Feature Interview with Mike Dutton
January, 2021

Where there is a great 9 holer, like Hooper Golf Course in New Hampshire, there is a Dutton! Mike is on the right and his brother Jeff is on the left.

1. How did you become interested in 9-hole courses?

I learned to play golf at about the age of 10 when my Dad took me out and would only let me use a 5-iron for all shots around the course until I got near a green. He was a 27-year officer in the Navy and served on submarines. We lived in the Groton, CT area a number of times as he was stationed at the Naval Submarine Base New London more than once throughout his career. The base had a 9-hole course there and the story went that even though the land for military operations at the base was at a premium, the course was necessary not only for its recreational function but primarily as an emergency airfield in the event of a hostile attack. This is the course that I grew up playing, getting dropped off for non-stop rounds on weekends and eventually working there as a starter for my first job in the golf industry. So I memorized that course and even had the second hole-in-one of my career on the 9th hole – a blind shot at the time as the tee has now been moved to prevent the 9th from crossing the 1st hole.

Playing on the Ledyard HS golf team, we played 9-hole matches (usually at 18-hole courses), so I eventually was exposed to 18-hole courses and found them to be useful. But then there were extended summer visits to the grandparents in upstate New York, where the closest course to their farm was a 9-holer named Barker Brook in Oriskany Falls. Barker Brook is, unfortunately, now an 18-hole layout, but in the summers of my youth it was another course where I could get dropped off and play as many rounds as possible before it was time to get picked up.

Jump ahead to 1991 when I am hired as the assistant basketball coach at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY where I would stay for 17 years, 14 of them as the head coach. I was certainly chuffed to find that the college had its own delightful 9-hole course, directly on campus where students, faculty and staff received a substantially discounted green fee…of .50! Though middle-aged, it wasn’t long until, coining a phrase from local hero Lawrence Peter Berra, I was deja vuing all over again.

Vassar GC turned out to be the pivotal course that fueled my adult obsession with 9-hole golf courses. I started tracking my scores, GIR’s, putts, scoring averages by hole, birdies, penalty stokes, comparing yearly averages to the last, you name it. Over my 17 years playing in my backyard (my office window looked out on the 9th fairway) the easiest hole was #2 and the toughest was #9. Par was 34 and the course yardage was padded at 2,790 yards.

Below is my scorecard from Wednesday, May 29, 1996. I was the 77th green fee of the day (probably playing after work). It is interesting to note that 25 years ago the VASSAR GOLF COURSE was “A Private Daily Fee Golf Course” where “…impeding other players will result in a request to leave, upon refund of fees.” The card also acted as my receipt for payment, where if you look closely just ahead of the 8th tee you can see “0.50 CA” imprinted on the scorecard after being inserted into the cash register.

My lifetime eclectic score reveals 4 eagles, yet no aces: 3, 2, 2, 3, 2, 2, 2, 3, 2 = 21 (-13)

Vassar GC is still in full bloom today, run by one of the most gracious PGA pros in our business, Rhett Myers, and offers a fun game on firm turf in a beautiful campus setting. There are no tee times, so just show up and if you do, be sure to say “Hi” to Rhett for me.

(www.vassargolfcourse.com)

2. That ‘impeding other players’ line on the scorecard is priceless! Moving on, what advantages do 9-hole courses hold over 18 hole ones? Any disadvantages?

The mainstream argument I constantly hear these days for 9-hole courses over 18-holers centers on the concept of the busyness of people’s lives – the lack of time in their day to commit to 18 holes of golf. While this may be true about people’s lifestyles, it is not the most valid argument for 9-hole courses. Why? Because I have yet to find an 18-hole course that requires a player to play all 18 holes of the course. Anyone can go play as many or as few of the holes at an 18-hole layout as they wish.

Fundamentally, 9-hole courses are simply different from 18-holers because they are usually intimate, relaxed, flexible, and familiar. And often they reek of what Englishman Greg McKeown writes about in “Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”, the concept of “less, but better”. Case in point in New England where a good number of quality 9-hole tracks have been turned into mediocre 18-holers.

The biggest disadvantage for 9-holers is the lack of opportunity for hole variety that a big course, simply by its nature, possesses. But if the golfer’s 9-hole challenge is creatively laid out, pleases his eye and the feeling he gets from playing is one of excitement, then the variety of holes concern becomes moot.

