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Just Play a 12-Hole Golf Tournament -- How to Handicap the Players

By Nancy Berkley

If you want to play more golf but have less time, try just twelve (12) holes.  It’s a Goldilocks solution:  Eighteen holes are too long, nine holes are too short, and twelve holes may be “just right.”   A 12-hole round may sound like something dreamed up by busy women golfers, but, in fact, the push is coming from none other than Jack Nicklaus.  

Interestingly, the 12-hole course has historical precedents in older Scottish golf courses, and it is appearing again in new courses.  Derrydale Golf Club in Ontario, Canada, reports it is thriving as a 12-hole golf course after it sold off its other holes to a real estate developer.

Nicklaus has even suggested building a super-flexible 36-hole design.  It could be played as three 12-hole courses or as two 18-hole courses.   Other golf course designers are talking about building courses around six-hole loops for even more flexibility.

Tom Doak, a leading golf course architect and designer of the highly ranked Pacific Dunes course at Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, urges courses to consider alternative shorter layouts before deciding to shut down and sell a golf course that is facing economic difficulties.  To top it off, the Bandon Dunes complex is adding a new 12-hole par-3 course.  

Shorter is definitely in.  It would be one way to reduce the time it takes to play a round of golf and jump-start the number of golfers in the U.S.

However, given the current inventory of long and difficult courses in the U.S., making current layouts shorter could require moving tee boxes and redesigning fairways and bunkers.  That involves spending money, which is in short supply at many golf clubs.   

So – twelve holes may make sense.  But would a 12-hole tournament work?  How would you handicap it?    

The handicap system is complicated enough.  And, when a tournament is only twelve holes and has players of different skills and genders playing from different tees – as in a mixed member-guest – what format would you use and how would the handicap system work? 

Suggestions are almost non-existent especially if players are using different tees.   The best example came from Jack Nicklaus who used 12-hole tournaments at his Muirfield Village Golf Club in Ohio and The Bears Club in Florida.

If you understand the handicap system, read on.  If it starts to get too complicated (and discussions of handicaps can do that) pass this article along to your golf committee or golf professional. 

But, don’t give up on the 12-hole tournament yet.  It’s a trendy idea and would be fun for a couple’s event or a mini-member-guest.

Here are my suggestions and solutions for playing a 12-hole tournament:

EXAMPLE ONE:  ALL GOLFERS PLAYING THE SAME TWELVE HOLES. The easiest 12-hole tournament format is when all golfers play the same twelve holes whether in a shot gun or using tee times.   As long as everyone plays the same holes it doesn’t matter whether it is holes one through 12 or seven through 18 or a set of 12 holes that zigzag across the course, which actually might be fun.   Current golf card software makes it easy to design a customized score card for any set of holes.

What does matter however is whether the 12-hole tournament is an individual or team competition.

If everyone is playing their own ball, I like Nicklaus’ suggestion of using two-thirds of each player’s full handicap.  That’s easy and equitable.  At the end of the twelve holes, gross and net winners can easily be determined.  

If a team competition is preferred, a one or two best-ball format works because all players can take their handicap strokes as they fall on the card for those twelve holes.   It doesn’t matter what gender plays or what tees are used as long as the golfers are playing from the tees that are used to determine their Course Handicap. 

The only significant limitation to this 12-hole competition is that the field is limited to forty-eight players plus a few more if you can double up on the par-5 holes. 

Scramble formats work also, but I have saved that for a special section at the end. 

EXAMPLE TWO:  ALL GOLFERS PLAYING THEIR OWN BALL BUT TEAMS ARE PLAYING DIFFERENT SETS OF TWELVE HOLES.   If you want to maximize the field of players, then all the holes on your golf course have to be used. 

And now you see the problem.  It’s possible that a team that starts on a certain hole might have a tougher (or easier) twelve holes.  

However, for a twelve-hole round on an eighteen hole course, if everyone is playing their own ball in a team best ball format and applying handicap strokes as they fall on the card, the handicap system probably works well enough so that it won’t matter which twelve holes a team plays. 

If there is one particularly difficult hole – perhaps with a carry over water – consider moving the tee forward.   Or, put in two flagsticks and give players a choice on those hard holes.  Make it fun – as well as fast.

EXAMPLE THREE:  TWELVE-HOLE SCRAMBLE ON THE SAME TWELVE HOLES.    This is the easiest scramble tournament to use.  If all teams are playing the same twelve holes, a scramble format will not be a problem.  The same scramble formula with some adjustments as described in the following paragraph will apply to all foursomes – that’ fair.

A couple of ideas for adjusting your standard scramble formula for 12 holes:  One is to use your regular scramble formula and then just take two-thirds for the team handicap.   Another suggestion is to use two-thirds of the handicap of each player as the base number when applying the formula. 

But once again, by only using the same twelve holes for your tournament, the field is limited to 48-plus players. 

What if you wanted to use the popular scramble format for twelve-hole rounds where you are using all of your eighteen holes to get the maximum number of players?  Now that’s a challenge!

EXAMPLE FOUR:  TWELVE HOLE SCRAMBLE TEAMS PLAYING DIFFERENT SETS OF TWELVE HOLES USING ALL EIGHTEEN HOLES.   This is the most difficult tournament to handicap.  If you apply the same scramble formula to all the teams, be prepared for some complaints at your leader board.  It will not take long for golfers to figure out that some twelve holes include harder holes than others.  

So, after some thinking, I came up with a way to create a level playing field for a 12-HOLE SCRAMBLE FORMULA that incorporates an adjustment for harder or easier sets of 12-holes.  Here’s my formula:

1.     For each team compute the normal scramble team handicap as if it were a regular 18-hole scramble.

2.     Multiple the 18-hole scramble team handicap by two-thirds.

3.     Adjust the two-thirds team handicap using what I call the “difficulty adjustment factor” described below

NANCY’S 12-HOLE SCRAMBLE DIFFICULTY ADJUSTMENT FACTOR:  For each team, add up the individual handicap difficulty for each player for each of the 12 holes played by players in that team.  Use the women’s hole-handicap difficulty for female golfers and men’s hole-handicaps for male golfers. When you add the hole-handicap difficulty for all four players for all 12 holes, you will come up with a total difficulty factor that can range from around 90 to 120 depending on what 12 holes are played on your course. 

Now, compare the total difficulty-adjustment-factors for all the teams.  It will be very easy to see if some teams have easier or harder holes in their 12-hole rounds.   

Step 3.  Then make adjustments to the two-thirds team handicap you computed in Step 2 above.  If one set of holes is much harder, give that team an extra stroke or two.  And if one set of twelve holes is much easier, deduct a stroke from the team handicap. 

When players are told upfront that adjustments have been made for those teams that have to play harder (or easier) holes in their round than some other team, leader-board complaints should be reduced.   But I guarantee that you will still have a good conversation around the leader-board about which 12 holes were the hardest and which were the easiest.  And then there will be suggestions to flight the tournament.  And, maybe that’s not a bad idea.

I want to end with a special “thank you” to David Eby, Head Golf Professional at Banyan Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, and to his staff.  They have patiently listened to me talk about handicapping a 12-hole tournament and offered several suggestions that I have incorporated.

Try a 12-hole round.  And, let me know how it worked and what you think of it.  I have posted this article on Facebook -- so can leave a comment.  Use the “Free Help Line” link on my website www.berkleygolfconsulting.com.