• Image about Medalist Golf Club
Matthieu Forichon

How significant is the proliferation of abbreviated golf courses? It just might save the sport.

Accessible only by ferry, the rugged Isle of Arran is home to Shiskine Golf and Tennis Club, an oceanfront golf course that is one of the most remote in Scotland. Yet avid golf pilgrims make the trip here regularly, despite the fact that Shiskine has just 12 holes — making it the only course on the British Isles’ Top 100 List with fewer than 18. It wasn’t always this way; in 1912, the course was expanded from its original nine holes to a more traditional 18. But after six holes reverted to their natural state during World War I, members of the club decided to abandon them, favoring quality over quantity.

Nearly a century later, the rest of the world is beginning to follow in Shiskine’s footsteps. The once-?unassailable standard length of a golf course is up for debate, and developers and architects are falling over themselves to promote shorter routings with four, six or 12 holes. This is not simply a philosophical issue or a creative trend; it is a concerted effort to save golf, which for decades has been under assault by demographic and economic changes.

According to the National Golf Foundation, in 2010 more than twice as many golf courses closed as opened (107 to 46), and there are now fewer courses in the United States than there were in 2005. Courses are expensive to build and maintain, development lending is in short supply and the real estate itself often carries a high opportunity cost, especially for older courses in growing urban areas. From a consumer perspective, the total number of rounds played has consistently dropped every year since 2006, and fewer new golfers take up the game. The typical reasons given include an intimidation factor and the sport’s long and difficult learning curve. But the biggest reasons are the time and expenses required.

Many in the golf industry believe shorter courses can solve all of these problems for developers, struggling courses and players in one fell swoop, including legend Jack Nicklaus, who suggested making 12 holes the new standard back in 2007. Nicklaus created virtual 12-hole loops (complete with ?special scorecards) within the existing 18-hole courses at two of his private clubs for those seeking faster rounds.

Last year, while acting as a speaker at the Asia Pacific Golf Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, PGA Tour superstar-turned-designer Greg Norman echoed Nicklaus’ suggestion and backed 12-hole courses as well.

“If you look at what’s happened in the marketplace, especially in the U.S., golf was never thought about in terms of sustainability, of growing the game, maintaining the courses,” Norman tells American Way. “We need to get more people playing golf, and clearly the easiest way to do that is to make it take less time.”

Norman has designed nine- and 12-hole courses, including a 12-hole course for a developer in Ensenada, Mexico, because that was what the land best accommodated. He designed and built another 12-hole course at the Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla., to complement their existing 18-hole course. “The members just love it,” Norman says of the Medalist course. “These can work either way, as a [separate] alternative or as a short course added to a full-size championship layout.”