My Favorite Links
Unlike most sports, the game of golf was not invented so much as it evolved, and it evolved in a very specific setting on the coastal links of Scotland. Summers in the northern latitudes afforded such long evenings that even before the industrial age, there was enough daylight for the working class to enjoy some leisure time. Struggling with the wind and the weather and the rugged ground has always been the essence of the game.
One of the great appeals of links courses is that no two are alike. Sand dunes are like snowflakes, each created by a natural process that leaves a slightly different shape, so a hundred acres of ground with wave after wave of dunes is bound to have a character of its own. Indeed, on many links, the nature of the topography changes completely from one end of the course to the other – Royal St. George’s has towering 40-foot dunes at its far end, and shoulder-high ridges nearer the clubhouse. You never know what might be around the next corner, and that is part of the fascination of links golf.
There are perhaps 200 or 250 true links golf courses in the world today, and I’ve walked around the better half of them in learning the craft of designing and building golf courses. Even the simplest of links has been worth a look (or a game), and it’s hard to pick favorites, because it is hard to stop. From these, I’ve chosen thirteen which together give a sense of the wide variety which links golf can provide.
The home of golf has not one links course but four of them running parallel; the granddaddy of them all is not in the biggest of dunes, but set back a bit where the ground was slightly more fertile, and less likely to be buried under sand drifts in the early days of golf course maintenance. The Old Course was originally a narrow out-and-back strip, but as the game grew in popularity, the native whins [also known as gorse, a thick impenetrable shrub] were cut back to widen the course so that golfers going out and coming home would not do battle head-on.
From the lowest point of The Old Course to the highest, the difference is less than twenty-five feet, but there are few pieces of ground anywhere with a greater range and frequency of small undulations. Players steering away from the deeper bunkers in the middle of the course find their shots being turned away from the hole by contours at the front of the greens, as if the hand of God was part of each hole’s defenses. The result is the most complicated course in the world – and the only course I know where your plan of attack must be reconsidered after every shot.
The West Links at North Berwick have never been considered a true “championship” course; just after significant additions were made in the early 1900’s, the advent of the Haskell ball and then of steel shafts relegated it again to the second tier of difficulty. But Bernard Darwin wrote a hundred years ago that it is “an exceptionally good school in which to learn the art of approaching,” and this aspect proved to be very popular when the town became a summer-home and weekend-home retreat from the city in the early 1900’s.
The scenic layout hugs a very narrow strip all along the coast, with fabulous views of the Firth of Forth and various small rocky islands – the beach and the water are more in play at North Berwick than on any other famous links. There are also some terrific golf holes. The short par-4 13th with its green nestled in a hollow on the far side of a low stone wall is one of a kind, while the famous par-3 15th, the Redan, was used as a model by early architects on scores of great courses around the world.
Thanks to its remote location at the southern end of the Mull of Kintyre, Machirihanish is the one great Scottish links which has stayed under the radar of visiting golfers from overseas. It’s just too far off the beaten path for most people to venture; the members play perhaps 10,000 rounds of golf per year. And at that level of play, Nature does a fine job of sorting out good play from bad. The fairways and greens are well trafficked enough to present a fast surface without becoming compacted. The areas of the rough which are likely to get a fair amount of play from the golfers’ standard missed shots are thinned out by foot traffic, so the lies are not too bad. But if a good player hits way off line past where the average player will normally go, he will find himself in very thick grass with a difficult shot, if he finds it at all.
Most of the links courses in the UK are greener and softer and more manicured than when I first saw them 25 years ago, not just because they are now catering to overseas visitors, but because the turf has to be maintained differently to suffer all the traffic. Machrihanish has not changed one bit, and I hope it never does.
Not all links courses are fortunate enough to have 18 holes among the dunes – for many links, there is not enough acreage of the right stuff, and the course must include several holes on less than ideal ground. Dornoch, the boyhood home of Donald Ross, is one of the few Scottish links to turn the situation to their advantage. Just after the Second World War, the club split the course which Ross had known to form two separate 18’s, by extending the golf at each end. The course used to turn back for the clubhouse after today’s par-3 sixth hole; but by building the par-4 seventh hole and half the par-4 eighth up on the bluff away from the dunes, they enabled themselves to add the ninth through eleventh holes coming back in along the narrower strip of links at the base of the bluff, which lends today’s championship course its unique visual character.
