As golfers we have all heard the term “links” but few of us actually know exactly what it means. It seems, especially in the USA, that the term links has infiltrated some golfers speech habits to such an extent that the phrase “links” has now become synonymous with “golf course”, but this should not be the case.
Links courses are a very specific kind of golf course; a kind of golf course that helps us hold on to the traditions of the game and courses that hold an important place in the game’s history.
Sometime during the 15th century golf was born in St Andrews and after some time the East coast of Scotland started seeing more and more golf courses built on land that was commonly referred to as “the links”.
Over the next few hundred years the game of golf evolved and now endless courses of all shapes and sizes can be found right the way across the globe. From the pristine surrounds of Augusta National in the USA to the dramatic cliff-side Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, golf has become more and more prevalent around the world and gradually “links” and “golf course” soon became interchangeable to many golfers, even if the golf course did not possess traditional links qualities.
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So What is a Links?
The British Golf Museum says that links are coastal strips of land between beaches and inland agricultural areas. So links courses simply must be by the sea for a start. However that is not the only thing that makes a true links.
Sir Walter Simpson, a 19th century Scottish philosopher who wrote the book “The Art of Golf” defines links as, “The grounds on which golf is played are called links, being the barren sandy soil from which the sea has retired in recent geological times. In their natural state links are covered with long, rank bent grass and gorse. Links are too barren for cultivation: but sheep, rabbits, geese and professionals pick up a precarious livelihood on them.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that sheep and other assorted wildlife have to roam the fairways in order for a course to be classified as a links…having said that you can expect to find exactly that at the oldest links course in England, Royal North Devon. There is no question that this is a traditional links and the sheep certainly help to keep the fairways in order!
Royal North Devon – England’s Oldest Links
A more modern definition of links was offered up by the legendary golf courses designer Donald Steel who, let’s be honest, should have a better understanding of what it takes for a course to be classified as a links than most! Steel said, “My definition of links is the strip of land which links the sea with more fertile land, often set amongst dunes. The best terrain for golf is sand and that kind of land has minimal agricultural value, which makes such places ideal.”
While Steel neglected to mention sheep it is clear from his and Simpson’s definitions that links courses are situated in coastal areas of flat, sandy land where the only elevation changes are brought about by natural dunes and where trees and plant life struggle to grow. This reflects both the nature of the scenery where the sport happened to originate, and the fact that only limited resources were available to golf course architects at the time, and any earth moving had to be done by hand, thus being kept to a minimum.
Traditional links courses also, owing to the fact that were built on narrow strips of land, usually follow a nine out and nine back routing where the front nine holes take the golfers away from the clubhouse before turning back and playing the remainder of the course in the opposite direction towards the clubhouse.
Pebble Beach may boast some of the most spectacular seaside holes in the world but, strictly speaking, it is not a links course
This definition has not however been carried over to the USA where the terms “links” and “golf course” have become inexplicably synonymous. There are plenty of golf courses in the USA that have links like qualities and are indeed situated by the sea. Take the world class trio of Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Cypress Point that reside on the Monterey Peninsula. All three courses have been built beside the sea but as we have learned this is not enough to make them links courses.
There are also many courses around the world that claim to be links courses, and while they are not strictly the real thing, they have been inspired by the great links courses where the game was born. Fancourt Links in South Africa is just one of these courses. Here Gary Player brought the best of what the UK & Ireland had to offer and created a truly spectacular golf course. Similarly, the courses at Whistling Straits enjoy some of the characteristics of a true links course but they were manufactured my moving tonnes and tonnes of earth so again, these are not true links courses.
Whistling Straits looks, feels and plays like a links but it took considerable sculpting to arrive at the finished article, which is truly stunnig nonetheless!
As golf left the UK & Ireland and went towards the four corners of the globe, the idea of the links clearly followed but for the real thing golfers simply must head to Scotland, England, Ireland or Wales where courses that tick all of the links criteria boxes await.
Golfers from across the globe can describe courses as links as much as they want, but unless they are facing daunting winds, massive undulating greens, naturally rolling fairways and dunes and perhaps bearing witness to an occasional sheep grazing in the fields, they are on a golf course!
To summarise, here are the key characteristics that define a true links course:
Naturally formed contours and undulations
Often featuring rolling dunes
Deep, rugged rough and pot bunkers
Situated on a narrow strip of land that links the sea with fertile land further from the shore
A punishing exposure to the elements – often the main defence for the course
Where can you find the best, real links courses?
Here’s a quick guide
Royal St Georges can really get battered by the elements
Royal Porthcawl is just one of a string of top-class traditional links courses on the South Coast of Wales
Ballybunion is Ireland’s most famous links course and makes up a fine trio of true links courses that await golfers travelling to the South West of Ireland