Thursday 5 September 2013

Returning Nines

In 1891, Muirfield Links - designed by Old Tom Morris - opened, and its routing represented the first instance of a golf course featuring returning nines.  For centuries, golf courses had been routed in an out and in fashion, with nine holes meandering away from the clubhouse through the linksland before making a distinct turn for home in the second half.  Glance at scorecards from many modern courses and you will be reminded of this feature as totals for the front and back nines are often given the respective monikers, out and in.

Muirfield Links features returning nines, with the front nine running clockwise around the perimeter of the property and the back nine running counter-clockwise within the interior of the property. (Photo: Google Earth)
Most modern golf courses feature returning nines, meaning the first and tenth holes start at the clubhouse.  There are a few benefits to having returning nines.  Early morning weekend tee times are a sought-after commodity, and returning nines allow golf courses to start players off both the 1st and 10th tees, doubling capacity during those premium hours.  Additionally, golfers can opt to play 9 hole rounds when time constraints do not allow for a full eighteen and finally, it is more efficient to keep on-course food & beverage sales near the clubhouse than construct, staff and stock an out-building at a distant point on the property.  While these positives benefit golfers and club owners alike, is it a constraint that may limit the full potential of the architecture.

When golf course architects are given a flat property with limited natural features, the imposition of demanding returning nines is not likely to hinder the overall design, unless the property is awkward in shape or size.  However, when a property abounds with excellent contours and interesting features, returning nines may not yield the very best golf course.  Could masterpieces like Sand Hills or Shinnecock Hills we even better if they did not return to the clubhouse at the ninth green?  If the best golf is what is desired, clients need to be open-minded and consider the possibility of an out and in routing, or a course which returns to the clubhouse after seven, fifteen or any other number of holes other than nine.

Last summer, while competing in the 5th Major at Dismal River Club in Mullen, Nebraska, I has an interesting conversation with the owner Chris Johnston.  While we were playing over the Nicklaus course, Tom Doak was building a second golf course for the club.  Sitting around the fire one night, Chris summoned me over for a Q & A in which he asked me to explain my job as a golf course architect.  I felt that our firm had a responsibility to provide the client with the best possible golf course, and that the existing topography and site features would guide our routing process.  Taking what the land has to offer and not trying to impose certain hole designs onto the land goes a long way toward achieving that goal.  It is rare that clients give architects a complete free-hand, however, they pay the bills, and meeting their demands is also an important component to a successful project.  At the time of our discussion, I'm positive one of the few constraints I would have imposed on myself would be to have the 1st tee and 18th hole return to the clubhouse or some common ground.  Chris explained to me that he wanted the best golf course possible at Dismal River and while that eventual meant ceding some land he didn't see fit for the project, it also meant embracing a design whose 18th green finishes many hundreds of yards away from the opening tee.  While it may not work everywhere, it certainly opened my eyes to exploring different options to provide the best possible golf course.


  1. Tyler,

    The current routing of Muirfield, Home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, was done by Harry Colt.

    Chris Nelson

  2. Chris,

    Thanks for reading and for clarifying, as the aerial I've shown doesn't depict the Morris routing that I wrote about in the opening paragraph.

    Harry Colt redesigned the course in 1923 after the club purchased an additional 50 acres of land, and the current routing of the course is attributed to Colt. I'm now looking for a copy of Old Tom Morris' 1891 routing of Muirfield, which according to Whitten & Cornish is believed to be one of the first courses to depart from the out & back routing of the earliest links.

    Is this the same Chris Nelson who I met a few times working on the Southwood project?


  3. Chris,

    I was able to locate a digital copy of the 1891 plan of Muirfield, however, it is not high resolution, quite faint and therefore inconclusive. A newspaper clipping from the Edinburgh Evening News dated June 9, 1896 shows the Muirfield routing with the 11th hole returning to the clubhouse. A few iterations later, The Evening Telegraph of June 18, 1912 shows the 8th hole returning to the clubhouse, and an undated plan from between 1912 and the purchase of the new land used by Colt shows the 9th hole returning to the clubhouse.

    Regardless, it does appear that the course returned to the clubhouse before the 18th hole at an early stage of its development on the current site, making it somewhat unique in terms of routing.