The leisurely 9-holer offers the flexibility of a 9 or 18 hole option at the two-hour point of the golf day. Play again or go home? The golfer’s course familiarity/comfort level with his swing/knowledge of the day’s course set-up, all give insight when playing the immediate second loop and cannot be matched at the bigger course playing each new hole. The golfer gets both the curiosity of the unknown (1st loop) combined with the comfort of the now known (2nd loop) in the same day’s golf experience. The immediacy of a second 9-hole loop v. the protracted experience of playing a second 18 after lunch is just not as intense.

Replaying a nine for a total of 18 holes v. a single 18-hole round are two quite different golf experiences in my mind. Both provide value, but sometimes we want familiarity. Plus the chance to go a third or fourth time? The golfer can challenge himself to do better multiple times and I would argue it is more focal to do so in 9-hole increments. And a supportive view that I like from Lorne Rubenstein, “To some, nine holes might feel limited. But the compression can feel expansive. One might see and feel more in a smaller than larger space.”

3. Talk about how you go about playing new 9-hole courses.

Given the lack of big money or time commitment, I am always up for trying a new 9-hole course and there is a decision matrix which usually goes something like this:

Decision: #1 Have I played this course before? –>No–>Let’s go play!
#2 Was it a quality course/fun to play? –>No–>Leave now!
–>Yes–>Let’s go again!
#3 Did I lose multiple strokes due to lack of local knowledge?
–> Yes (yes is always the answer here)–>Let’s play again, I can do better!
#4 Would I ever want to return to play this course again?
–>Yes–>Added to personal favorite list.
–>No–>Dutton golf purgatory.
#5 Is it too dark to play again?

4. You now live outside of Portland, Maine. How has living in the Northeast shaped your fascination?

New England has the highest density of 9-hole courses of anywhere in the country. It also has an above average percentage of regulation 9-hole courses relative to other areas of the US, second only to the Upper Midwest. Small New England towns have been around longer, with many named after a city, town or area in England. Older small town golf courses were modeled after those found in the UK with many of them being laid out by Scotsmen. Land and finances often dictated that a 9-hole course was what could be afforded/built in small town New England, similar to how village golf courses were built and still exist today all over the UK and Ireland. So in furtherance, as a historian, these similarities have drawn me yearly ‘across the pond’ to seek the origins of New England golf found in the UK.

Regional Density of 9-hole courses:
1. New England (CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, VT)
267 courses in 71,992 square miles = 270 square miles/course

2. Mid Atlantic (DE, MD, NJ, NY, PA)
400 courses in 124,228 square miles = 311 sm/c

3. Upper Midwest (IA, KS, NB, ND, SD)
681 courses in 363,720 square miles = 534 sm/c

5. Let’s cover some of the more arcane facts about 9-holers in the US.

Firstly I must give credit where it is due in regard to most researchable information on 9-hole golf courses in the US. Most of the Golf Club Atlas membership I’m sure is familiar with the National Golf Foundation (NGF) located in Jupiter, FL. The primary mission of the NGF is to supply data to the various stakeholders in the business of US golf. They do a wonderful job and are a major resource in my research.

In regard to 9-hole courses, I review their information and try to take it a step further. For instance, the NGF publishes a yearly report, “Golf Facilities in the U.S.”, that counts all of the golf courses and golf facilities in the country. Great stuff, but the way this information is compiled does not give a complete picture of 9-hole courses. Their 9-hole courses are simply courses with 9 holes and their publicly reported data does not break “9-hole courses” into its subcategories which are: 1) Regulation courses, 2) Par-3 courses, 3) Executive courses, plus 4) Courses with neither 9 nor 18 holes. In my New England state-by-state analysis of 9-hole courses, I delineate the nines into these subcategories. And for the record, the information that I will share on New England courses and golf holes will focus on those courses that I consider REGULATION 9-hole courses.

Also, please keep in mind that statistics regarding courses are constantly in flux, especially after the year we’ve seen in 2020. Courses close, new courses open, old courses reopen, courses add or subtract nine holes, some courses need to be tracked down when they have no web site or aren’t a member of their respective state golf association, is a driving range with a pitch and putt course a golf course or a golf facility? Some moving targets to say the least, and each affects state totals and ratios. At some point you just have to stop and take a snapshot. So please consider that all of these numbers are the best that I can come up with at a point in time after the most careful analysis and reflection. OK, so here we go…

Fact #1
There are seven states that have more 9-hole courses than 18-hole courses:

State9’sTotal Courses% that are 9 holers
1. North Dakota89117  76%
2. Alaska152365%
3. Iowa25040162%
4. South Dakota7912762%
5. Kansas13925056%
6. Nebraska12423253%
7. Maine6913352%

The bottom eight states in this metric are primarily found in the southern parts of the US. They possess the following general set of attributes – newer courses than the northeast, more land, less density of population and better weather for year round golf – but the two most influential attributes are 1) vacation destinations and 2) a large volume of retirees and retirement communities. These factors, combined with the good old US mantra ‘more is better’, have led to the building of 18-hole tracks in these states.

