Mike Clayton’s design company was recently putting together a pitch for a job in suburban Melbourne, Australia – the renovation of the public Sandringham Golf Course just across the road from Royal Melbourne – when his team hit on a radical idea.
They kept hearing people complain about the times for 18 holes, so they were mindful not to create an overly long, difficult layout. The parcel of land they had to work with was on the small side, so they came up with a plan to solve both problems: design a 12- or 15-hole course.
Rather than put 18 holes into a space not fit for purpose, they threw the rulebook out the window – the one that says all golf courses must be 18 holes – and created a whole new template. The ideas they pitched to landowners Bayside Council were a conventional (but compromised) 18-hole layout and a 15-hole alternative, where players could complete three extra holes if they had time.
A councillor asked Clayton his preferred option: Was it the 15- or 18-hole layout?
“Neither,” said Clayton, whose opinions rarely carry a shade of grey. “I think the best plan would be to have a great 12-hole course, with a small six-hole, par-three course on the side.”
The councillor was nonplussed: “Twelve holes? Golf courses have 18 holes. When did you ever hear of a 12-hole course?”
Clayton, a serious student of golf history, replied without blinking: “The first dozen British Opens at Prestwick … ”
“One of the biggest complaints we hear is golf takes too long. Surely one answer to that is ‘shorter’ golf. Twelve holes makes perfect sense to me.”
Ogilvy, Clayton, Cocking and Mead (which is now OCM after Clayton left the business in 2019 to join another partnership) ended up winning the job, but the Bayside Council won the day. Its new public course would feature the conventional and time-honoured number of holes: 18. Sandringham opened in late 2020 to rave reviews and, while the OCM team created a wonderful public facility, Clayton believes an opportunity was lost. The former tour professional, course architect and oft-heard commentator told GGP:
“One of the biggest complaints we hear is golf takes too long. Surely one answer to that is ‘shorter’ golf. Twelve holes makes perfect sense to me.
“Rather than compromise by trying to jam 18 holes into a piece of land where it doesn’t fit, why not try for less golf – but better golf on better holes?”
The point is well made: If golf authorities in Australia – and elsewhere – want to attract a new generation of players, or retain existing, time-poor players, they need to challenge the sport’s current orthodoxies and creaky traditions.
Clayton’s friend and former partner in the design business, 2006 US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, has a similar take on how to rejuvenate public links golf. To him, the emphasis must be on fun and players not constrained by petty regulations – from dress codes to arcane playing rules – which seem to dominate golf more than just about any other pastime.
“I don’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be more nine-hole courses,” Ogilvy tells GGP. “It’s very restrictive to say that all courses should be 18 holes with a par of 72. I think ‘little’ courses – not necessarily short courses, but a nine-hole course, say, where some of the par-3s might be 200 yards – would be a really fun place to play golf.
“Public golf is really important and I think Scotland gets it right. Most courses in Scotland are public-access and accessible at a reasonable price; it’s inclusive and welcoming.”
The other great entry barrier – in many non-golfers’ minds – is the perception the game is stuffy and elite – a rich, white man’s sport.
“I think public golf can help get rid of some of that stigma. The game doesn’t need to be expensive and exclusive with outdated dress codes,” Ogilvy said. “Public-access golf has a great role to play in taking the stuffiness out of the game, and to help people realise the golf is really about spending time in nature, challenging yourself, hanging out with friends … and being a kid again.”
“We need to go back to basics. We need to create havens where people can try golf, where they can play without restrictions ... ”
There are other figures in Melbourne such as Sandy Jamieson, a former teaching professional at Commonwealth Golf Club, one of Melbourne’s famed sandbelt courses, committed to growing the game’s base.
Jamieson left Commonwealth in late 2019 to head to, of all places, the nearby nine-hole public course at Oakleigh. People couldn’t understand the move – why swap the penthouse for a ground-floor apartment? – and assumed he’d been sacked.
That wasn’t the case. Jamieson, former coach to Robert Allenby and Jarrod Lyle, is like a religious zealot when it comes to recruiting new people to the game; he simply decided he would have more impact “spreading the word” to his new congregation at Oakleigh, rather than giving lessons to the already-converted at Commonwealth.
Jamieson believes it’s not a step back or down or even sideways, it’s a forward one. Getting more people to try golf and have a fun experience, he believes, is the way to overcome negative perceptions and hurdles that surround entry and early days in the game.
His programme at Oakleigh is called 1Club Golf. He starts by giving beginners one club – an iron – and they use that for driving, chipping and putting.
“The club has a 4-iron loft, 9-iron length with the appropriate lie angle. It’s got a unisex shaft in it and a putter grip on it,” he says. “The whole idea is I don’t really have to teach anybody anything. Thumbs on top, hands close together and we’re off playing golf.
“We need to go back to basics. We need to create havens where people can try golf, where they can play without restrictions, where they can use just one club. It needs to be easy, fun and affordable.”
Top: Sandringham Golf Course