Many UK courses, be they private, proprietary or municipal, are in need of investment. With the seasonal weather we have now become used to invariably, wet summers and long cold winters; golf courses are less attractive places to play. There are so many other outdoor sporting options for active people today and, in relation to this, the golf industry needs to buck up its ideas to make changes for the better.
Golf operator, Troon Golf, has recently stated that it would like more 9-hole courses developed to make the game more attractive and less time-consuming. In 2012, HSBC produced a report entitled, Golf’s 2020 Vision – in which it stated the need for golf to be made more attractive for non-golfers, for families, women and schoolchildren; and that 9-hole facilities are the future of golf: quicker rounds and more family-focused.
What the industry needs is a revolution, to build fewer 18-hole courses and more 9-hole courses with state of the art practice facilities and full-length driving ranges. Make golf safer by eradicating narrow fairways, insufficient safety margins, crossing holes, parallel holes, etc.
In the UK, there are hundreds of 18-hole courses built on sites that are only 40 hectares (100 acres) or less, with poor quality practice facilities, or none at all. Many of these courses are short by modern standards, at around 5,500 to 6,000 yards from the back tees, with narrow safety margins that would make an insurance consultant or health and safety officer cringe. Given recent claims for damages and compensation, this puts many UK Clubs at great risk. The answer is to reduce existing 18-hole courses in urban and suburban areas down to 9-holes and in the remaining space, to provide a high-quality practice area, driving range and short game practice zone.
Golfers will argue that a 9-hole course is not a full golf course and regard them as a limited challenge. However, if well designed with imaginative features and hazards, with two distinct tee-boxes per hole, there is the possibility of creating an 18-hole course within a 9-hole course. It may even be possible to create two greens per hole or, at least, much larger greens with many more pin positions. There are advantages that outweigh the disadvantages: if you play only nine holes it takes less time to play (speeding up play is a big issue for the international governing golf authorities), it’s less tiring for children and older people and less expensive for a green fee.
For the environment, less land is required, therefore, less intensively maintained grass, less fertiliser, less water for irrigation; sustainably, it makes good economic and environmental sense to develop 9-hole courses. Even specialist golf operators say they can make these courses work profitably.
Assuming that an 18-hole course is 6,000 yards in length, this equates to about 22 hectares (54 acres) of intensively maintained playing area. If the site is a total of 40 hectares (98 acres), then 45% of the site is trees, rough grassland, peripheral woodland, scrub, clubhouse, car parking and practice area. If the course was reduced to nine holes, the intensively maintained areas would not reduce by half, but by a proportion to, say, 15 hectares (37 acres), plus three hectares (7.5 acres) for a driving range and practice area.
So, if there are struggling 18-hole golf courses (they could be municipal, pay and play or private members’ Clubs) in the UK in urban/suburban areas (on land that is not large or safe enough for 18-holes), my idea is as follows; apply for planning consent to convert the facility to:
- Nine holes full length course (3000 metres/3300 yards length) with generous teeing complexes and greens;
- a high quality 300 metre length practice area/driving range;
- 3 or 6-hole pitch and putt course;
- practice chipping green;
- adventure golf course;
- car-parking for 150 cars;
- clubhouse for golfers and functions;
- small pro-shop/coffee shop.
All facilities would be open-access and family friendly at affordable prices, with no dress or mobile phone restrictions. This is not a simple project to develop without careful thought and planning. If the local authority was well informed, it would see that there is a benefit to it in terms of offering an exciting sports facility within its borough/district.
The key to this being successful is the way in which the projects are funded (which could be either by inert soil importation and/or residential properties away from main golf playing areas). The planning application would, therefore, need to be handled by experienced professionals.
This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Golf Club Secretary.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.