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.