Geology and geography of links golf courses

04 January 2017 Respond to this article

Geology and geography

Some believe that sea and sand are the two main ingredients that must combine to create a links golf course. Some think the turf is key and links courses must be carpeted with fine cool-season fescue grasses. Others reckon a links must have key characteristics, such as deep bunkers, firm playing surfaces and rippled land flanked by dunes. Many consider a maritime climate to be essential where the temperature and wind combine to create ideal conditions. Our feeling is that a real links course requires most of the above and perhaps a little bit more.

Another Journey Through the Links by David Worley

“To say that links land is simply the link between arable land and the sea ignores what is really a very complicated ecosystem,” wrote David Worley in Another Journey Through the Links. “After the last ice age sands were blown in from the beaches and, together with small particles of shell derived from previous marine life, led to the formation of dunes. Free draining and with little in the way of nutrients other than bird droppings, this gave rise to a very special variety of flora. Marram grass and native fescues grew and helped preserve the dunes from further wind erosion.”

True Links by George Peper and Malcolm Campbell

“As the ice cap melted and the sea receded, series of ridges and channels took shape,” wrote Peper and Campbell in True Links. “Some of the channels became streams and rivers to the sea, while in other areas an assortment of landforms arose. Their names, if you’re not a student of geology, tend to sound like the creations of Tolkein or the Brothers Grimm: drumlin, hummock, dene, gully, moraine, kame, machair, corrie and esker.”

Sir Guy Campbell, author and golf course architect offered the following explanation of the birth of linksland in The History of Golf in Great Britain, published in 1952:

“In the course of nature these channel-threaded wastes became the resting, nesting and breeding places for birds. This meant bird droppings and so guano or manure, which, with silt brought down by the burns, streams and rivers, formed tilth in which the seeds blown from inland and regurgitated from the crops of the birds germinated and established vegetation. Thus eventually the whole of these areas became grass-covered, from the coarse marram on the exposed dunes, ridges and hillocks, to the meadow grasses round and about the river estuaries and the mouths of the streams and burns. Out of the spreading and intermingling of all these grasses which followed, was established the thick, close-growing, hard-wearing sward that is such a feature of true links turf wherever it is found.

On these areas in due course and where the soil was suitable, heather whins, broom and trees took root and flourished in drifts, clumps and coverts; terrain essentially adapted to attract and sustain animal life.

Nature saw to this. First came the rabbits or “cunninggis” as an ancient St Andrews charter describes them; and after “cunninggis” as naturally came the beasts of prey, followed inevitably by man.

This sequence had a definite effect on these wastes or warrens. In them the rabbits bred and multiplied. They linked up by runs, their burrows in the dunes and ridges with their feeding and frolicking grounds in the straths and sheltered oases flanked and backed by whins and broom. The runs were then gradually worn into tracks by the foxes, and man the hunter in his turn widened the paths into tracks and rides. Generations later when man the sportsman, having adopted golf as a pastime, went in search of ground suitable for its pursuit, he found it waiting for him in these warrens, almost ready to hand. In form it was certainly primitive, but it supplied lavishly what today are regarded as the fundamental and traditional characteristics of golfing terrain.”

One of the first questions Messrs Peper and Campbell asked themselves was “whether linksland is indeed a prerequisite for links golf. Can a bone fide links course take form on any other sort of terrain?” The conclusion they came to was a qualified yes.

A good number of publications have documented what constitutes linksland, but most struggle to explain the geology.

Scotland's Golf Courses by Robert Price

Robert Price – who’s held research and teaching posts in American, Canadian and Scottish universities – has spent most of his professional life as Reader in Physical Geography at the University of Glasgow. He published Scotland’s Golf Courses in 1989, updated in 2002, and here’s what he had to say about the country’s coastal courses in this edited extract:

“154 golf courses are located on the Scottish coastline. They all occupy sites that have been created as a result of the relative changes in sea level which occurred during the Ice Age.

The typical Scottish links course is located on a raised beach or raised marine platform produced or at least trimmed by the relatively high sea level attained about 6,000 years ago.

The majority of these beaches or platforms are between 10 and 35 feet above present sea level. On top of the raised beach or platform is a covering of wind-blown sand either in the form of dune ridges, dune hummocks or as a gently undulating sand spread (sand plain).

The dune ridges have been used for ‘rough’ and inter-dune troughs (slacks) have been used for fairways and greens for several centuries by Scottish golfers. Similarly, the minor undulations associated with sand spreads over raised-beach deposits have also been traditional golfing areas.

It is interesting that the game of golf began and flourished on the youngest and in some ways the most delicate of Scotland’s land surfaces. Dune areas are highly unstable. They can develop very rapidly (in geological terms) over a few hundred years.

It is perhaps a gross over-simplification to put all links courses into one class. They range from courses built on raised beaches and raised platforms with only a thin, almost flat, sand cover through courses built of sub-parallel dune ridges and associated undulating sand spreads, to courses built entirely on sand dune ridges and hummocks.

It is the morphological variety both within and between links courses that make them so attractive to the golfer.”

Limestone Downs

From the fairways of Southerndown at Ogmore by Sea there’s a salty whiff of sea air and also coastal views to match, and yet Southerndown is sui generis. Former Cardiff University lecturer Dr Mary E Gillham explains in her book Limestone Downs the reason why Southerndown is so different, as Tony Williams covers online in The Story Behind the Scenery at the club’s website.

“She describes a situation where, at the end of the Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago, strong winds blew a layer of light soil – called Loess – over our local downs. This soil was acidic in nature. Thus we have on Southerndown a layer of topsoil which is very rarely found on top of limestone and is perfect for growing the crisp turf so typical of this renowned golf course. However, as the learned Doctor points out, ‘Loess, essential to the existence of limestone heath, cannot be re-created until we suffer another Ice Age. Once destroyed by agriculture and quarrying, it cannot, therefore, be reinstated. It should be accorded the highest conservation priorities. There are few sites in Britain where they occur and no site is more than a few hectares in extent.’

It follows, obviously, that Southerndown must be the only golf course in Great Britain that is laid out entirely on a limestone heath. We should afford our environment the greatest care and protection, for it is like no other anywhere in the country.”

The right topsoil is an essential prerequisite for links courses and Southerndown bucks the trend in that it has unique geology of limestone stratum, which is alkaline, and light acidic topsoil. Pure sand is inert in its makeup and is neutral in its pH balance, but animal droppings are acidic. Consequently over thousands of years the soil pH and nutrient levels changed allowing certain types of flora to thrive.

Grasses aren’t too fussy about soil pH levels, as long as the range is acceptable, but bents and fescues prefer the slightly acidic, lower end of the pH scale, whereas broader leaved grasses are happier with a higher range.

So can a links course be created on any terrain, providing the drainage and soil structure is right?

We think the answer is probably yes, but it’s very much dependent on location and architecture. Real links courses should lie close to the sea otherwise they are inland golf courses of some description.

Note: We’ve not classified Southerndown as a links course, but its complex geology touches on the challenges associated with categorising links courses.


Top 100 Links Courses of Britain and Ireland 2017