How nine hole courses could get golf back into cities

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    Tom Simpson’s schematic drawing of how a reversible hole might work

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    The first of the twin routings of the nine-hole Ullerberg course...

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    ...and the second of the twin routings

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    Frank Pont says more golf capacity needs to be available closer to the urban areas where most golfers live

Frank Pont
By Frank Pont

In 2000 the Harvard professor Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone which was both visionary and alarming in equal measure. In the book he describes in great detail the decades-long process of decline in the organised ways in which people relate to one another and partake in civil life in the US. Specifically, he describes how people increasingly have become disconnected from one another and how various social structures have disintegrated. As a result, many social, religious, political and sports clubs have lost significant numbers of their members. 

This process has not been isolated to the US, it has been happening around the world in more or less the same way. This significant reduction in social cohesion is caused by several factors. People spend more time working and commuting than they did in the past. They spend much more time on traditional (TV) and social (Facebook, Twitter) media than they did in the past, and younger generations in general spend less time in the traditional clubs and social settings. The bad news is that these reasons are structural, will not go away in the near future and, if anything, will only get stronger.

Golf unfortunately is no exception to these trends. We can now clearly observe the trend that less and less people are becoming new members of a golf club, but rather opt to play alone or with changing groups of people at various golf courses. Not only that, people are also less willing to spend the amount of time they used to spend playing golf. Many people do not want to spend four to five hours playing golf, but rather between ninety minutes and two hours, resulting in a marked trend away from 18 hole rounds towards nine, 12 or even six-hole rounds. A good example is the fact that at the moment already more than 65 per cent of green fees sold in the Netherlands are nine-hole rounds, with this number rising. Of course this can be handled by seeing a traditional 18 hole golf course as two nine hole courses which can be marketed separately, but this mind shift has not been made by most of the courses we observe.

Another aspect of the golfers wanting to spend less time on golf is that they are less willing to spend time travelling to play golf. This means that more golf capacity needs to be available closer to the urban areas where most golfers live. Currently in Europe there are too many 18 hole courses too far away, and there aren’t enough nine-hole courses close to urban areas.

All of these factors lead to a strong need for golf courses that are urban, have fewer holes and are built on small footprints. Ideally we are looking at nine, six or 12-hole courses, if possible consisting of several loops of three or six holes, and if space permits also have practice areas. That is the best way to make sure that in the future generations of golfers will continue to be interested in playing the game and that the game might even grow again.

One problem that is introduced when you reduce the number of holes to six, nine or 12 is that this also automatically reduces variety in the golf holes. Variety is one of the biggest reasons a golfer returns to play the game over and over, and one of the key reasons 18 hole courses have been more popular than nine-hole courses in the past.

The good news is that there is a way to solve this, one that was described almost ninety years ago by the famous English golf architect Tom Simpson in his seminal book The Architectural Side of Golf. In a little-noticed appendix of only seven pages Simpson wrote about a concept which he termed “The Reversible Course.”

Simpson started off his piece by stating: “To play a course backward was an alternative that commended itself for many sound reasons almost as soon as golf courses came into being.” He said it was not a new concept but had been used for many years on several of the famous links of Scotland, such as the Old Course.

The initial reason that these classic courses were regularly were played in the reverse direction was very pragmatic, namely to lower wear and tear: “The course was reversed and played backwards at stated intervals to enable it to gain a little rest... In addition to this, the immediate neighbourhood of the putting greens was found to be greatly benefited by a variation in the line of approach.” However, it also soon became apparent that reversing these courses also brought another big benefit, namely variety: “these holes owe much of their fascination to the fact that they were, and still are, reversible.”

Simpson in his piece describes the many advantages of a reversible course: it spreads divots on the fairway and traffic around the greens. There is more variety in how the wind affects play. You get two courses instead of one. There is more variety possible in direction, length, approach shots, green shapes, and so forth. He also cautions that there are hurdles: you need a site that isn’t too extreme to make it work. It is easier to design a reversible course from scratch than to change an existing course. It is a lot harder intellectually for the architect to design a good reversible course.

The biggest challenge of all might be that the design must produce two good courses, or, as Simpson stated it: “the course must be equally good whichever way it is played”. This may sound simple, but in effect has been one of the main reasons that many of the well-known golf architects over the years have shied away from this concept.

It is puzzling that Simpson, given his great enthusiasm for the principle of the reversible course, never actually seems to have built one during his career. We do not know what caused this; was the concept too alien, or did people just want straightforward 18 hole golf?

Whatever the reason that reversible courses weren’t built in the past, with the larger trends described above, we are very bullish on the concept of nine-hole reversible urban golf courses. Particularly, we feel the benefit of a nine-hole reversible course is much larger than an 18 hole course, mainly because the added variety through reversal of the course adds much more value with nine holes. We have been actively working on this concept for the last 5-10 years and are confident we can design reversible courses which are equally good whichever way they are played and also expect to be quite busy creating several such courses in the foreseeable future in various European and possibly even North American metropolitan areas.

This winter we make a good start with two nine-hole reversible courses, one in Holland in the Randstad metropolitan area and one in Bavaria in the Munich metropolitan area. The one in Holland, called De Ullerberg, is located in an old sand quarry with changes in altitude of up to 25 metres. The course in Bavaria lies in a peaceful meadow with beautiful views towards the Alps.

We hope that the forces driving golf towards smaller courses in more urban locations will give Simpson’s reversible course idea a belated boost, and that his hope that: “in this old disregarded principle of reversibility lies one of the great possibilities to develop modern golf architecture” will also come true.

Frank Pont is principal of Infinite Variety Golf Design, based in the Netherlands

This article first appeared in Issue 46 of Golf Course Architecture