Many people have asked why golf courses have eighteen holes and this is now the universal format played today. The early golf courses all had different numbers of holes and were not always played in a defined order, as evidenced at Earlsferry. The order of play on Aberdeen Links is known to have been laid out in August 1780, but the layouts below were probably established much earlier.
|Leith Links||5 holes in 1744, adding 2 holes later|
|Bruntsfield Links||5 holes, expanding to 6 holes in 1818|
|Musselburgh Old Course||7 holes for many years, adding an 8th in 1832 and a 9th in 1870|
|Blackheath||5 holes, expanding to 7 holes in 1844|
|Montrose Links||7 holes by 1810; 14 holes by 1825; 11 holes by 1849; and 25 holes by 1866, reduced sometime shortly after 1874.|
|St Andrews (Old Course)||12 holes by 1764, and probably much earlier. The holes were laid out in a line and 10 holes were played twice, once 'out' and once back 'in', making a 'round' of 22 holes.|
How the Old Course became 18 holes
In 1764, the golfers at St Andrews decided to combine the first four short holes into two, to produce a round of 18 holes, though it was still 10 holes of which 8 were played twice. Thus was born the 18-hole round, though it would be hundred years before there were eighteen holes and other courses followed suit.
Even as late as 1851, when Prestwick was built with 12 holes, it did not look out of place.
Although some clubs were playing 18 holes as medal round at this time, it was purely be accident, such as at Lanark from 1851-1853 where they had six holes that were played three times. When they added another hole it became a round of 21 holes.
In 1832, the Chief of Clanronald suggested double greens at St Andrews and the Old Course plan of 1836 drawn by William Chalmers, which hangs in the R&A clubhouse, shows two holes on the 5th hole, the Hole O'Cross green, shared with the 13th and both named Hole O'Cross.
In the Rules of 1842, the Royal & Ancient laid down an 18 hole round, though the course was not yet 18 holes. This was repeated in the 1858 and 1875 rules, but not in the 1888 rules.
Rule 1 .... One round of the Links, or 18 holes is reckoned a match, unless otherwise stipulated...
Twenty years later, in 1855, Daw Anderson, a St Andrews ball-maker, in charge of the Old Course 1850-1855, created a double green on the 7th hole, as evidenced by the R&A Green Committee directive of 2nd May 1855. (Many histories refer to this as the 5th hole, possibly because of the 1836 map, and some even date it to this earlier period.)
There may have been other double holes cut, and they may simply have been used alternately, rather than out and in, to spread the wear on the green which also served as the tee'ing area at this time. You need a large double green to use two holes simultaneously.
In 1856-57, Allan Robertson was paid £20 in respect of 'double greens' by the R&A, from which we can infer a significant amount of work was done, probably to enlarge the greens enough so that two holes could be installed on all of them and used simultaneously. This work is presumed to have been initiated by the 'dynamic' R&A captain Sir High Lyon Playfair and was ready in time for the Spring Meeting of May 1857, as reported in the Fifeshire Journal, which lauded the new playing arrangements including the different coloured flags to differentiate the out and in holes.
The putting greens have had a thorough overhaul, re-turfed and otherwise improved. On each green, with the exception of the first and return, two holes have been placed; the one is played to by parties going outwards, the other in the in-coming. To prevent mistakes, the outgoing hole is supplied with a white flag, and its neighbour sports a red one, that being the colour for all the return holes. This is a decided improvement on the old system, preventing confusion and delays which often had to be put up with , on medal days especially when a party going out encountered another winding their way homewards on the same green, there being only one hole betwixt them.
Thus was born the 18-hole golf course.
The course was played in the clockwise direction in this period, though shortly after it was alternately played in clockwise and anticlockwise directions, to manage the wear of the course.
Other courses become 18 holes
This marked a change of mind-set in the golfers to an 18-hole course and over the next few years other courses began adopting this standard, as detailed in Oldest 18-hole Courses. The main driver appears to have been the influence of prominent members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club who were also members elsewhere, though it took 25 years before there were 18 golf courses in the world with 18 holes.
The second golfing ground with 18 holes was Montrose, which developed dozens of courses over four different playing areas over the centuries. By 1863 they had 25 holes and the Royal Montrose were playing their medals over 18 holes, though it would not be until 1888 that they had a defined course of 18 holes.
The third course with 18 holes was at Dubbieside in Fife in 1866, but the Innerleven Golf Club decided to abandon it and move to Leven golf course, which was extended to 18 holes to Lundin in 1868, and this became the third 18-hole golf course, though to play it today you need to play both Leven and Lundin as the course was divided in 1909.
From 1872, the British Open golf championship was held annually in rotation at Prestwick, St Andrews and Musselburgh, where the three sponsor clubs were based. The contest was over 36 holes and it was, therefore, three rounds when it was held at Prestwick, two rounds when at St Andrews and four rounds at Musselburgh. The competition must have created comparison of the courses and the 18 holes at St Andrews would have seemed the most appropriate.
Thus, in 1882, Prestwick expanded its course to 18 holes, the 18th course to do so, and in 1891 when the Honourable Company built Muirfield they created 18 holes in the first year. As they sponsored the Open, the championship moved with them from Musselburgh to Muirfield. With the three foremost clubs in the world using 18 holes, this set the norm for a golf round.
The 18-hole round was a default found for a golf match from 1933, but it was not laid down as a 'stipulated round' in the Rules of Golf until as late as 1950. In 1919, when the Royal and Ancient took over sole control of running the Open, half of all the golf courses in Britain were still built as 9-hole courses.
Therefore the reason why golf courses are 18 holes is partly at least an accident of history.