All coastal links must deal with issues of wind and water erosion, but the most threatened of them today is the eighteen holes of Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, built on a narrow strip of dunes two hours north-east of London. The higher tides along this coastline surround the golf course, so that the access road from the town of Brancaster across the marsh is cut off for three hours at a time during high tide … conveniently, just long enough to play eighteen holes. The other theme of the course is wind erosion, which is so strong that nearly all the bunkers of any size are banked up with railroad ties to prevent the sand from overtaking the greens – so that the whole course looks like it was built by a demented uncle of Pete Dye. Sadly, if sea levels continue their slow rise, Brancaster will probably be the first great links to be lost back to the sea, and any who have played it will mourn its loss.
It was General Moncrieffe of St. Andrews, upon visiting the town of Westward Ho! in the early 1860’s, who coined the immortal phrase “Providence obviously designed this for a golf links,” to be used by seven generations of golf course architects thereafter. First-time visitors to the first tee of the Royal North Devon Golf Club may struggle to see what the general had in mind. The ground near the clubhouse is the flattest stretch of linksland possible, and the dunes along the shore scarcely seem tall enough on a windy day to keep the Atlantic from pouring in and flooding the course. The rough is virtually indistinguishable from the fairways, and with the entire course set on common land, horses and cattle and sheep graze in such profusion that sometimes it seems impossible that you’ll miss them all with your tee shot. Yet with a minimum of bunkers and a four-hole intervention by the spiky Great Sea Rushes at the start of the back nine, Westward Ho! remains perhaps the ultimate reminder of how a simple game can be so much tougher than it looks.
There are lots of links set among large sand hills, but none more dramatic than Ballybunion, where you play along a sandy bluff falling into the ocean and then up narrow valleys between the towering dunes. The roughs are so perfect that it’s difficult to lose a ball no matter where you hit it; but if you do not keep on the straight and narrow, it’s just as difficult to get your next shot to stay on the greens, many of which have steep banks of short grass falling away on both sides. The size and placement of the dunes required some unusual routing choices – there are back-to-back par fives on the front, and four par-3’s in eight holes from the 8th to the 15th – but no one ever seems to be bothered by it, because the quality of golf is so high. Tom Watson’s pilgrimages here in the 1980’s put the course firmly on the tourist map, and now in the summer the course is overrun with overseas visitors.
Royal County Down
County Down is unquestionably the most scenic golf course in the world -- even though frequently the golfer cannot see where he is going, thanks to several blind tee shots. On the outward holes you play toward monstrous dunes at the far end of the course, then at the fourth tee you turn back to admire a picture-postcard view of the beach and town, gorse-covered dunes which bloom bright yellow in the spring, the spire of the Slieve Donard Hotel behind the clubhouse, and the Mountains of Mourne just beyond. The front nine is closer to the sea and often cited as perhaps the best front nine holes in the world of golf; naturally, the finishing holes struggle a bit to hold up this level of quality. On a calm day, when you are hitting your drives straight over the marker posts, the course can be a breeze – Tiger Woods had 64 here – but with the wind blowing Royal County Down may be the toughest course in the world, as Tiger’s previous rounds of 81 and 85 might suggest.
One of the best-kept secrets in golf is that continental Europe also has its share of fine links courses. Kennemer, in a setting reminiscent of Shinnecock Hills close to the North Sea in the suburbs of Amsterdam, has perhaps the finest pedigree. The original 18 holes were laid out by Harry Colt and his partner John Morrison, so its greens and bunkers are more thoughtful than many of the older UK links. The course was expanded to 27 holes in the early 1980’s, with the newer holes specifically designed to add difficulty for the Dutch Open, which the club has hosted on many occasions.
