What makes a links golf course?

Any year that features St Andrews on the list of major championship venues is one to savour. The Old Course is, of course, the original and the best, the layout that has influenced the rest, not least the place where every major season begins at Augusta National. Only five players have won at both, and only two of those, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods, have done so in the same year. What price Jordan Spieth joining them? Another intriguing prospect this year is of a mix of venues both ancient and modern.

Sharing the spotlight are Whistling Straits, hosting the PGA Championship for the third time on the banks of Lake Michigan, and Chambers Bay, which stages the U.S. Open after only opening in 2007. Created from a former sand and gravel quarry, once popular with dirt-bikers and off-road four-wheelers, the course in Pierce County, Washington impressed the USGA so much that after operating for only eight months it was awarded the 2010 U.S. Amateur, won by Peter Uihlein, and the 2015 U.S. Open. For the first time, we are led to believe, America’s national championship will be played on a “traditional links”.

But what exactly is a links? There is no easy answer. In the Shell International Encyclopaedia of Golf, the Wikipedia of its day even if that was four decades ago, the entry for “Links” begins: “A term surrounded by some doubt and controversy.”

Nothing is more certain to start golfing pedants sounding their klaxons than the use of the word “links” to mean any golf course. They might pipe down a little if they knew that areas in the UK such as downlands above Eastbourne and outside Cambridge were apparently known as “The Links” long before golf was played there in the case of the former, or in the case of the latter, where it has never been played at all.

The Shell Encyclopedia concludes: “Nevertheless, in modern usage the term tends to mean sand-dune country of little use except for golf between the sea and more fertile areas; ‘links’ type golf is generally thought of as that found only on traditional seaside courses.” This ‘linksland’, formed as the sea retreated, especially in areas around the British Isles, came with fine fescue and bent grasses kept in perfect trim by grazing sheep and rabbits, as well as naturally occurring obstacles such as the dunes and holes hollowed out to provide livestock protection from the elements, now known as bunkers.


Deep among the dunes: Open venue Royal Birkdale is famed for its dramatic dune system

Engaging the senses

Earlier this year The R&A released a report stating that there are 34,011 golf facilities in the world but according to the 2010 book True Links less than one per cent of those should be called “links”. Authors George Peper and Malcolm Campbell came up with a list of just 246 links, 210 of them in the UK and Ireland.

For the true cognoscenti, a links should be alongside a river estuary; offer at least partial or occasional views of the sea; have few if any trees; have numerous bunkers; and its two nines should be routed out and back, the front heading to a far point and the back returning to the clubhouse, in the general manner of the Old Course. Strict observance of these criteria, however, would knock out half of the current Open rota.

So maybe it is a case of if it looks like a links… although that is only half the story, or rather one-fifth. For on a links all the senses are engaged. You can taste and smell the seaside air, as well as feel beneath foot the springy turf, surprisingly firm and yet forgiving. Sounds range from the roar of a fierce gale to the silence of solitude, save for the birds above doing their own social media, namely tweeting.

…the sun shining off the waters of Pegwell Bay and lighting up the white cliffs in the distance; this is as nearly my idea of Heaven as is to be obtained on any earthly links

Early British golf writer Bernard Darwin wrote of playing the seventh hole at Royal St George’s: “a fine spring day, with the larks singing as they seem to sing nowhere else; the sun shining off the waters of Pegwell Bay and lighting up the white cliffs in the distance; this is as nearly my idea of Heaven as is to be obtained on any earthly links.”

On a links dramatic scenery is a bonus, as with the lighthouse and the views of Ailsa Craig at Turnberry, but often the treeless horizon and the dunes, whether welcoming as at Birkdale or intimidating as at Sandwich, have an understated beauty of their own. This bleak chic is never better than as the light fades on a winter’s afternoon, a loop timed perfectly to putt out on the 18th at dusk, a few holes stolen from the encroaching night.