State9’sTotal Courses% that are 9 holers
43. Georgia4942012%
44. Hawaii108811%
45. Nevada1211211%
46. Arizona3737810%
47. Delaware4459%
48. North Carolina495579%
49. Florida9413067%
50. South Carolina263667%

The current US average of 9-holers to total courses is about 23%. Just a few years ago, this number was closer to 25%, and until 1974 there were more 9-hole than 18- hole courses in the US.

Fact #2
If we look simply at the number of 9-hole courses per state we have a surprise leader. Who would have guessed Iowa (and by a large margin)?

The top six:

1. Iowa250
2. Texas202
3. New York200
4. California187
5. Illinois180
6. Minnesota163

 

The bottom six:

45. Utah20
46. Vermont20
47. Alaska15
48. Nevada12
49. Hawaii10
50. Delaware4

The current average for 9 hole courses per state is about 77 courses.

6. I had no idea more 9-holers existed in the United States than 18 holers as recently as 1974. What state in the US has the most per capita? Fewest per capita?

In regard to per capita, the top four states (measured in 9-hole courses/1M people) are:

1. North Dakota117
2. South Dakota87
3. Iowa79
4. Nebraska64

States in the Upper Midwest have a strong number of 9-hole courses, lower populations but moderately large land areas. It corners the market in terms of per capita measurements.

The bottom four states are:

47. Florida4.3
48. Delaware4.1
49. Maryland3.9
50. Nevada3.8

The current US per capita average of 9-hole courses is about 11.8 courses/1M people.

7. Is any state either high or low in both per capita and per square mile rankings?

Nevada is the only state that answers the question as it is low in both per capita and per square mile for 9-hole courses. It is punished with only 12 9-hole courses in a state with over 3M people and more than 100k square miles of area.

Most 9-hole courses per square mile (measured in square miles/course…so like a golf scorecard, the lower the number the better):

1. Rhode Island 74
2. Mass. 90
3. Connecticut 115
4. New Jersey 177

 

The bottom four (with Alaska easily being the lowest with only 15 niners for all its massive land):

47. Utah4,245
48. New Mexico5,790
49. Nevada9,213
50. Alaska44,218

The current US average is about 981 square miles per 9-hole course. Removing Alaska, the average dips to about 812 square miles per 9-hole course.

8. Drill down to what you can tell us about 9-hole courses in New England.

Statistics as reported by the National Golf Foundation in Golf Facilities in the U.S. – 2019 Edition:

State Total Courses 9 Hole Courses of Any Type
Connecticut19348
Maine13873
Massachusetts382117
New Hampshire11238
Rhode Island5921
Vermont7120
Total in New England 955317

 

New England 9-hole course statistics updated by me as of October 2020, sorted by percentage of regulation 9-hole courses:

StateTotal Courses Regulation 9’s (Private)                    % of 9 holersPar 3ExecNon-9/18
1. Maine13467  (4)50%41 –
2. Mass.381103 (31)27%12113
3. New Hampshire11127 (3)24%83
4. Rhode Island6014 (4)23%71
5. Vermont7116 (1)23%51
6. Conn.19339 (16)20%35
Totals950266 (59 or 22%)28%39205

9. What other fun facts can you offer? 

Maine has the most 9 holers on islands, per below:

New England Island 9-Holers: 
MAINE
Causeway Club
Frye Island
Great Chebeague
Mt. Kineo (virtually)
North Haven
Tarratine

MASSACHUSETTS
Edgartown
Mink Meadows
Royal & Ancient Chappaquiddick Links (executive course)
Siasconset

Also, 9 holers sometimes have names that conjure up names of other, (slightly!) more famous courses:

Famous Names/Top 100 Courses in the US – Golf Magazine:
Pine Valley, Pelham, NH/#1 Pine Valley – George Crump/H.S. Colt 1918
Marion, Marion, MA – George C. Thomas/#8 Merion (East) – Hugh Wilson 1912
Oak Hill, Meredith, NH/#40 Oak Hill (East) – Donald Ross 1921
Cherry Hill, N Amherst, MA/#100 Cherry Hills – William S. Flynn 1923
Highland Links, N Truro, MA/ Highlands Links – Stanley Thompson 1935

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