"Links Golf in Scotland "
... two, is where golf was first played and a links course is always selected to serve up the peculiarly Scottish challenge that is the British Open (even when it is played in England.)
A few years ago I played a course in Central California that was not only labeled as a links-type course, it presumed to name itself "The Links Course." After playing it and being decidedly disappointed (why should I have thought that I might have found a real links course in the farm land of California’s Central Valley) I asked the resident pro why they called their course a links-type course. “It's windy and there are no trees,” he smugly replied.
It is true that links courses typically have no trees. It is also true that they normally feature no great changes in elevation, that they tend to be built near the ocean and that the wind often blows. But none of this gets to the central quality of the links course, which is the way it wants to be played.
Standing on the tee, a non-links player will look out to a target toward which he would like his ball to fly. The target will be someplace in a larger landing area into which he will be happy if his ball settles. The visual image he holds in his head of his tee shot is the arching trajectory of the ball through the air defined at its near end by the tee box and at the far end by the patch of fairway where his ball should land. Similarly, as he addresses his approach shot, he sees the circle of green as his target. The center of the target might be the center of the green or he might be tempted to narrow his target to be the pin or an area in the green from which a makeable putt can be stroked. Whatever the target, he intends that his ball will fly there and, if he is very skillful, stick in that spot or perhaps even spin back a bit in the way that he sees the pros do on television.
The golfer who is sensitive to the qualities of the links course has a very different mental image as he stands on the tee. He thinks that the ground he is playing over is as important as the ground he is playing to. He is as concerned about the path his ball will follow as it rolls along the fairway as he is about its trajectory through the air. His visual image of his shot includes the intervening ground between himself and where he intends his ball to come to rest. He has less trust in the vagaries of a full 8-iron hit up into a stiff crosswind than he does in a medium swing put on a 5-iron that makes the ball hit 75 yards in front of the green with the expectation that it will bound toward the pin, twisting and rolling with the undulations of the fairway as it goes.
Why the difference? Golf on a links course must be understood as a system that perfectly integrates style of play with place. The place is a fortuitous combination of sandy soil, grasses and low foliage, weather and topography that combine in just the right way to reward a specific style of play that has developed over the centuries. Its tight, wiry grasses centuries ago put down roots to stabilize drifting sand between the receding ocean and the more fertile farmland at a distance from the sea This grass now covers rolling, undulating, fairways that have clear and telling effects on the ball’s roll. So the golfer on a links course learns to look ahead to how his ball will roll as well as how it will fly. Such accepting fairways would not be as important to the game if it weren’t played in the normally windy conditions typical of seaside links courses. So the golfer on a links course learns to pay close attention to the wind, to go high to use it when possible and to go low to avoid it when necessary. The contours and undulations of links fairways would not be present if the land on which they lay was not, in an earlier incarnation, drifting dunes of sand that could only have developed along the seaside. So, although overall elevation change is never great on a links course, the links golfer learns to navigate cautiously through the knolls, hollows and gullies of these ancient dunes, at times hitting blindly to greens just over the brow of a mound and at other times using the bank of the fairway to coax his ball to run around the turn of a dogleg as it rolls closer to the target.
The hardy grasses that offer such a perfect carpet for the bounce and roll of golf balls are kept healthy by the same wind-blown, salt-laden spray from winter storms that keeps other, less desirable grasses from establishing themselves near the sea. So the golfer on a links course is confident that a ball putted from off the green will roll well and true and not be deflected by thick clumps of “foreign” grasses that would interfere with a well-laid plan. Scots are firm in their belief that, from off the green, a poorly stroked putt will always give a better result than a poorly stroked pitch or chip.
These grasses, and the sandy seaside soils on which they grow, are keys to links golf. Cropped close, fescue grasses make wonderful fairways that encourage tee shots to roll well and present excellent lies from which irons can be struck. Left to grow, they become beige, wispy tracks of rough in which errant balls may be found but from which clean recovery shots are almost impossible. The practice of mowing links courses is only just over 100 years old. Modern greens keepers adjust their mowers to replicate, as best they can, the conditions of fairways and roughs characteristic of the old links courses on which golf developed over the centuries. Before the mower was adopted as a greenskeeper's tool, courses depended on grazing animals - sheep, cattle and rabbits - to maintain their fairways in playable condition.