Why Are There 18 Holes On a Golf Course?

15th hole on the Old Course at St. Andrews
When the Old Course at St. Andrews settled on 18 holes, the rest of the golf world followed. David Cannon/Getty Images

The standard length of a golf course is 18 holes. Why is that? How did 18 holes come to be recognized as the standard for a course, and for a round of golf? Like so many other developments in golf history, 18-holes-as-standard traces to The Old Course at St. Andrews.

Key Takeaways

  • Although there are also many 9-hole golf courses, 18 holes is considered the standard length of both a golf course and a round of golf.
  • The standardization of 18 holes began in the mid-1700s at the links of St. Andrews in Scotland.
  • Eighteen holes was firmly established as the standard length when the R&A, today one of the two governing bodies of golf, wrote it into the rules in 1858.

How the Old Course Got to 18 Holes

The standardization of 18 holes as the length of a "regulation" golf course did not happen as the result of a momentous decision agreed upon by many. It was more happenstance and somewhat haphazard developments over time.

The links at St. Andrews, Scotland are the oldest in the world. It's not called "The Home of Golf" for nothing. They were playing golf at St. Andrews as far back as the 1400s. But nobody built a golf course — it just developed naturally on the seaside linksland. Locals played from dune to dune, and those became putting greens; the grassy paths between dunes that existed naturally became the fairways. That's how links golf developed.

So the number of holes at St. Andrews changed through the centuries. By the mid-1700s, the links at St. Andrews had 22 holes. Then, around 1764, the four short holes that started the course were combined into two longer holes. And the four short holes that ended the course were combined into two longer holes. In so doing, the St. Andrews links (what we now call The Old Course) went from 22 holes to 18 holes.

The R&A Codified 18 Holes as a Round

Eighteen holes did not become the standard for golf courses until the early 1900s, but from 1764 onward, more courses copied the St. Andrews 18-hole model. Then, in 1858, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews issued new rules.

"In 1858, the R&A issued new rules for its members," explained Sam Groves, curator of the British Golf Museum. "Rule 1 stated 'one round of the Links or 18 holes is reckoned a match unless otherwise stipulated'. We can only presume that, as many clubs looked to the R&A for advice, this was slowly adopted throughout Britain. By the 1870s, therefore, more courses had 18 holes and a round of golf was being accepted as consisting of 18 holes."

And that's how 18 holes became the standard in golf.

Many Courses Before and Since Have Used Other Numbers of Holes

Prior to the mid-1760s — and right up until the early 1900s — it wasn't unusual to find golf courses that were comprised of 12 holes, or 19, or 23, or 15, or any other number. Then the St. Andrews- and R&A-led standardization of 18 holes took hold.

It has always been common, however, to find 9-hole golf courses. You can think of golf's 18-hole standard of being comprised of two 9-hole sets. We call these the front nine and back nine.

If a club doesn't have a lot of room, it might build only one of these 9-hole sets, making for a 9-hole golf course. Nine-holers are also common in small towns, or as the length of executive courses or par-3 courses.

Today, there is more experimentation going on in the size and shape of golf courses, driven mostly by a desire to provide shorter, faster options for golfers. Twelve-hole courses and even 6-hole courses are popping up now.

But 18 holes remains the standard for golf courses, and is considered a regulation round.

18 Shots of Whisky?

Sometimes one golfer will try to tell another that the reason for 18 holes is that there are 18 shots in a bottle of Scotch whisky. And it's possible — perhaps it is even likely — that some golfers, somewhere, downed one shot of Scotch for every hole they played. But the story about 18 holes and 18 shots of whisky is just that: a story, a legend, a myth.