Nine is the New Eighteen: 9-Hole Courses for Your Golf Bucket List
By Michael Williams
2020 saw an unforeseen boom in golf that was influenced by a range of factors. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people had more opportunities to play and were looking for an outdoor activity that provided a safe option for exercise and recreation and they chose golf. And in large part, people were getting their golf on nine holes at a time.
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According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), the number of short loops was up over 15% in 2020. Core golfers (defined as U.S. adults who have played a minimum of eight rounds of golf in the past 12 months) are the foundation of the golf business, accounting for almost 90% of money spent and rounds played. NGF reported that 33% of core golfer rounds in 2020 were of the nine-hole rounds, while occasional golfers (1-7 rounds in the past 12 months) reported that 48% of the rounds they’re playing are nine holes.
Many golfers have adopted the false notion that a course with less than 18 holes is somehow lacking in size and in quality. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The industry has long recognized the quality of nine-hole courses. Some nine-hole courses are all par-3’s that are perfect for sharpening the skills with the scoring clubs. Others, sometimes called executive courses, will have a mixture of par-3’s and par-4’s with the occasional par-5 thrown in for good measure.
Some of the most famous names in American golf began as nine-hole tracks before expanding to eighteen. Merion Golf Club, which now boasts two of the most storied course in the world, began as the Merion Cricket Club with a 9-hole course that was soon made obsolete by the length of the advancements in ball technology (some things never change).
Legendary Newport Country Club, which hosted the U.S. Amateur and the first U.S. Open, started out as a nine-hole track designed by William Davis. And nine-hole gems grace the portfolios of legends like Donald Ross and Alastair McKenzie as well as the best of the new generation such as Gil Hanse and the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
The nine-hole version thrived for most of the history of golf in the U.S. in fact, until 1974, there were more nine-hole golf facilities in the U.S. than 18 holers. Currently, there are 3,777 nine-hole golf course in the U.S., which accounts for about 26% of the total supply (NGF).
Tim Krebs is a PGA Class A professional and the area director of operations for National Links Trust in Washington, DC., which now operates the National Park Service golf courses in the nation’s capital, including three 9-hole courses. Krebs understands the value of the short loop tot eh golfer and the operator.“
We have a nine-hole par three (Red Course) and a nine-hole executive (White Course) at East Potomac. And we have right now we're operating a nine-hole regulation at Rock Creek Golf Course. The customers are basically across the board, the entire gamut of people that play golf. You have really, really skilled golfers that are playing a quick nine before work at 6 in the morning or at 6 in the evening after they're done with work. And during the day you've got everything from beginners to juniors, to seniors…anybody and everybody playing those golf courses. So probably the best thing about nine-hole golf is that it really appeals to everyone.”
Over the years, the golf industry has launched a number of initiatives to promote 9-hole golf and it seems as though the golfing public is finally catching on.
“In general, two of the biggest barriers to play golf are cost and time. So, the nine-hole aspect does alleviate both of those,’ notes Krebs. “To play a nine-hole regulation round you might be looking at two hours, but to play a nine-hole par-3 round it might only take you to an hour and a half. And, of course, it’s cheaper.”
Michael Chupka, Director of Communications for Bandon Dunes, agrees that short courses like the Preserve at Bandon serve to enhance the pure enjoyment of the game, the driving principle for the acclaimed resort.
“The Preserve is an opportunity for us to say it's not about breaking 90 or 80, or whatever it is. It's just about going out there and playing some beautiful par threes and enjoying every moment of it with the people that you're with.”
Whether you head out with friends, family or the rare solitary nine, here are a few courses where you can enjoy some of the best 9-hole course experiences in America:
The Dunes Club • New Buffalo, Mich.
Designer Dick Nugent developed the course with developer and owner Mike Keiser, now famous for his masterpieces in Oregon, Bandon Dunes, and Wisconsin, Sand Valley. The layout of the course is truly magnificent, the greens lightning quick, and the conditions absolutely pristine.
Sweetens Cove GC • South Pittsburg, TN
Sports greats Andy Roddick and Peyton Manning are part of the ownership team of Sweetens Cove, which many golfers call their favorite course in the country. It’s broad, closely mown fairways give an Augusta-like feel and offers golfers options for how to get it home. One golfer said, “Sweetens is just…pure…” Amen.
Whitinsville Golf Club • Whitinsville, MA
In his book “To the Nines”, author Anthony Prioppi writes, “If Whitinsville is not the greatest nine-hole course in the country, it surely resides in the rarefied air of the top three.” Designed by the great Donald Ross, Whitinsville features 6 par-4’s, 2 par-3’s and a par-5, each displaying the beauty of the land and the genius of the man.
East Potomac White Course • Washington, DC.
This mix of 3’s and 4’s has an open layout with fairly straight fairways and few hazards. Conditioning can be little rough but worth it to see Marine One headed for the White House and lining up your tee shot with using the Washington Monument. Also has one of the best burgers in town.
The Cradle at Pinehurst Resort • Pinehurst, NC
Placed on the site of the original nine holes of the resort known as the “Cradle of American golf”, Gil Hanse’s 9-hole track is as pure as any of the larger offerings at Pinehurst. Families will love that up to kids under 17 can play for free with a paying adult.
The Preserve Bandon Dunes • Bandon, OR
Technically, The Preserve is a 13-hole par-3 course, but it fits perfectly in this selection of short courses that are long on golf enjoyment. Built for golfers who might be a little tuckered after walking 36 holes, Mike Keiser’s only directive was that any of the holes would have be worthy of inclusion in any of the award-wining 18-hole courses at Bandon. Mission accomplished.
The Sandbox at Sand Valley • Nekoosa, WI
Golfers are standing in line to play courses designed by Coore and Crenshaw, and the Sandbox does not disappoint. The par-3 course can be played with only a few clubs (longest hole is 140 yards) and is a primer in classic golf course design features.
Chief Egan and McVeigh’s Gauntlet Silvies Valley• Ranch Seneca, OR
This expansive resort on the high desert of Oregon is making quite a splash on the golf travel scene. You might make a few too on Chief Egan, a 9-hole par-3 track that has was water on every hole. If you want golf on another literally another level, McVeigh’s Gauntlet is an executive track carved out of a stretch of land so hilly that mountain goats are used for caddies. Seriously.
Northwood Golf Club • Monte Rio, CA
Dr. Alister MacKenzie designed Augusta National, Pasatiempo, Cypress Point and Northwood. Not sure it needs any more of a recommendation than that.