PALENVILLE, N.Y. — I am standing near the fifth green at the Rip Van Winkle Country Club, a public nine-hole golf course at the foot of New York’s Catskill Mountains. A few minutes ago, a dog lazily pursued a deer across the fairway. They passed two ducks that did not bother to look up.
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The course was designed in 1919 by Donald Ross, who laid out the holes beneath a striking mountain ridgeline that remains the setting’s dominating feature nearly a century later. Some things, though, have changed in 91 years. Greens fees have increased to $14 on weekdays and $17 on weekends.
It is quiet and busy at the same time at Rip Van Winkle. My 11-year-old son is merrily raking the sand in a bunker after splashing a shot onto the green. O.K., so it took him three tries to get out. He couldn’t care less, and neither could the group behind us — wherever they were.
Golf at America’s nine-hole courses is a state of mind. It is golf in its most natural setting, still full of hope but without undue expectation or pretense. You come to play.
Golf at an 18-hole course is as enjoyable and as important. The genius, splendor and tradition of the game’s most esteemed full-scale layouts provide a separate joy. And they certainly receive all the attention. There hasn’t been a nine-hole golf course listed in Golf Digest’s top 100 courses since 1968.
But golf on America’s nine-hole courses is too important to ignore. Nine-hole courses have largely escaped big redesigns and gimmicky overhauls. It is the land as it was; it is golf as it was.
We hear that nine-hole courses are on their way to obsolescence, with more than 1,000 closing or converting to 18-hole courses in the last 25 years. There are 4,441 nine-hole golf courses left in the United States, a figure that represents 28 percent of all courses, according to the National Golf Foundation. In 1985, the number was 44 percent. But as the modern golf world grows bigger and longer — be it the size of a typical driver head or how far a ball travels — I have confidence in the permanence of the plucky little nine-hole course.
“As a business model, I much prefer having nine holes,” said John Smith, who at 34 has become the third generation in his family to run the Rip Van Winkle Country Club — known locally as the Rip.
“Expanding to 18 holes would be the last thing I would do,” Smith said. “My taxes, my fuel costs, my employee expenses and my maintenance budget would double. I’ve known a lot of nine-hole golf courses that have converted to 18 holes. I know for certain that they are not bringing in double my revenue.”
Smith, whose grandfather bought the club in 1949, concedes that potential customers call him every day to ask how many holes the Rip has. When they hear 9 instead of 18, “sometimes they hang up without saying a word,” he said. “We know there’s a stigma.”
But he also knows there are people who don’t have the time to play 18 holes, and people who can’t physically play 18 holes. There are also people who know that playing from his course’s two sets of tees alters the driving strategy enough that 18 holes on the same nine feels almost like any other conventional course.
“Some people prefer the more laid-back atmosphere of a nine-hole golf course,” Smith said. “They know they’re not going to get pushed around here. Nobody is going to hurry you.”
You also never know what you’re going to stumble upon at a nine-hole golf course, which is part of the charm. Because many nine-hole courses were built before the advent of heavy machinery, natural features usually remain in play. I have played around and over Revolutionary War-era stone walls that bisect fairways or hide greens. I have played from a tiny island tee box in a tiny pond accessed by a tiny row boat (choose your club wisely, because you’re not going back for another). I have played to greens positioned 90 feet below the fairway.
Nine-hole courses also allow golfers to discover the hidden gems of our most noted pre-Depression-era golf architects — all of them cranked out nine-hole courses at a time when 18-hole layouts were the minority.
Several Ross designs have been preserved in New England. Robert Trent Jones’s creativity and subtlety are still evident in nine-hole designs from Illinois to New York. The underrated architectural tandem of Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek made superb nine-hole courses all along the Eastern Seaboard. And in 1924, Seth Raynor, with later help from the high school English teacher turned golf architect Charles Banks, designed the nine-hole course that winds around the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn.
A recent Golf World article ranking the top 25 nine-hole courses in the country listed the Hotchkiss course at No. 22.
Last month, I enjoyed a round at Hotchkiss. It was filled with devilishly sloping fairways, spectacular lake views and a closing-hole par 5 that began in a narrow stand of trees, skirted past a swamp and finished with a serpentine uphill approach to a plateau green. There’s a little clubhouse behind the green, and a bunch of regulars waiting to start their weekly league sat on park benches watching as group after group tried to survive the final hole.
When I was done, they seemed to acknowledge the surprise in my eyes, smiling as if to say: And you thought this was just a harmless little nine-hole golf course, didn’t you?
It is a fact that more nine-hole golf courses will close, probably by the dozens, in the next decade. More than 100 have closed nationwide in the last 18 months.
Certainly, not all nine-hole courses are well run, well maintained, well located or well designed in the first place. With the glut of championship-level 18-hole courses built in the 1990s, and with the economic downturn of the last several years, there is a lot of superior golf to be had at discount prices. That has hurt lesser-quality nine-hole courses. And that’s all right; our golf choices evolve.
But thousands of distinctive nine-hole courses continue to thrive, like an alternative wing in the house of golf. People go there not to be seen, not for ultrapristine conditions, not for excessive length and certainly not to be wowed by the 19th-hole catalog of $8 beers. They go there to play and, in a sense, to be around others with the same simple aspiration.
The desire and need for a golf course with such a short list of goals — playable, enjoyable, congenial — will never go away. A lot of us began playing on nine-hole courses. A lot of us like to find our way back to them. They are familiar and soothing, like walking through your home’s front door after a long trip.
I don’t remember what my score was on the fifth hole at the Rip Van Winkle Country Club. I remember the view back up the fairway as the sun put a glow on clouds disappearing behind the mountain ridge. I remember my son making an improbable 30-foot downhill putt, and when he let out a yelp, I remember a fish jumping in a nearby pond. I remembered why I played golf.