Digest’s editor-in-chief Jerry Tarde. “If golf were invented today, it would be a nine-hole game.”
The R&A joined the fray after a recent study it conducted found that 60 percent of golfers would enjoy golf more if it took less time. This led the R&A to run a nine-hole event at Royal Troon in 2016, and its success resulted in a 9-hole event being held throughout Great Britain and Ireland last year. The 2018 event will culminate in a nine-hole final at Carnoustie in Scotland on the eve of the 147th Open Championship.
“Nine-hole golf is not new but we feel it is often overlooked as a perfectly valid way to play the sport either with your family and friends or competitively,” says Martin Slumbers, chief executive of The R&A.
A MODEL COURSE?
The beauty of a nine-hole round is being able to enjoy every aspect of the traditional golf experience, but in less time. Posting of nine-hole scores made up 8 percent of all scores posted to the GHIN system over the past four years, up from 6 percent. Despite the resurgence of nine-hole rounds, there is no magic formula, says Johns.
“I think we found the right ‘it’ for Winter Park, but I don’t think it translates to every other place,” he said. “Every one has to figure out his own ‘it’ otherwise you get lost into the genericism of what golf can turn into.”
Another recent success story of a nine-hole course that followed anything but a cookie-cutter approach is Sweetens Cove Golf Club in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, population 3,000.
Pioppi tabbed Sweetens Cove “without a doubt, the finest 9-hole golf course built in the modern era of golf course architecture (post-1959).” Rob Collins of King-Collins Design & Golf Construction is the architect and owner-operator of this nine-hole course that opened in October 2015, and saw almost 10,000 rounds-played last year. The 92 percent increase from the first full season at Sweetens Cove was driven by strong regional appeal.
“Demographics and the proximity to large population centers make the numbers work,” said Collins, who noted he is drawing from Nashville and Chattanooga as well as Atlanta, Birmingham and Knoxville, Tennessee. “If you have those key elements on your side, there’s no question that nine holes can work as a standalone business.”
After four years of planning, fundraising, designing and building, Frederick Peak Golf Club opened in May in Valentine, Nebraska, the only new stand-alone nine-hole course to debut in the U.S. in 2017.
Tom Lehman designed the course, which replaced the city-owned golf facility that closed its doors in 2012 after a 43-year run. The new layout is a true community project built on a piece of underutilized city-owned land surrounding a fish hatchery. Funding to create a self-sufficient and sustainable model came from a variety of sources: $1.75 million from a sales-tax contribution; private donations of $300,000 as well as $100,000 from the Cherry County Visitor Promotion Board.
Local volunteers helped move dirt, equipment to build the course was donated, and the industrial tech class from the town’s high school helped build the pump house and the course’s cart and equipment shed.
“We believe Frederick Peak Golf Club will be a highlight of our community for generations to come and other smaller communities around the world could follow our model to create sustainable municipal golf courses,” said Valentine residents Stephen Isom and Mike Danielski, who helped spearhead the project.
In its first year open to the public, the course — which has a full-time superintendent and part-time help throughout the golf season — turned a $41,000 profit. “We exceeded all expectations,” Isom says.
As if we needed further confirmation that nine is fine.