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When Nine is Fine

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.

The first hole at Winter Park in Florida

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.

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 more than 3,700 nine-hole facilities in the U.S. – about 26% of the total supply. Approximately 85% are open to the public, with 2/3 of them daily-fee courses. Iowa, with 246 nine-hole courses, leads all states, but Texas (198), New York (187), Illinois (174) and California (171) 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.)

A map of 9-hole facility supply in the U.S.

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. Recognizing the pace of our busy lives, there’s been an emerging movement in recent years 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.

Through the end of the summer months in 2020, Core golfers reported that 33% of their rounds were of the nine-hole variety, as many took advantage of the way the coronavirus had changed the contours of the work day, particularly when daylight hours were longer. The number of shorter loops (as a percentage of the overall total) was up 15% in 2020.

“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.”

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.

The USGA, which has a PLAY9 initiative, said that 9-hole scores accounted for about 13% of scores posted to the new World Handicap System in 2020.

In total, almost 66 million 18-hole scores were posted in the U.S. to just over 10 million 9-hole scores. This engagement is among the more committed golfer base, too, as golfers with an official USGA handicap posted an average of 38 rounds, almost double the average played by all golfers last year.

Despite the resurgence of nine-hole rounds, there is no magic formula, says Johns.

“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.

The first hole at Sweetens Cove in Tennessee.

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, which has developed a bit of a cult following among golf aficionados since opening in October 2015.

“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 the success of Sweetens Cove, Collins and design partner Tad King are preparing to unveil another much-anticipated nine-hole project in 2021 at the Inness Mountain Resort in Accord, New York. Like Sweetens, its a standalone nine-holer, created atop an existing, but out-of-business golf course.

“It will also be fully public with yearly pass membership opportunities,” said Collins, “And it will be part of a larger resort with other outdoor activities like hiking, biking, fishing, etc.”

Chances are, it will be further confirmation that nine is fine.

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National Golf Foundation
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