IN HONOR of St. Patrick's Day, a few pints of Irish wisdom:
The people who gave us golf and called it a game are the same people who gave us bagpipes and called it music.
If you tell yourself it's the eight-iron, be sure to tell yourself how many.
If you're lucky enough to be Irish, then you're lucky enough.
During my four-month stroll around the wind-tossed links of Ireland, I collected wisdom by the handful—I learned that an Irish weather forecast wasn't worth the dripping newspaper it was printed on, that a golf umbrella in an Irish breeze could be classified as a conveyance and that when the Irish called it "the full Irish breakfast," they meant it deep in their hearts. But I also discovered something about golf courses that, like Irish bacon, I wished I could find here at home. When it came to Irish golfers, for all their blarney and self-taught swings and backhanded grips that looked like a one-man thumb-wrestling match, they absolutely do one thing better than we do back home: They fear not the nine-holer.
In the American golf imagination, the nine-holer is maligned as a Velcro-patched pitch 'n' putt, the lesser-dressed cousin of miniature golf. But as I walked Ireland with my sticks and stumbled upon (literally) one fascinating nine-hole layout after the next, I came to wonder why we had become so attached to the numeral 18 back home. I found Irish nine-holers stretched across craggy coastline, tucked into beach coves, stuck to the side of hulking green mountains and stuffed into duneland that was so dramatic—nay, so preposterous—that a mind fixed on 18 would never have imagined the possibility of golf in such a setting. And those gorgeous half-courses got me thinking.
If the game's original layouts were five, seven, 12 holes long (the R&A didn't make 18 the rule until 1858), was it now time for a throwback in course design? As public courses go up for sale and private tracks see their waiting lists turn to please-come-back lists, is the nine-hole plan our bailout? Americans got fat on real estate and Wall Street, and so did our golf courses. How do we dig out the game? My vote: Chop it in half.
Consider the case for the nineholer: It's fiscally sound (slashes maintenance and overhead); environmentally responsible (fewer mowers, fewer carts, less gas, less fertilizer and chemicals); simpler to maintain (Carl Spackler could keep your course immaculate if he only had to look after half of it); golfer-friendly (more walkers, more health benefits, cheaper rounds); and most important, playing a nine-holer takes less time.
How do we grow golf? Let's start by acknowledging the elephant sitting on the 1st tee: Golf takes too damn long. As our lives speed up, our pastime seems to keep slowing down, and the prospect of a five-hour weekday commitment has to be the biggest obstacle keeping people away from golf or from getting better at it. A second set of tees and a few extra greens can make a nine-holer play new for those with the time to go around again, but cheers to our Irish friends for reminding us that we don't necessarily have to. On this St. Patrick's Day, let's drink a drop of Irish wisdom and believe that half a round can be twice as grand.
Tom Coyne's book, A Course Called Ireland, was released by Gotham Books on Feb. 19.
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FAST TRACK Coyne learned that in Ireland, the nine-holer is an art form unto itself.
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