For those of you new, or still relatively new, to golf, a lot of the terminology can be quite baffling. You hear talk about this being a links course or a parkland course. You only thought of it as a golf course! But what is a links golf course? And what makes them so special?
What is a links golf course?
A links golf course is the oldest type of golf course. It is golf that is played by the seaside on a special type of land called linksland, ie it links the land and the sea. Linksland is traditionally sandy, coastal terrain which has been sculpted over thousands of years by the wind buffeting in off the sea. It has hard ground and harsh grasses and was traditionally unsuitable for growing crops as it was too exposed to the weather. This type of land is common across the coastlines of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
It was on this land that the game was first established in Scotland. The Old Course at St Andrews is known as such because the game was first reported to be played on the land there in the 15th century, the land between the town itself and St Andrews Bay.
Why is The Open played on a links golf course?
In 1860, the first staging of The Open Championship took place across the other side of Scotland at Prestwick Golf Club where Willie Park Sr. beat seven other players to become the first ever ‘Champion Golfer of the Year.’ The 2022 version was the 150thstaging of golf’s oldest and most famous Championship, won by Australia’s Cameron Smith. One of the principal stipulations for the tournament is that it must be held on a links golf course, so the players of today can face many of the challenges those men first did 162 years ago. Overcoming the course, the weather conditions and your fellow competitors makes you stand out as a ‘Champion Golfer’.
What makes a course a Links?
Because a traditional links course is right by the sea, the weather has a huge impact. Play it when the weather is nice and there seems little to worry about. Turn up on a foul day and the 18 holes can be a golfing monster! With no trees close by, there is usually nothing to stop the wind blowing right across the course and it is very unusual to have a day at the seaside when it is flat calm. That makes the wind a factor on many shots. Distance becomes less relevant as the wind takes over. If you are playing downwind, the golfer must take advantage because any hole playing into the wind, no matter how short, suddenly becomes that much more difficult.
Rain or bad weather can also come in very quickly. And if you get the dreaded combination of wind and heavy rain, even the best can struggle. That famously happened to Tiger Woods in The 2002 Open at Muirfield, where out in the worst of the conditions, he could only shoot an 81 and his chances of winning the tournament were ended.
The ground is usually firmer than for an inland course and it is a natural turf. Often sand based, it can dry out very quickly. If we get hot summers like last one, it is common for the fairways to turn from green to a yellowish-brown as they become parched and hard. That always helps the ball to run for yards and yards after they have landed. Tee shots can go much further if they land on the right spot on the fairway adding length to a drive, especially if the hole is downwind.
The firmer ground can help the player, too, if they are prepared to use the contours to their advantage. With firm conditions, a player can run the ball onto the green just as easily as try to hit a high shot to land on the putting surface.
The rough is often characterised by long, thin, wispy grass. Some lies can be good and allow the player a clean strike at the ball. On others, the rough grass tangles up with the club head and can send a shot careering offline if not careful. For those who veer further off the fairway, gorse bushes can swallow up golf balls and from there, there is no escape. It is a case of a penalty shot away from the bush.
Beware of the bunkers!
One distinctive element about links golf is the bunkers. On some of the classic links golf courses, they are almost impossible to avoid. Royal Lytham & St Annes has 174 bunkers, almost ten per hole! They are often small and deep and are called ‘pot bunkers’, because they are like little pots. Many have steep or riveted faces. This is where layers of grass have been put on top of each other to reinforce the face. Quite simply, if you go in one of these traps, the aim is to get out. Forget getting close to the pin or going a long way up the fairway, take your medicine and get the ball out of the sand.
Where can I play on a links golf course?
Luckily, in this country we are spoilt for choice in terms of links golf courses we can play. The most famous ones are those used for The Open Championship – The Old Course at St Andrews, Carnoustie, Royal Troon, Muirfield and Turnberry in Scotland, Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham & St Anne’s, Royal Liverpool and Royal St George’s in England and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the modern Open is not played in Wales as there are no venues with a big enough infrastructure to stage an event of that scale.
According to the Links Association, there are 279 proper links courses in the United Kingdom and Ireland. That means a dedicated golfer could spend almost a year of their life playing the most classic form of golf.
Because links golf courses are all set on the same type of land, they can often be found clustered together. That makes it great for a short break with fellow golfing enthusiasts. Great areas to go include Fife and East Lothian (nicknamed ‘The Golf Coast’ with 13 golf clubs along the coastline east of Edinburgh) in Scotland, the Lancashire coast and the Kent coast around the town of Sandwich in England and the south west corner of Ireland with venues like Ballybunion and Tralee, where golfers are challenged by the winds and waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
However, some of the best links golf courses can be those off the beaten track, virtually impossible to find. Ireland and Scotland are perfect for this, and in some parts of Wales, too. These are links golf courses that don’t feel any different to when they were first opened, almost as if the linksland was ready for golf to be played and 18 holes to be established.
Why do people love Links courses
Now, I am very lucky. I have been to 14 Open Championships and I have been fortunate enough to play on three of the courses on the Open rota – Royal Birkdale, Royal Liverpool and Royal Portrush. I have been soaked, windswept and challenged on all three. But that only adds to the mystique as they were all fantastic!
I was not sure about links golf when I was first starting out, but now I am a huge fan. The golf is natural and raw, and I love it. When the wind is blowing, forget the distance. Think of the shot you want to hit and play it. That could be a putter from 50 yards short of the green or a three-iron on a short par-three. It requires imagination and skill. Seeing your ball run and run and run and, slowly but surely, take the contours of the ground to run into a good spot on the green is a great feeling. It is golf how it was played 500 years ago and there is something really special about still being able to appreciate that in our crazy, modern lives.
About the Author
Adam Lanigan - Golf Writer
Adam is a freelance news and sports journalist who has written for the BBC, The Sunday Post, The I, The Times, The Telegraph and more. He has been writing about golf for nearly two decades and has covered 13 Open Championships and two Ryder Cups. Not only does Adam cover golf, but he has played golf for as long as he can remember. He was a member at Northenden Golf Club for around 25 years until his children arrived and his last official handicap was 11, although on any given day his form fluctuates anywhere between eight and 18.