Professional golfers and yes, recreation golfer in the US are spoiled. Our golf courses are lush, the fairways are smooth, our courses are watered to be soft and our greens are shaved closer than a Marine crew cut. Our courses are perfectly manicured…we know how far we must fly the ball and we know it will pretty much stop on the green. Believe it or not, we have ‘Americanized’ golf.
But then comes an event one week out of each year in July that has some magic. Thanks to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the Open Championship showcases how golf was intended to be played. We get to see links golf.
Our courses in the US are lush and green. We all love watching the Masters, as August National is the best manicured course in our country. This week, here comes Royal Birkdale, with its varying shades of brown and humps and bumps. Quite the contrast.
Links is derived from a Scottish word meaning ‘ridge.’ Links courses were built on coastal areas, consisting of sand dunes, that were considered unsuitable for farming. Fescue grasses were the only thing that would grow and the soil drained well. With the lack of moisture, the grass tends to have long roots. What you get is a very firm surface with long wispy fescue grasses off the mown areas and the naturally undulating areas between the dunes. Sorry Pebble Beach, Harbour Town and others here in the US...you are not links courses.
Links golf forces you to put up with the vagaries of the weather and humpy-bumpy hard turf. Some have equated the surrounding to like being on the moon. You must have a variety of shots in your arsenal. In the US, you can be somewhat robotic in your approach to playing a course through the air. You know how far that pitching wedge goes to the tenth of a yard. Guess what? Links golf cuts through all that bull-butter. You better have every shot in the bag when you step foot on a links course.
Links golf is you versus the course. You have no shelter from what Mother Nature may bring. One moment it may be sunny and five minutes later, you have gale force wind and it is raining sideways. You see the weather approaching sometimes like a drunken ex-girlfriend who spots you at a party. You know what’s coming and you have nowhere to hide.
You will hit what you think are good shots, only to see them bound off the green or sideways into a pot bunker, the wispy fescue or the gorse. Oh yes, the bunkers on links courses are true penalties. No one this white sand, low lip, perfectly raked stuff we have in the US. You go in a bunker on a links courses, it is wedging out sideways back to the fairway. And yes, sometimes you must hit backwards! We in the US complain about ‘bad bounces’ and ‘not getting rewarded’ for good shots. I can just see Old Tom Morris saying, Aye, but isn’t that how life goes?’
You can’t be a robot playing a links. You can play the same links course twice in one day and play your shots totally different in the second round versus the first. You must think your away around the course. You can’t just bomb it, go find it and bomb it again like many in the modern era tend to do. That aspect alone makes links golf worth appreciating. You must know and understand the land and the shots only begin to take shape once they hit the turf. Read the greens, but you also better read the land.
Links golf is the purest form of golf and for all these reasons are why I truly would rather play a links course any day of the week. There is no truer test of your golfing ‘toolbox’ than teeing it up for a round at a seaside links course. Having different options, the challenge of creating and executing different shots during a round is what golf is about.
My first time playing Royal Lytham & St. Annes, I had 120 yards into the 18th green. I decided to chip and run and 7 iron. It got no more than 6 feet off the ground, carried about 50 yards in the air and ran the rest to about 12 feet from the flag. On the balcony of the clubhouse right behind the green a few members were watching me. As I approached the green they lifted their drinks and shouted, ‘You must be a local.’ My response, ‘I wish I were.’
Often overshadowed by it’s Open Championship rota neighbor Royal Birkdale, Formby Golf Club offers a spectacular layout and challenge for any player. Perhaps a bit different than other links courses, Formby’s layout winds its way through a combination of pine forest and sand dunes along the Merseyside coast It is truly a gem of a golf course and one that you could see yourself playing everyday the rest of your life without getting bored.
The first three holes parallel the Merseyrail Railroad which borders the east side of the property. Hole 2 is a 400 yard Par 4 which requires an accurate tee shot to avoid three bunkers down the right hand side. Avoiding the bunkers is only half the battle on this hole, as your approach miss hold a slightly elevated green, with a deep bunker on the left and a fall-off area to the right and rear of the green.
The first of Formby’s par 3’s, the fifth hole, marks the beginning of a challenging stretch of holes to end the front nine. Typically, playing into the prevailing wind, the 183 yard hole has three deep bunkers to the left of the green and a severely sloping green from back left to right front.
The sixth hole also plays into the prevailing wind and at 428 yards, is all the par 4 you could ask for. Bending slightly from right to left, your drive must avoid the three bunkers down the right and the fescue down the left. From the fairway, the approach will be blind, as some sand dunes block your view of the green. No greenside bunkers around this green…the dunes are all the protection it needs to make this hole difficult.
The seventh hole, a 410 yards Par 4, winds it’s way through the pine forest. The hole, somewhat shaped like an ‘S’ requires and accurate tee shot to put you in position. I chose to hit 4 hybrid the times I have played here, leaving myself a short iron approach. Driving down the right side of the fairway, you will leave yourself a blind second shot because of a large dune at the corner. Your approach shot must be played wisely, as the green slopes severely from back to front…anything above approach left above the hole will leave a testing challenge for a two putt.
#9 nine is my favorite hole at Formby and its most challenging. From an elevated tee, the 450 yard par 4 playing back into the prevailing wind is all right there in front of you. Distance and accuracy are required on the tee shot, with pine forest bordering the left and fairway bunkers on each side of the fairway. With the green nestled up against a grove of pines and among small little hillocks, your long iron or fairway wood approach will need to be solid and straight..no telling the bounce you may get if you miss this green.
