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.’