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Accidental Revelation

How 12 holes carved out of the past provide a map for the game’s future

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I had played bigger. I had certainly played longer, and I had probably played better. But I was not three holes in at Shiskine when I decided I was playing the perfect golf course.

In the summer of 2015, I searched the coastline of the U.K. for the secret to golf. I visited more than 100 links courses, convinced one held the antidote to the slings and arrows with which golf had battered my ego since the age of 8. (One did, but that’s for another story.) The answer I was not expecting to discover was a cure for the triumvirate of golf’s maladies, the three threats most detrimental to the modern game: Golf is too hard, too expensive and takes too long to play. Each lament threatens golf’s future at a hastening clip, but on an island off the coast of Scotland, I found the solution for golf’s tomorrow packed into a snug stretch of its seaside past.

We had been island hopping down Scotland’s west coast, mastering ferry timetables and sampling links on the isles of Mull and Skye and at the tip of Kintyre. We were dizzy from navigating the craggy left coast, where a day’s drive yielded nine holes we tried our best to remember, but as we passed through the Isle of Arran on a shortcut back to the mainland and the flagship links in Ayrshire, we paused for a round of golf we would never forget. At just over 150 square miles, we hoped for little more out of Arran than quick passage, but we found a golfing Eden on this quiet rock in the Firth of Clyde, home to seven golf courses, each nestled in the shadows of hulking stone façade. The itinerary allowed us time to sample one of them before our eastward ferry, and we studied the map and chose the Shiskine Golf and Tennis Club. As it turned out, we chose wisely. 

Like so many Scottish courses that began in the 1800s, Muirfield was not originally an 18-hole track. It opened with 16 holes in 1891, but expanded to 18 when it hosted the Open Championship the following year. Eighteen holes was emerging as the standard by the time Harry Vardon (kneeling to study his putt) defeated John H. Taylor at Muirfield in 1896. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

I was excited by the opening par 4s at Shiskine, both tight with blind approaches and a hidden burn; they were all mind over muscle, great golf holes shrunk to yardages that had us envisioning birdies, then scrambling for pars. But it was No. 3, dubbed “Crow’s Nest,” where I knew this would not be my last visit to Shiskine. Hitting to the green on the diminutive par 3 was like hoisting our balls up into the crater of a volcano, a swatch of red flag waving to us on a rocky horizon. We turned from golfers to spelunkers at Shiskine, where the place felt like the links gods had pounded it into existence with fire and hammer. The course was part golf roller coaster, part geological wonder. I recalled a visit to the Giant’s Causeway, there over my shoulder in Northern Ireland; if you laid a golf course across those mysterious hexagonal rocks, you would get Shiskine, where walls of igneous sills shadowed the greens like the pipes of a giant stone organ. 

Folly followed us around the course to No. 4, where our tee shots felt like we were punting our balls off the edge of a cliff to five, where we teed off with an inexplicable gallery of basalt columns at our back. At seven, I thought of the people who got giggly about the lone blind par 3 at Lahinch; what would they think of Shiskine, a course filthy with hidden greens? Aptly dubbed “Himalayas,” a pulley-and-lever system on seven signaled that the green behind the mountain was clear for us to hit. Golfers might lament the quirkiness of a blind approach, but I always found hitting into the unknown made it easier to swing away, void of the pressure of a 4-inch target. And it felt hilarious, a forced exercise in letting go of the result and focusing on the part of hitting your ball that you could control. We all made par on Himalayas, then poked our heads around more hillocks toward the surprises ahead. 

Legends like Tommy Armour (above, far left) played in the early 1900s, a time when the rules of golf most now consider standard were still evolving on a club-by-club basis. Today, Shiskine (overleaf) blissfully feels like a window into that era, when golf was a wilder game and much less strictly governed. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

We dodged pot bunkers and the beach, and after eight holes of carefully squeezing shots through mounded alleyways, on nine we got to swing away on Shiskine’s lone par 5. Its wide and rippled fairway was a sea of turbulent green, and its spread seemed larger than all the other holes combined until we ascended the 10th tee and saw the whole of the course spreading out in all directions and wondered how we had never heard of this wee pocket of golf paradise. The 12th hole brought us back to the clubhouse gently on a gap-wedge of a par 3, and in its conclusion lay the course’s perfection. I recalled other courses that closed with a par 3, and surely the finish up at Durness over salt spray and breakers was a more dramatic wedge of a closing, but nowhere else in golf had I signed my card after an even dozen. Twelve holes at Shiskine and we were home.