To start the back nine, #10 is a long par 3 of 215 yards. From the slightly elevated tee, your shot must navigate two green side bunkers, that because of the terrain, tend to be magnets for just the slightest of off-line shots.
Holes 11-15 begin a stretch of testing Par 4’s and look like what you typically picture when thinking of links golf courses…rolling links land with tall fescue on each side of the fairway. Measuring from 400-433 yards, these holes look like the greens and tee were just placed perfectly among the dunes, with nothing to protect the player from the winds.
You will hear about Royal Troon’s #8 Postage Stamp Par 3 during the upcoming Open Championship as the best short par three in the world. However, Formby has one that may be just as good. The 16th hole measures only 139 yards from the back tee and hitting the green could be one of your more challenging shots all round. The green complex is almost like an upside-down bowl, with three deep bunkers and fall-off areas all around. I have been fortunate that the times I have played Formby, I have had to hit no more than 8 iron…some members have told me there are instances where the wind forces you to hit a long iron or hybrid to reach the green.
A good finishing hole should be more than just a challenging well-designed hole. It should leave you with a nice image of the club in your mind. Formby accomplishes this with its 18th hole. At 440 yards, you tee off from a chute of pine trees. The drive must thread fairway bunkers lining both sides of the fairway. As you walk up to your drive, off to the right you will notice Formby’s charming clubhouse and it’s Clock Tower just to the right of the green emerging out from behind the treeline. Having played here three times, the walk up the 18th has been more enjoyable each time. The success of your second shot will depend largely on appropriate club selection…the green is 55 yards deep and can be a challenge to judge where the flag is located.
A stop in the Formby clubhouse is a must. As you enter the bar area, you will immediately notice the Formby Hippo. The Hippo was shot by one of the early members at Formby and given to the club upon his death in 1909. If you are looking for accommodations, the club also has a Dormy House for overnight visitors. When you stop in at the Golf Shop, Head Professional Andrew Witherup and his staff will give you a warm welcome and offers a fine selection of apparel and items to remember your visit. There is also a separate 18 hole Ladies Club and Clubhouse.
When I am in the Merseyside, Formby is a must-play. It offers everything you could be looking for in a round of golf.
Also, right down the street, you will find a restaurant that is perfect for the post-round meal and pint. The Freshfield is a neighborhood pub with delicious food and a selection of ales that is unmatched. They even produce 14 of their own ales. Family friendly (and dog friendly), I never visit Formby without stopping by the Freshfield.
One the north side of the Peninsula lies a hidden gem in links golf courses that I been fortunate to play several times. Dooks Golf Club is often overshadowed by its neighbor to the southwest, Waterville. However, after playing Dooks, you will find a wonderful layout that can stand up to any other course in Ireland.
The first thing you will notice about Dooks is their club logo. Perhaps one of the most unique club logos you will find, it features the Natterjack Toad. The Natterjack is native to this area in Ireland and gives Dooks its own brand identity that the moment you see it, you know the exact course it is associated with.
While only 6586 yards from the back tees, Dooks offers a great mix of holes to test your skills. After playing the first hole with the mountains to the southwest in the background, the second hole is a short par 4 that is no pushover. Two bunkers sit to the right of the fairway about 250 yards off the tee. Should you choose to hit driver in an effort to get close to the green, you will then be faced with a pitch shot to a raised, undulating green, with a fall-off short and left and a huge ridge to the right…similar to one you would find at Pinehurst #2. It may be only 318 yards, but birdie is definitely not a given on this hole.
The par 3’s at Dooks are very good also…and the fourth hole is a perfect example. Measuring 174 yards from an elevated tee and Cromane Bay on the left, you hit to a green nestled perfectly amongst sand dunes. On a blustery day with the wind off the left, you will have to start your shot over the dunes to have any shot in hitting the green. One great aspect about the design of Dooks is that all of the green complexes look like they fit naturally in the landscape.
The 7th hole is perhaps my favorite on the course. At 470 yards, it is without a doubt the most difficult hole on the course. Your tee shot must thread the needle of two large dunes guarding each side of the fairway. Your long-iron approach shot is to a green set at an angle to the fairway, making it a challenging target to hit.
The par 5 10th hole is the second of back-to-back par 5’s. Running the right along the Bay, two precise shots are required to put yourself in position for your approach to the elevated undulating green. Look to your left as you play and you will probably see the next line of weather approaching from the coast. As they say, ‘if you don’t like the Irish weather, wait five minutes and it will change.’
Right after the par 5 comes a unique hole. The par 3 11th actually requires you to hit uphill over OB to get to the green. The target is guarded by a pesky bunker in front. Just another one of the fun par 3’s at Dooks.
The 15th is another example of one of the quality holes at Dooks. Two bunkers guard the corner on this 90-degree dogleg right 357 yard hole. You can choose to hit a long iron/hybrid left of the bunkers and have a short iron approach. You could also choose the aggressive route and hit driver over the corner to get close to the green. Beware though, rough/brush and gorse line both side of the fairway on the approach to the green.
The 426 yard finishing hole is also a challenge. After your tee shot, your approach must thread dunes guarding the entrance to the green complex. When I have played here, I have had mid-irons on approach and sometimes because of the wind, I have hit as much as 3 wood. Once again, you find a green that is perfectly set amongst the mounds and dunes. The hole is a perfect finish to this enjoyable layout.
Once you have finished your round, there is no better place to visit than the Dooks clubhouse and restaurant. While you are having a pint, the members are extremely welcoming and love to talk to visitors about their rounds and impressions of their club. Once you have played the course, you will understand why the members are so proud of their club and layout. Dooks is must play if you plan a golf trip to the SW of Ireland.