Whether at dawn or dusk, a low sun shows off the subtle undulations of a links with a sea of shadows. Alister MacKenzie, the master architect, said the “chief charm of the best seaside links” were the undulating fairways, especially those of the Old Course, “where the ground is a continual roll from the first tee to the last green and where one never has the same shot twice. One hardly ever has a level stance or lie. It is this that makes the variety of a seaside course, and variety in golf is everything.”


Old ways, new times: Kingsbarns was the first of new generation of links course to boost golf in Scotland in recent years

Optional benefits

MacKenzie and Bobby Jones, both having studied the Old Course, created Augusta National on the links principle of giving players options. Jones lamented how the penal design that characterized many American courses led a player to hit the same shot each time he played a hole: “We rarely have a choice or an opportunity to think.”

But he added: “British seaside golf cannot be played without thinking. There is always some little favour of wind or terrain waiting for the man who has judgment enough to use it, and there is a little feeling of triumph, a thrill that comes with the knowledge of having done a thing well when a puzzling hole has been conquered by something more than mechanical skill.”

Phil Mickelson always had all the shots but it took him a record-equaling 19 attempts to win The Open at Muirfield in 2013 and he called it the “greatest achievement of my career”. He had won the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart the week before and said there: “For me, what I’ve found about links golf is that you have two factors: you have the ground that affects the ball and you have the wind that affects the ball. When the wind gets strong, you want to get it on the ground as fast as possible. That’s not hard to do. It just takes a little getting used to.”

Variable conditions affect clubbing on a links far more than any other type of course. Padraig Harrington, a double Open champion, said: “Even me growing up with links golf, knowing how to play the shots, you have to convince yourself of certain clubs and trust it. Warm, windy weather on a links golf course allows you to manipulate the golf ball a lot, so that the wind is always working for you, even if it’s into you. I suppose it’s a little bit like sailing, the better sailors are able to use the wind whether its with you or not.”

So extreme conditions produced by a coastal setting are what really spice up the links challenge and perhaps separate a traditional links from other sand-based gems such as those found in the UK’s Surrey heathland, the Melbourne sand-belt of Australia and around Pinehurst. The superb Sand Hills, created by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore in Nebraska, is certainly “links-style” but may be far too far from the sea to truly be a links.

There are some fine new links at Barnbougle in Tasmania and Bandon Dunes in Oregon but it will be interesting to see the verdict on Chambers Bay, which for all its dunes and fescue grasses is on the inland Puget Sound. Whistling Straits is another course that was made to look like a links but is perhaps too artificial – and has all those bunkers behind the gallery ropes, which caused Dustin Johnson so much trouble in 2010.

There is something of the oxymoron about the phrase “new links”, especially in Britain where all the best linksland was thought to have been used up. Look at the lengths Donald Trump had to go to in building his Trump International course near Aberdeen, though the result appears to be as spectacular as the hype.

With a nod to Pat Ruddy for almost single-handedly creating the European Club south of Dublin, Mark Parsinen has been a prime mover in reviving links development with Kingsbarns, outside St Andrews, alongside Kyle Phillips, and Castle Stuart, with Gil Hanse, who has designed the Olympic course in Rio. Kingsbarns quickly established itself as part of the rotation for the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, and will host the 2017 Ricoh Women’s British Open, while Castle Stuart has already staged three Scottish Opens.

The thrill of squeezing a ball against the firm turf, trying to keep it low into a buffering wind, is something that lingers in the mind forever

Ultimately, the quality of the turf is the key for the leading professionals. As Peter Thomson, the five-time Open champion, said: “The thrill of squeezing a ball against the firm turf, trying to keep it low into a buffeting wind, is something that lingers in the mind forever.”

For the rest of us, there is no disagreeing with Peper and Campbell’s assertion that: “Links golf is the game distilled to its core values.”

Chambers BayLinksPGA ChampionshipSt. AndrewsThe Old Course