John Renslow: Adult beverages behind 18-hole golf courses?
First of all, thank you for sending in your questions. This great game has been played for hundreds of years. There is a rich history and, unlike other sports, there is a social premium on knowledge about the game, not just our skill set.
So my mission is to equip you, to help you have more fun by making you feel more comfortable on the course.
The question on the table is this; why do golf courses have 18 holes? Why not 10 or 20 or whatever?
Legend tells us that a king of Scotland or perhaps a leader in the Scottish Royal and Ancient Golf Club relished a certain adult beverage. (It’s a family show, but what would a 19th century Scot drink?) It seems the bottle contained 18 portions. So the king would limit himself to one portion per hole and thus 18 holes.
Could this be the answer? Well, let’s investigate a little further.
First off, golf courses didn’t always have 18 holes. In fact, there was an acceptable, wide variety. The Leeth Links, where the original Rules of Golf were installed in 1744, had just five holes.
The location for the Old Course has been used since the 16th century and, as far as the lay of the land, had 11 holes. Golfers would play “out” along the 11 holes, then return and play “in” along the same 11 holes, 22 scores on the scorecard.
You see, they didn’t have a “teeing ground” like we do today, a nicely mown area of grass with a couple of markers. Golfers would create a tee (essentially a small mound) by using sand from the previous hole. The ball was to be played “within a club length of the hole” (original Rules of Golf, 1744).
So the path and the holes being used on their way out (away from the clubhouse) were the exact same path and holes being used on the way in. It wasn’t until later that more holes were cut, but these additional holes were still located on the very same putting green.
Time goes by and someone decides to make a change that reduces the total number of holes from 22 to 18. Here is where we might find the answer to our question. One story is that a person on the committee at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club thought that two of the holes were too short and chose to eliminate them.
The other is that Scottish royalty had found the perfect balance between a round of golf and their favorite fluid. Or maybe it’s a little of both.
Nonetheless, in 1858, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, golf’s governing body, issued an official decree that a round consisted of 18 holes. Rule 1 stated “one round of the Links or 18 holes is reckoned a match unless otherwise stipulated.” Soon after, other courses made necessary changes, and by the 1870s, nearly all courses had 18 holes.
The plausibility of either scenario being the impetus for a certain number of holes depends on your perspective. Is it more realistic that someone on the committee decided a hole was too short? Or did the royalty realize that there was no beverage cart yet and didn’t want to run out of their favorite drink?
In the end, we have no definitive answer. Whatever the cause, the result was a game that grew around the world, and I’ll drink to that.
John Renslow is a PGA Class A Professional and Instructor at Alta Sierra Country Club. Please contact John with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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