Supers contemplate what’s next after nine-hole rounds rise in popularity

By |  October 11, 2023 0 Comments
Bobby Jones Golf Links Golf Course, Alpharetta, Ga. (Photo: Dave Sansom)

Bobby Jones Golf Links Golf Course, Alpharetta, Ga. (Photo: Dave Sansom)

For most of the world, 2020 was an anxious time. As businesses shut down, people sought out for something to do. What did they find? For many, it was the game of golf on nine-hole courses.

Josh Deal

Josh Deal

At the same time the golf industry saw a boom thanks to its socially safe label, nine-hole short courses rose in popularity. That trend has continued past the lockdowns, shutdowns and the world’s return to normalcy.

Josh Deal, regional operations manager, and Kyle Macdonald, director of agronomy, at Bobby Jones Links Golf Course in Alpharetta, Ga., have seen this more than anyone.

“We’re going to do over 40,000 rounds this year,” Deal says. “Even though (we) offer 18 holes, nine holes are climbing up the ladder to become the preferred way to play.”

Bobby Jones GC features a reversible nine-hole facility. That means players can still play 18 holes, by booking two nine-hole rounds. The two courses, the Azalea and Magnolia, feature multiple hole locations with designs inspired by St. Andrews.

Deal predicts that 85 percent of rounds played in 2023 will come from players booking nine-hole sessions.

Look at the numbers

So, why is the shortened version of a traditional 18-hole round suddenly so popular? Macdonald believes the reason is simple. Time is money.

Kyle MacDonald

Kyle MacDonald

Due to the reduced runtime of a nine-hole round, golfers can sneak in a round or two without worrying about being away from family, friends or other responsibilities for too long. Deal agrees by describing the nine-hole course with the old phrase: “short but sweet.”

“It can be a big ask to go and play 18 holes, especially when you have young kids or a spouse to turn to,” Deal says. “After a long week, I could be heading to the golf course. Depending on what you do, you could be absent longer than the workday. Playing a nine-hole game is appealing and popular among people of a certain age or family bracket.”

Bobby Jones GC has a reputation for its nine-hole projects. Outside of the pandemic, the past ten years have seen a real focus on the benefits of a shortened round at the course.

Reduced maintenance

What do nine-hole courses mean for maintenance crews who, in some cases, now have their workloads cut in half? Macdonald says that the maintenance needs for a nine-hole course vary, requiring different demands than your traditional 18-hole affair.

Trevor Schaap

Trevor Schaap

He says a nine-hole course minimizes traffic from a maintenance perspective, due to the shorter round length. Since Bobby Jones GC is a reversible nine-hole facility, maintenance is only necessary on half of the course at a time.

“We can get on and off the golf course faster and not be in the player’s hair,” Macdonald says. “We’re not inconveniencing the golfer or the customer during our normal maintenance activities because it is only nine holes. With all of that, there are also some savings to your maintenance budget by only needing to work on half of the course.”

When it comes to maintenance practices, one example is Trevor Schaap, superintendent at Northwood Golf Club in Monte Rio, Calif.

The maintenance crew consists of himself, three full-time employees and three part-time retirees. They will work around 10-20 hours per week with the services consisting of mowing the greens, sanding the divots and cleaning up the garbage.

“Everyone has their own little jobs and all the employees that I have bring different skill sets,” Schaap says. “Some of my employees are golfers. Some aren’t. But they can have a lot of matching experience. A non-golfer can know how to run power equipment while a golfer can know how to set up the course.”

The Azalea and Magnolia nine-hole courses at Bobby Jones GC can be played back to back for an 18-hole experience. (Photo: Dave Sansom)

The Azalea and Magnolia nine-hole courses at Bobby Jones GC can be played back to back for an 18-hole experience. (Photo: Dave Sansom)

The future of golf

Due to the reduced maintenance load and the post-pandemic rise in popularity, both Deal and Macdonald believe there is a bright future for the nine-hole round.

“The presence of new golf-like models, such as Topgolf, can increase game exposure,” Deal says. “Obviously, since it takes less time, it can be more inviting to the non-core golfer. Nine-hole games can help you spend time with friends, get vitamin D and exercise.”

Schaap looks at the supply and demand nature of golf. He explains that the industry will always look to cater to and provide players and members with the ideal experience of their cherished game.

An Alister MacKenzie and Jack Neville design, Northwood GC ranks as one of the top nine-hole courses in the world. (Photo: Chuck Lehnhard)

An Alister MacKenzie and Jack Neville design, Northwood GC ranks as one of the top nine-hole courses in the world. (Photo: Chuck Lehnhard)

“I do see a future in the world of nine-hole golf courses,” Schaap says. “If you are in Southern California, you can easily fill the many golf courses available. The trend depends on people’s time, how they spend their day and what they’re doing.”

Macdonald says that Bobby Jones GC is unique because of its ability to cater to traditional golfers and beginner players who want to figure things out before hitting the 18-hole course.

“We have been able to capture both audiences,” he says. “We get both the traditional golfer, along with the weekend guys that play once a month. You can pop in after work or tee-ball practice. It can be a more palatable experience.”

With the expansion he has seen at his course, Josh Richter, director of golf operations for Boyne Golf, a resort operator with three locations across Michigan, sees the shortened round as having a bright future of introducing more people to golf.

“At the shortened course, you keep people around and they are enjoying themselves,” he says. “They want to be social and have fun. ‘Fun’ is a word that we use around the golf division all the time at our resort. Simply have fun.”

The short-course boom

Along with the growth in popularity has come expansion to help bring the shortened game to more players. Boyne will hop on the train, with its first nine-hole course set to open in 2024 at its “The Highlands” location in Harbor Springs, Mich.

The Roy Hearn-designed short course will feature just two heights of cut for its greens and fairways.

According to a report from the National Golf Foundation in 2021, 48 percent of rounds played in 2022 were just nine holes.

“It was during the past five-ish years that you started to see more of the game being offered,” Richter says. “Whether you are a newer golfer or just giving it a go for the first time, you’re going to see a range of distances. It could play as short as 600-ish yards or play as long as a thousand.”

Do others agree?

At Northwood Golf Club, Schaap oversees one of the country’s top nine-hole courses. In 2020, ranked it amongst the top 50 in the entire world.

Though he doesn’t have an exact number of people listed, he estimates that 60 percent of the rounds played at his course are nine-hole rounds.

“Since COVID began, the industry has exploded,” Schaap says. “It’s been a revitalization of the entire industry. I think people realized that if you are a beginner golfer and are not interested in chucking a ball around for five houses, nine holes is a great place to start.”

Like Deal and Macdonald, Schaap explains that younger people with responsibilities, like a full-time job and families, have more difficulty playing a traditional 18-hole round than someone in retirement with grown children.

“People my age are starting to get into the working industry can’t just edge out four to five hours a day to spend on the golf course,” he says. “A nine-hole game is perfect for the time you get to enjoy yourself and still be able to finish your responsibilities.”

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