PLAY9
Nine-Hole Courses Showing Championship Mettle November 3, 2016 By Scott Lipsky, USGA

Skyway Golf Course hosted the inaugural Hudson County (N.J.) Amateur this summer, crowning a champion after nine holes of play. (USGA/Steve Boyle)

Trailing by three strokes with 18 holes remaining, Malia Stovall carded four birdies during the final round of the 2016 Tennessee Girls’ Junior Championship, propelling the 16-year-old to the title in July at The Course at Sewanee.

Stovall, of Winchester, Tenn., could point to her play on the inward nine as a key to claiming a two-stroke victory, having played holes 10 through 18 in 1 under par after playing holes 1 through 9 in 6 over. On the surface, an extreme in nine-hole split scores isn’t unusual in top-flight competition, but in this case, Stovall was seeing the holes for a second time, as Sewanee is a nine-hole layout.

Nine-hole courses are a significant part of the game’s landscape in the U.S. According to the National Golf Foundation, they account for 27 percent of all golf facilities in the country. Nine-hole courses are often considered havens for recreational play where novices can learn the game, but they have always been more than that, and the fact that the Tennessee Golf Association (TGA) conducted one of its important championships on one might help to shift perceptions.  The TGA has enthusiastically embraced the USGA’s PLAY9™ initiative, and executive director Matt Vanderpool was eager to see how a nine-hole layout would fare in competition. Despite initial uncertainty from competitors and parents, the 54-hole Girls’ Junior Championship at Sewanee was a success.

“There was a lot of skepticism both from players and parents saying, what’s going on here, because people hadn’t heard of it before. And that was one of the reasons behind doing it, to kind of break down that barrier,” said Vanderpool, who noted that there are several nine-hole facilities in the state that are challenging enough to host championships. “We told [competitors], you’re the first ones in Tennessee to compete for a state championship on a nine-hole golf course, and there might be future ones, but you all were part of the first.”

The 67-player field went off in morning and afternoon waves, with morning starters beginning their second nine before the afternoon tee times began. While competitors were faced with the same hole locations the second time around, they were presented different challenges from tee to green, as the teeing grounds for the inward and outward nines were different. In most cases, the yardages were similar, but Sewanee’s closing hole played as a 452-yard par 5 as hole No. 9 and as a 355-yard par 4 as No. 18. The seventh hole was a 372-yard par 4 the first time around and played nearly 100 yards shorter as No. 16.

“It didn’t really feel much different, honestly. They did have the tees set up differently, you definitely had to play the holes differently each time you played them,” said Stovall, who plans to play for the University of Tennessee beginning in 2018. “I thought there were going to be delays at the turn with so many girls playing the same nine twice, but everything ran smoothly and there weren’t any delays.”

Malia Stovall captured the Tennessee Girls' Junior Championship, a 54-hole event, on The Course at Sewanee, a nine-hole layout. (Tennessee Golf Association)

Creativity in course setup and starting-time assignments can certainly make a nine-hole facility viable for championship play. The inaugural Hudson County Amateur showed that a nine-hole competition can provide the basis for determining a champion. Forty players teed it up in July at Skyway Golf Course, a municipal facility in Jersey City, N.J., with the goal of being crowned the first amateur golf champion in the county’s history.

A pair of players shot 2-over 38 to share the title, and it sparked an interest that general manager Steve Mills is confident will continue to grow. The course, which sits just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, is Hudson County’s only public golf facility, and was the only new golf course to open in New Jersey in 2015.

The event featured championship and first flights, as well as ladies and senior divisions. Winners were determined for both gross and net scores, with the exception of the championship flight. Temperatures on the day of the competition hovered around 100 degrees, making nine a very attractive number of holes.

“Everybody who played was very happy; they really wanted to play their round and get off the golf course; they didn’t want to spend five hours grinding over a trophy,” said Mills. “They wanted to come out, prove they were the best, and they wanted to leave.”

Edmund Burke did just that, winning the senior flight, for competitors 62 and older. A retired marketing executive , Burke has played golf since he was 14, and the fact that the competition was only nine holes didn’t diminish his experience, or his satisfaction in winning.

“[A nine-hole competition] feels very, very different, especially when you’re playing stroke play. You get an 8 or a 9 on an opening hole, you’re history,” said Burke, who was the fourth employee hired at Skyway and helps out wherever he is needed. “You can feel the pressure any time you play in an organized event, when there are no mulligans.”

With the number of nine-hole facilities on the rise, and competitors and organizers claiming positive experiences, conducting competitions on nine-hole courses is likely to become increasingly popular with the golf community.

“We learned that we don’t have to discount nine-hole facilities in conducting championships,” said Vanderpool, who used the opportunity to conduct a public PLAY9 Day at Sewanee the day after the Tennessee Girls’ Junior Championship. “They are just as suitable as an 18-hole facility.”

Scott Lipsky is the manager of websites and digital platforms for the USGA. Email him at slipsky@usga.org.

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