If golf tournaments were 54 holes, we would have some very different winners down the years. For starters, the 150th Open at St Andrews would have seen Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland into a playoff to see who would lift the Claret Jug. But it got me thinking. Why are golf tournaments 72 holes?
I understand the basic reasoning, after all the maths is fairly simple with four rounds of 18 for a 72-hole total. But why do golf courses even have 18 holes? And what is the history behind four-round tournaments?
It turns out it was more of an accident than a calculated decision.
Why are golf tournaments 72 holes?
The story starts in the Home of Golf and its Old Course. The original layout was 22 holes, with 11 holes going out and 11 coming back into the clubhouse.
The number wasn’t significant, it was just what the designers had seen fit.
Over time, it was decided some of the holes were too short. Four holes were combined into two, and the 18-hole design we know and love to this day was created.
Surrounding clubs eventually followed their lead, creating the 18-hole format we still use today.
The Open originally started as a 36-hole event – but not two rounds of 18 as you might expect.
In 1860, Prestwick was a 12-hole course, so it was decided that the Champion Golf would be decided after three loops in the same day.
In 1873, two rounds of the 18-hole Old Course decided the destination of the Claret Jug, while the first four-round Open was at Musselburgh due to it being a nine-hole layout.
In 1892, The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers moved from Musselburgh to their newly-built club at Muirfield. The Open was then switched to 72 holes, but this was still played over two days.
When did golf tournaments start being played over four days?
Although plenty of golf history has its roots in Scotland, it was a course on the other side of the Atlantic that cemented the four-rounds-over-four-days tournament structure into history. Augusta National had always run a 72-hole event for the Masters, but traditionally the tournament had been played over three days – with 18 holes on each of the first two days and a 36-hole final day.
It was Bobby Jones who suggested they had a format change, stretching the event out over four days. Why did the club agree? Clifford Roberts, the club’s chairman, realised it would allow for more special events to be fitted into the week. An optional alternate-shot match, an approach-and-putt contest, an iron contest, and a driving contest. These events developed into the Par 3 contest and the Drive, Chip, and Putt we still enjoy today.
But there was another key reason. Four rounds over four days would allow the club to sell four days’ worth of tournament-round tickets instead of three, with those special events earlier in the week driving up ticket sales for practice days.
It turns out that, even all those years ago, money was a driving force in every important decision.
Other tournaments took note, including The Open, which switched to a four-day schedule for the first time in 1966. These days, nearly all professional tournaments – certainly at the highest level – are played with this 72-hole format.
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