Eighteen holes and golf are linked like 12 eggs and a carton, like three balls and a sleeve, but the 18-hole standard is a relatively young convention in golf; the number of holes a course contained was formerly a fickle matter. Most tracks held fewer than 18 holes, but some boasted more. On the Leith Links, original home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (who now peg it at Muirfield) and where golf’s original 13 rules were written in 1744 (none of which mentioned anything about 18 holes constituting a round), the layout offered all of five holes. Not far from Edinburgh, at the meaty Montrose links, 25 holes seemed the proper total. In 1866, Montrose hosted the world’s first and only 25-hole pro golf championship, contested by the likes of Willie Park Sr. and Old Tom Morris, who competed for a purse larger than they were offering in the Open, where you just got a fancy belt. (Willie Park Jr. is credited with Shiskine’s design, after an original nine-hole course was abandoned in WWI.) The Open championship itself was first contested on Prestwick’s original 12-hole layout, then played at Musselburgh’s seven-holer stretched to nine, where they went around four times to reach a 36-hole total. Hole for hole, Musselburgh’s seven-pack is likely the most historically significant in golf: A hole-cutting apparatus was invented there, and the 4.25-inch diameter would become the world standard when the rules of golf were expanded in 1891 (curse “Musselburgh!” after your next lip-out). Musselburgh was also once home to all the most influential societies in golf: the Honourable Company, the Royal Musselburgh, the Royal Burgess and the Bruntsfield Links golfers all called it home for a time. (Imagine the waits on those tee boxes.) All the most influential societies, save one: a Royal and Ancient crew who played their matches up and around the corner and who would cement 18 as the steady, if imperfect, standard in golf.

Photo by: Hamish Bannatyne

There are few better ways to spend a rained-out round than clicking your way around Neil Laird’s ScottishGolfHistory.org, a treasure trove of golfing fun facts, where Laird explains how a round of golf at St. Andrews originally constituted 22 holes. 

Its layout of 12 meant that 10 holes were played twice, once on the way out and once coming back in; the idea for double greens with two holes cut in each, the renowned idiosyncrasy of golf on the Old, was eventually implemented to make for smoother traffic, and the godfather of golf pros, Allan Robertson, suggested the white/red flag designation for the outward/inward nines, a system still in use today. When golfers recommended that four of the shorter holes on the Old be turned into two, St. Andrews became an 18-holer, though the order in which the holes were played was still unfixed. In the coolest-ever strategy for course preservation, the Old was alternately played in clockwise and counterclockwise directions to manage wear. The R&A’s rules of 1842 decided that 18 holes consecrated a match, and its members’ broad sway eventually saw other courses following St. Andrews’ lead. 

It took a while for 18 to catch on as the benchmark, but the move toward the 18-hole round signaled a shift in golf’s power structure. Golf’s original Leith rules showed the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (called the Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh at the time) taking the lead as golf’s trendsetters, but in the centuries-long club pissing match between the gentlemen of Musselburgh, Muirfield, Prestwick, Bruntsfield and the like, the acceptance of the 18-hole standard perhaps marks the moment when the R&A’s influence outdistanced its club peers in golf governance. Golf, once a tribal miscellany of rival clubs playing a variable sport in their own showcase invitational tournaments, began to coalesce around identifiable form under the leadership of the Royal & Ancient. It is a role that is still fiercely protected, and a rivalry still evidenced by the fact that the Honorable Company doesn’t allow grandstands in front of its clubhouse when the R&A hosts its Open at Muirfield, lest the members have their view diminished. 