Yet, there is much argument whether Kennemer or Haagsche or Noordwijk is preeminent of the links on the Dutch coast, and I have heard that Royal Zoute just across into Belgium may be even better. True links also exist along the North Sea coast of Denmark, on the Baltic Sea in Sweden, on the Atlantic coast of Portugal, and on the English Channel at Le Touquet in France. But alas!, there are no true links along the Meditteranean, where sand dunes are rare and where the warmer temperatures do not promote the fine grasses most suitable to links golf.
South Africa is five times the size of Great Britain, and with 2,700 miles of coastline, you would think that there would be a plethora of links courses in stock, but there are only a handful. The most famous seaside course in the country is Durban Country Club, but while it is undeniably set among sand dunes – several holes run on top of the dunes, in fact – the playing surface is not as hard and fast as a British links.
Further south, however, the grasses start to change and the winds are more prevalent, and on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, the links of Humewood are indeed the real thing. Much of the routing is a series of back and forth parallel holes, several of them running up and down a low hill at the back of the property, but the winds are so forceful that you will hit a driver and wedge on one hole, then turn around and hit two wooden shots to a green right alongside the previous tee. Surely, there are many links in the UK with more fascinating terrain, but not very many of them where you can play in shirtsleeves nine months of the year.
For many years, this small links in a beach town suburb of Wellington had the reputation of being the best links course in the southern hemisphere, and deservedly so. Modern development came to this part of the world before golf did, so the dunes along the shoreline are covered with beach homes, and the golf course is behind them. Architect Alex Russell, who worked with Dr. MacKenzie at Royal Melbourne, made the very most out of a tight rectangular property, with small dunes and small trees throughout. The best holes are the par threes where missing the green always leaves a difficult recovery, but the most memorable hole is the long par-4 thirteenth, its green set high in the dunes framed against the rugged coastal mountains.
Paraparaumu’s preeminence among the links of the southern hempisphere rested in part on the fact that most of Australia’s best courses are in the Sand Belt of Melbourne, and its one great seaside track, New South Wales south of Sydney, is more a clifftop course like Pebble Beach than a true links. But five years ago I visited Tasmania for the first time to see the ground which is now Barnbougle Dunes, and I could see the handwriting on the wall. Tasmania, an island state off the southeastern tip of mainland Australia, is very reminiscent of Britain – most of the towns are laid out around the coast, there are sand dunes aplenty thanks to the windy climate of the “roaring forties,” and the air is cool enough that the fescues which dominate the links will thrive. The only question was whether anyone would come to play; the Tasmanian population is quite small, so golfers from Melbourne and Sydney must adopt the course as a regular holiday spot if it is to succeed. I hope it’s good enough to do so, since it includes several of the best holes I have ever built.
For years, when golf writers asked me how many true links courses could be counted in America, I had to bite my lip. By the strictest definition – sandy ground which had formerly been part of the sea – only a handful of holes at Maidstone on the east end of Long Island and the public course at Truro on Cape Cod would have passed muster in the eyes of a visiting Scotsman.
The facts started to change fifteen years ago. Sand Hills in Nebraska is more than 1,000 miles from the sea, but the combination of sand dunes and wind and fine turf certainly produces the true playing character of a links course. And the success of Sand Hills inspired Mike Keiser to look for a spot of secluded sandy coastline to build his own dream course. He found it just north of Bandon, Oregon, where the alluvial deposits from the Coquille River are blown back ashore to create a sandy paradise for American golfers. Bandon Dunes and its sisters (including Pacific Dunes, the lucky thirteenth course on my own resume) don’t just play like a links – with the maritime climate and a healthy maintenance budget and a lot of TLC, they provide the finest playing surface in all of links golf. You can putt from fifty yards off the green if it suits you.
Best of all, the success of Bandon Dunes has caused others to become believers, so that developers from Tasmania and South Africa and Iceland and Canada and Argentina are starting to believe it could work there, too. Hopefully, when someone else writes this same article fifty years from now, there will be a number of worthy new candidates for inclusion, a possibility which seemed quite unlikely not so long ago.