The history of golf in Scotland didn’t start the way we see it today.
Some of the initial homes to the game include Blackheath, Leith Links and Bruntsfield Links at only 5 holes. More courses like Musselburgh Old Course at 7 holes, only added an 8th hole in the 1830s and a 9th hole in 1870. Even venerable Prestwick opened in 1851 with only 12 holes.
So how did we come to have common agreement today that golf courses are either 9 or 18 holes and that a full round of golf includes putts holed 18 times?
The truth probably isn’t as interesting as the most popular theory that’s been advanced to explain the origin of 18, so lets look at that first.
The Popular Myth
The myth of golf’s origin suggests that sometime back in the day a golfing Scotsman took a shot of whiskey as he finished each hole; apparently he was still able to make a tap-in while standing upright when he discovered that a fifth of Scotch whiskey ran out after 18 holes.
Even if the story is only halfway true, we truly must admire this pioneer of early sports science. I imagine his scorecard looked a little unusual though; some early pars and birdies, followed by a few bogeys before a long train of 10s, 13s and 17s.
However, the myth debunking website Snopes.com doubts the veracity of this story. For one thing, a fifth of Scotch (or a fifth of anything) actually contains a drop or two over 25 ounces and if one person drank that much Scotch over three or four hours they are more likely to end up in a coma than they are to be standing (or wobbling) on the 19th tee.
Another theory is closer to the truth: that golf courses are 18 holes because the Old Course at St. Andrews is 18 holes. But while that is mostly true, it’s not how St. Andrews began.
The Real Story
The course, known by many as the birthplace of golf, at one time had either 22 or 12 holes depending on how you counted the play; and even today it has just 11 greens.
In 1764, the course was reduced from 22 (or 12) holes to 10 and golfers began playing eight of those holes twice making a total of 18 holes to complete a round.
Then in 1832 the idea of placing two hole locations on some of the greens was put forth and the Old Course plan of 1836 (a map which hangs today in the Royal & Ancient clubhouse) shows the 5th hole sharing a green with the 13th – both holes named “Hole O’Cross.”
By the 1850s several holes utilized double cups on single greens and in 1856 and 1857 work was done to enlarge several of the greens so that they could support two hole locations. Around this same time the course began using different colored flags to differentiate the holes of the front 9 from those of the back.
Meanwhile, though the course was still not always set up as 18 separate holes, in the Rules of 1842, the R&A declared, “Rule 1 … One round of the Links, or 18 holes, is reckoned a match, unless otherwise stipulated.”
So the truth is we play 18 holes for a round of golf because the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews so decreed.
There’s no mention of the creation of the 19th hole at that time, but given the proclivities of the Scotch drinking Scots, it’s likely it was born shortly after the first group finished putting out on the now official final hole, No. 18.
And there you have it.
— ExperienceStAndrews (@experience_golf) April 12, 2017