With the playing of golf documented in Scotland as far back as the 1450s, the 18-hole standard is relatively young, a convention most courses ignored until the 20th century and a standard that, as Laird points out, does not show up in some rule books until as late as 1950. So, for the majority of golf’s history, hole tallies were a malleable sum. You played your match according to the course set before you. For a game so tightly governed today, it’s strange to think of golf as an untamed and blithe pastime, an energetic youngster unencumbered by convention. Seven holes or 25, played clockwise or not, with a list of rules you could fit on a business card—there was once a little rebel spirit in golf, innovations and nuances in one club’s version versus another’s. As we search for ways to make the game quicker, cheaper and easier, we might do well to remember that golf’s traditions were often born of accident, and not of tablets on a mount. And we might do very well to remember Shiskine.

Beyond its almost prehistoric natural beauty, Shiskine’s 12 holes feel like a magic number. The course is shorter than an 18-hole hike and just long enough to escape the American stigma of nine holes not feeling like a complete round. Photo by: Hamish Bannatyne

We splurged in the pro shop on anything that would fit us, shirts and hats bearing our new favorite logo in golf, a simple 2 bisected by a 1 shaped as a flagstick, the digits celebrating Shiskine’s rare status. This treasure on the coast of Arran was my life’s first 12-holer, with a back and front six that seemed the Goldilocks ideal for a round of golf. I had sampled the joys of the nine-hole course all over the British Isles, on stunning half tracks at Cruit Island in Donegal, and at Anstruther in Fife, and the Bann course in Castlerock, Northern Ireland (which might be the third-best course in the whole country). Laird points out that as late as 1919, half the courses in the U.K. were nine holes, and that legacy is still alive and well in places that prove you don’t need an entire ZIP code to lay out a golf course. Yet nine holes remains a stigmatized total in America, where nine-holers are regarded as pitch-n-putts and glorified mini-golf. Playing nine isn’t golf; it’s practice, a walk with your child at twilight. We give 18 all the legitimacy, but if 18 was born of an accident of golf history, why is it the gospel tally? And did we plot our game according to the right accident?

I am loath to admit it, but golf is in a jam. The game is cruising dire straits that intransigent golf-heads like myself struggle to see. As clubhouses go boarded up and membership numbers plummet and participation declines across the board, golf after the Tiger boom stands on the banks of the Rubicon, tossing pebbles in hope of settling the waters. Talk of faster rounds and bigger holes, of kid-golf initiatives and more-accessible first tees, are well-intentioned remedies, but that three-headed elephant remains: Golf, for our increasingly consumed and distracted modern world, is pricey, slow and hard. 

Photo: Hamish Bannatyne

I will confess that a nine-hole custom is not the panacea I wish for golf. Even in extraordinary places like Durness and Otway and Traigh and Spanish Point, I carded a nine-hole score and never felt quite finished, tempted to go around again and often doing so. But as we finished in Shiskine, I felt a unique sensation come over me: I felt done. I felt as if I had played a proper round of golf, yet still had hours left to my discretion. I experienced none of the guilt that hangs over my car like a cloud as I race home after five hours on a Saturday morning to a house of spinning children and a wife who again wonders why my pastime should take four times longer than hers. 

Twelve holes not only cures golf’s pace problems, but with less acreage to maintain and the possibility of more times on a tee sheet, it could fix the cost problem as well, dropping green fees down to Shiskine levels of $25 rounds and $250 full memberships. Twelve holes would not guarantee easier golf, but taken in smaller, cheaper chunks, 

I imagine the beginner will be more likely to suffer through the learning curve. We don’t need larger holes; we need newcomers to feel like they have not wasted half their day and a quarter of their paycheck so that they might hang around the game long enough for the golf bug to sink its teeth. Twelve holes played in two and a half hours could do as much, giving both the chopper relief and the stick full challenge.

When golf settled on 18, the game was a standoffish sport of the leisure classes, relegated to folks with days to fill with diversion. The next time it takes you 14 emails to arrange an afternoon foursome, recall that there is a better way. It’s hard to coax friends out of work for nine holes, but Shiskine’s divine total is proof that we don’t need 18 to feel full. And a count of 12 holes is indeed a divine one: 12 apostles. Twelve tribes. Twelve months. Twelve days of Christmas. A sacred number in every world religion, and the perfect number of eggs. It is perfect for golf as well, but until the honorable companies remember what a round of golf used to be, you’ll have to go to Arran to know it.