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.”