The question of “What is a links golf course?” was posed to me countless times during my four years in St Andrews. After a round on the St Andrews Old Course yesterday in 45MPH+ winds, I felt inspired to write a definitive answer to this repeated question. In addition to answering the question of what technically makes a links course, I also aim to explain the mindset that accompanies a pure links experience.
In the most basic sense, the land upon which it is built defines a links golf course. Robert Price wrote in his book Scotland’s Golf Courses, “Scottish links land occupies a relatively narrow zone (often less than one mile wide) along the coast. Since the source of the sand is the adjoining beach and the mode of transport is on-shore winds, the distance the sand extends inland is not great. It tends to accumulate in dune ridges, which are usually ten to thirty feet high, and, on average, rarely occur higher than seventy-five feet above the present sea level… The fairways are found on the short grass of the inter-dune system while the dune ridges and their tough marram grass form areas of “rough.”
Simply put, a links course is built at sea level, in the sandy dunes (or linksland) that run parallel to the beach at sea level. The sandy soil conditions lend to very firm, fast conditions requiring a plethora of shots not found anywhere else. After reading this definition, a number of links course imposters will immediately come to mind. “Links style” is completely different from a true links course.
Additionally, there are a number of other factors that accompany a links golf experience. Lorne Rubenstein wrote in A Season in Dornoch, “Golf on a Scottish links consists of enduring and even welcoming the conditions, allowing them to influence the shots one plays. To play links golf is to acknowledge that nature, not the golfer, dictates play.” Wind and rain are the true defenses of a links golf course. As the Scots say, “Ney wind, ney rain, ney golf.
Playing a true old Scottish links encompasses so much more than merely the style of the design and the proximity to the sea. It is the respect for the game in its simplest form, the abandonment of scorecards, walking with no carts, and the lack of commercialism, which among many factors, make it so special.
Many of Scotland’s great links are succumbing to decisions made in the corporate boardroom. Such decisions may not affect the quality of the courses, but they can have significant impact on the aforementioned factors that make these links courses unique. On a golf trip to Scotland, play the great resort courses, but do your best to play at least one hidden course. Get the true taste of Scottish links. Go find a course with an honesty box – a box on the first tee in which you are to deposit your small green fee due to the absence of staff or clubhouse.
Famous golf writer George Peper sums up this idea so well in his quote spoken to the Fife Golf Association; “Someday I hope to bring my grandchildren here to Scotland – not to show them what golf is but what golf isn’t – that it isn’t $200 million resorts and $200,000 membership fees, that it isn’t six hour rounds and three day member-guests, that it isn’t motorized buggies, Cuban cigars, and cashmere headcovers. It’s a game you play simply and honorably, without delay or complaint – where you respect your companions, respect the rules, and respect the ground you walk on. Where on the 18thgreen you remove your cap and shake hands, maybe just a little humbler and a little wiser than when you began.”