Fergus Bisset looks at what makes a links golf course and the keys to playing one well.
What Is Links Golf?
For many, your author included, links golf delivers the game in its purest form.
The links is where the sport as we know it originated, and it’s where you’ll find the ultimate test of your golfing skill and mental fortitude.
It’s on a links course each July that The Open Championship is contested and the champion golfer for the year decided.
The links can be harsh and unpredictable, but also wonderfully forgiving. Links golf is golf at its best.
So what is a links golf course?
“The links” isn’t a term specific to golf courses. It is simply a strip of generally undulating, but always sandy, terrain linking the sea and the arable farmland around the edges of the British Isles.
As it often went unused, save for the odd rabbit farm, this was ideal ground for sporting pioneers on the east coast of Scotland back in the 15th and 16th centuries, as they experimented with a new stick and ball game.
It was over these narrow corridors of gorse-covered, sandy dunes that rudimentary “courses” were first carved out and golf, as we know it began.
The ground on the links is firm and sandy, populated by indigenous bent and fescue grasses that are extremely hardy.
When cut, these grasses provide an ideal playing surface that’s easily maintained.
The terrain on the links is rolling and this means there are incredible natural contours to create unique features on golf holes, without the need for any earth to be moved.
The sandy base means the ground tends to drain extremely well so links courses are rarely, if ever, unplayable due to rain.
Traditional links golf courses have simply been laid out over the natural terrain.
The holes weren’t built in the same way they are on a modern inland track.
A teeing area was selected then a suitable spot for a green.
They, and a path (or fairway) between the two, were cleared of gorse and other forms of impenetrable greenery and the grass kept short (by sheep and latterly mowers.)
Over the years the odd bunker was dug at key points. Links courses sit comfortably, rather than being forced upon the land.
The wind is almost ever-present on the links and this is one of the principal challenges to the golfer.
Playing with the wind behind, the ball can travel huge distances, bounding along the hard, sandy turf propelled by the gusts.
But when the wind is against or from the side, the challenge is rather different and a short hole on the card can become a monster.
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Almost all the true links golf courses are found in the UK and Ireland, although there are layouts with links-like playing characteristics around the world, particularly on the North Sea coast of continental Europe.
Each July The Open Championship is held on one of Britain’s finest links courses.
These are the best tracks our isles have to offer and when it comes to Golf Monthly’s top-100 rankings, the links courses dominate.
What are the keys to playing links golf?
The fundamental key to playing links golf is acceptance. You have to learn to accept the rough with the smooth. You must accept it is different and learn to embrace the differences. You must accept a good shot may go unrewarded owing to a cruel bounce or an ill-timed gust of wind.
Similarly, that an opponent’s poor shot may end up being just fine as it re-bounds towards the target off a severe contour, or chases 200 yards across the hard turf despite never getting airborne.
Remember – it could be you next time!
Many who play the links for the first time can’t fathom the appeal and it can take a few visits to appreciate the nuances.
Links legend Tom Watson admits he just didn’t get it on his first trip to the links.
But he persevered, went on to win five Opens and discover a passion for British seaside golf – one that has made him hugely popular with golf fans on this side of the Atlantic.
The first time he played St Andrews, in the 1921 Open Championship, the great Bobby Jones walked off in disgust after 11 holes.
It wasn’t a popular move at the time, but Jones would later learn to love the links and the Old Course at St Andrews in particular.
The locals appreciated his change of heart and in 1958 he was given freedom of the city.
The challenge you face on the links is very different to most inland courses and this is largely due to the wind.
From the tee you must keep the ball low and under the breeze.
The high bomb is not the shot of choice as the higher a shot gets, the more the wind will move it.
The low ball with little spin that hits the fairway and scampers on is the ideal links drive.
From the fairway, the low penetrating iron shot clipped neatly off the firm ground is the objective.
Watch the best links players and you’ll see they barely take a divot, picking the ball cleanly off the surface and sending it forward, again with as little spin as possible so the ball doesn’t balloon into the wind or disappear on a cross-breeze.
Around the putting surface, once more the low shot is preferable.
The chip-and-run is the links short-game shot of choice; keeping the ball close to the ground, hugging and following the natural contours.
Throw it up and the bounce could be hugely unpredictable. The ball might stop dead if it pitches on an upslope or ricochet violently in the wrong direction if it strikes a side slope.
Overall, links golf is about patience and strategy: understanding when to attack and when to keep your powder dry.
You must keep control of your golf ball, don’t persist in sending it skyward, offering it the chance to be blown off course.
You must study the slopes and consider how they might affect your shot, and you must avoid the cavernous pot-bunkers that pock mark most links courses, as well as the unforgiving gorse that bounds them.
Above all though, you must simply enjoy the experience of playing golf as it was meant to be.