Play a 12-Hole Golf Tournament

By: Nancy Berkley

If your New Year's resolution is to play more golf but you have less time, you are in luck. The newest trend in golf is a 12-hole round. It's a Goldilocks solution: 18 holes are too long, nine holes are too short, and 12 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 is appearing again in new layouts. Derrydale Golf Club in Ontario, Canada, reports it is thriving as a 12-hole 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-holers. Other golf 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 operators to consider alternative shorter layouts before deciding to shut down and sell a course that is facing economic difficulties. To top it off, the Bandon Dunes complex is adding a new 13-hole par-3 course.

Shorter is definitely in. It would be one way to reduce the time it takes to play a round and jump-start the number of golfers in the U.S. Of course, another solution for speeding up the game is encouraging golfers to play from shorter tees. And that's just what the PGA of America and USGA "Tee-It-Forward" campaign, also endorsed by Nicklaus, urges golfers to do.

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 facilities.

So - 12 holes may make sense. But would a 12-hole tournament work? And how would you handicap it?

The handicap system is complicated enough. And, when a tournament is only 12 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 nonexistent, especially if players are using different tees. The best example came from 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 12 Holes

The easiest 12-hole tournament format is when all golfers play the same 12 holes, whether in a shotgun start 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 scorecard 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 12 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 12 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 48 players plus a few more if you can double up on the par-5s.

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 12 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 for a team that starts on a certain hole might have a tougher (or easier) 12 holes. However, for a 12-hole round on an 18-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 12 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: 12-Hole Scramble on the Same 12 Holes

This is the easiest scramble tournament to use. If all teams are playing the same 12 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's 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 12 holes for your tournament, the field is limited to 48-plus players.

What if you wanted to use the popular scramble format for 12-hole rounds where you are using all of your 18 holes to get the maximum number of players? Now that's a challenge!

Example Four: 12-Hole Scramble Teams Playing Different Sets of 12 Holes using all 18 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 leaderboard. It will not take long for golfers to figure out that some 12 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 how it works:

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 above). 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 12 holes is much easier, deduct a stroke from the team handicap.

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

I want to end with a special "thank you" to David Eby, head golf professional at my home course, Banyan Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., and his staff. They have patiently listened to me talk about handicapping a 12-hole tournament for weeks and offered several suggestions I have incorporated.

Make it your New Year's resolution to try a 12-hole round. And, let me know how it worked and what you think of it. Use the "Free Help Line" link on my website Or, use the Facebook link to add a comment or click on my name under the title and it will take you directly to my email. This article may need a Part II follow-up.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on and is often quoted in national publications. She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.