It is links week at NCG where we are debating, celebrating and discussing the nuances of links golf. We have chosen this week as the Dunhill is being played over the Old Course, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns, the latter being a ‘modern links’, which, some golfing pedants will tell you, is not a category.
In actual fact golf has been played at Kingsbarns in some form since 1793 but nothing is more certain to raise a huff and a puff from a student of the game than incorrectly using the term links.
So, what is a links? Many people have tried to define it. This definition is regularly quoted: “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.”
All of which seems a bit extreme as it would mean there are less than a handful of links courses in this country. I like the definition of links as a piece of land that divides the useful farmland from the beach. Land that has sandy soil, that is too poor for thick grasses or crops to thrive but is ideal for the hardy fescues and gorse that we associate with links golf. Where nothing really is possible apart from golf and grazing.
So why does this undefinable form of the game engender such extreme views? For many arriving at a links course for the first time is an underwhelming and confusing experience. ‘It’s like the surface of the moon’ is a common cliché and indeed the lack of definition at places like Royal North Devon or even the Old Course are confusing and initially hard to fathom. Add to this the often inhospitable climate on our coasts and you might see why many golfers would prefer the cosy surrounds of a twee, manicured parkland.
Yet at the other extreme there are entire societies, textbooks and websites devoted to the purest form of the game. Polarising then but, for me, links golf is golf.
A genuine links gives you myriad ways of playing a hole, a shot and allows you to cope with the extreme weather you are so often served. Its challenges are subtle in a way that parkland golf just isn’t, you can’t after all get up and down from a pond.
Storied architect Alister MacKenzie said: “The chief charm of the best seaside links is 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.”
Indeed, MacKenzie and Bobby Jones created Augusta National on links principles, the original absence of rough designed to allow for recovery. Jones wanted to create an environment offering something different from standard American fare – “We rarely have a choice or an opportunity to think.”
One certainty is that the weather is a massive factor which means courses and holes rarely play the same way twice. On a still day almost all links courses might be described as easy. Downwind holes allow for feats of derring-do and those played into the wind feel impossible. An ability to control the flight then is a huge advantage. Can you fly it high on the wind, can you remove spin and knock the ball down?
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.”
Some will say that the heathlands offer you the same opportunity to play the ground game as a links, and this is to some degree true, but the weather is often more benign and the presence of trees and shelter softens things. Links is more straight up; more man versus the elements
Links golf is indisputably ours. The book True Links lists only 246 courses of this type in the world, and reckons that 210 of them are in the UK and Ireland. The fact that we own it should be celebrated. Links golf is as British as a bulldog.
There was a trend in this country during the ’80s to build inland courses to USGA spec, whatever that means, with the end result being a collection of giant, unplayable, soulless layouts and that are totally out of step with our climate and year-round playing conditions.
Seaside golf in this country was the origin of the game for a reason. It is possible all year, even in the wind and the rain. A links course will not waterlog or become impossible in the wind. Indeed before mowers and irrigation golf was a winter sport as the colder air meant less grass would grow and the terrain was more suitable for golf. This remains the same today and players will regularly flee to the outposts to take their winter golf when their own inland courses are unplayable.
Sometimes it is a bit silly. Holes such as Klondyke and Dell at Lahinch, Himalayas at Prestwick, Foxy at Dornoch or any of the holes at the original Machrie, they are sometimes a bit on the Noel Fielding side of normal.
They leave you stood on the tee scratching your head, more reminiscent of the board game Mousetrap than a golf hole. The ball rattles along rails, down shoots, up ramps and somehow arrives at its destination. It is fun, silly, probably not always fair but that is how we like it, that is how life is.
Finally, you have to get away to do it. There is something magical about the extreme locations of links golf. You have to travel to get there, you have to escape your normal surrounds. Golf is a hobby, a sport, a pastime. It is leisure time, where you are relaxing and away from the hurly burly. Links golf gives you a feeling of space and escapism which is just not possible inland.
So maybe the definition of links golf does not matter, maybe it is just the way it makes you feel that counts. I love it and I love introducing people to it. I have travelled the country for 20 years with friend and colleague Dan Murphy seeking out links golf and long may it continue.
As Tom Watson said of his lifetime caddie Bruce Edwards: “I am never happier than when I am out there walking the links with him.”