Our Interpretation of “Links”
A links course should look like a links and play like a links.
To quote Donald Steel from his book Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland: “A study of British and Irish seaside links remains the finest way to understand the principles of golf course architecture… Imagination, attention to detail and eye for land is what separates the good from the also-rans, the truly authentic links by the sea from others that are, at best, only thin imitations.”
What should links courses look like?
Links courses should look natural, the way Nature intended.
That’s not to say man-made features cannot be added to enhance the appearance of a course. Ditches and small burns are sometimes introduced, often just in front of putting surfaces, to help with fairway drainage. Rough, shaggy mounding or small sand hills can also be established behind greensites to hide teeing areas on the following hole or to mask unsightly maintenance buildings.
The land should be near the coast; it may appear austere and barren.
Even if it’s only the sound of waves crashing onto the shoreline that can be heard from the other side of the dunes, there’s no escaping the fact that close proximity to the sea is an absolute must for an authentic links. The visual aesthetics of looking out along a sandy beach are to be cherished but such views, though highly desirable, are not absolutely essential.
The ideal topography should be undulating or rippling with sufficient ground movement to provide interest – there might even be the odd blind shot to be played.
Even the less optically endearing courses at Royal Liverpool and Royal Troon (Old), where the opening and closing holes occupy relatively dull golfing ground, are not short of contoured terrain around the turn on either layout. It’s virtually impossible to imagine any links course, even a modern one that has been largely shaped by machine, fashioned with flat, largely featureless golf holes.
Sand dunes of varying sizes will be present, stabilised by coarse grasses and sturdy vegetation, such as buckthorn and gorse.
The fairways of many links courses are laid out along the valleys between the coastal sand dunes that run along the shoreline and that’s why a large number of older links layouts were built with a basic out-and-back routing. Some of these dune systems are absolutely enormous, with towering sand hills on either side of some holes offering almost complete isolation from the rest of the course.
Playing surfaces comprise of fine, close-growing grasses (usually bents and fescues) thriving on firm, sandy, free-draining soil.
There’s no real place for lush grasses on a links as verdant fairways and greens are not conducive to allowing the golf ball to bounce and roll.
Bunkers are generally of the “pot” variety – small and deep.
Bunker faces are often revetted with grass sods or sometimes lined with railway sleepers for support and an insurance against wind erosion. These are found close to putting surfaces, where gathering swales ensure inaccurate approach shots are suitably punished. Fairway bunkering, on the other hand, is often less penal, with traps adopting more of a ragged-edged appearance.
How should links courses play?
Links courses should play firm and fast. The turf sward has a distinctive quality – resistant and durable but somehow pliable.
Target golf is the name of the game on most inland courses where the golf ball is best played through the air but wind conditions on the coast – an almost ever-present element – dictates a ground game playing strategy. Low punched iron shots, bump and run shots and putts from just off the fairway often yield better results than hitting high iron shots in windy conditions into firm greens.
Putting surfaces (some of which might be double greens) are often simple, lie of the land areas that have been built to blend in with the surrounding green complex. For some greens, there might be a big dip on the approach (a false front) and humps and hollows surrounding the undulating surface, all of which is designed to repel imprecise approach play to the pin position.
The landscape around the perimeter of the links can be varied. The presence of a few trees or indigenous bushes is not unusual but larger areas of buckthorn and gorse adjacent to fairways must be kept in check as they can very quickly encroach onto playing areas, stifling the space around tees and greens.
There may well be a shoreline on one side of the links (the beach on the 1st holes at Machrihanish and North Berwick (West) is in play), houses on another (or in the case of Royal Lytham & St Annes houses on all sides) but the course may also abut farmland, woodland, a road or a railway (as at Prestwick and Aberdovey).
A number of links have cemeteries located next to the course and there are plenty of instances where a mobile home park is situated adjacent to a top track (Ballybunion (Old) has both). Within the confines of a links, you might come across such diverse things such as an old ice house (Nairn (Championship)) or a prominent war monument (Turnberry (Ailsa)).
Expect to occasionally meet non-golfers walking across or alongside a links course as they use public rights of way and coastal paths. You might also, in the case of Brora and Royal North Devon, have to wait for horses, cattle or sheep to move out of your way as they have the right to graze on the fairways.