Golf Courses & Resorts

Debunking The Links Golf Myth

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Having been obsessed with golf since my father first put a club in my hands at the age of six, I have probably read as many descriptions of golf courses as any living 28-year-old.

And over the years of seeing blurbs in magazines and ads about all sorts of facilities, I’ve noticed that there’s one word that tons of courses – all courses whose fairways aren’t tree-lined, more or less – use to describe themselves.

“Links.”

Perhaps I’m over-sensitive, but it’s become a pet peeve of mine, because in 99% of these cases, it’s misapplied.

A lot of courses and marketing companies have used the concept to signify a premium, “authentic” golf experience, even when the reality is quite different from actual links golf.

In the end, “links” is another type of golf course – no more, no less. It’s descriptive, yes, but it’s not necessarily an indicator of higher quality in and of itself (though many golfers do favor the virtues and characteristics of links golf).

However the term has been used in decades of golf course marketing, “links” describes a very specific sort of terrain and soil for golf, and even though thousands of American courses fancy themselves “links golf courses,” they are not links golf courses.

So…what is a “links golf course”?

Official definitions vary to some extent, but golf course architecture experts and golf historians seem to agree that for a golf course to be truly considered a links golf course, it needs to satisfy these main criteria:

  1. The golf course sits on coastal land.
  2. The coastal land on which the course sits has naturally sandy soil, which makes the turf play fast and firm in all but the wettest stretches of weather.
  3. The turf of the course consists primarily of fescue and bent grass

Other defining characteristics of links golf courses include the following:

  • Age. Lots of links are old – a century or more, in many cases. But there certainly are modern examples of links golf.
  • Looks. Low-lying fairways and greens are commonplace, with manmade features – with the exception of wee pot bunkers – kept to a minimum.
  • Tradition. This is often a function of age, but you don’t often find big tennis complexes, swimming pools or fitness centers on the grounds of links golf courses. Sometimes there isn’t even a practice range to speak of. Carts are almost unheard of. But there are a lot of people who love playing golf knocking the ball about.

According to authors Malcolm Campbell and George Peper in their book True Links, there are only 246 courses in the entire world that qualify as links golf courses.

Given that golf sprang up in the British Isles on linksland (i.e. areas that “link” the coast with the mainland) considered unfit for farming, the vast majority of the world’s links golf courses are located there, and particularly in Scotland.

But not all of them. There are a handful of courses elsewhere around the world that Campbell and Peper consider links golf courses.

There’s Kennemer Golf & Country Club, one of a handful of courses in the Netherlands that are widely considered links…

Kennemer is one of a few links courses found in an unexpected place: the Netherlands. (Kennemer Golf & Country Club)

Kennemer is one of a few links courses found in an unexpected place: the Netherlands. (Kennemer Golf & Country Club)

And Denmark has a links: Fanø Golf Links.

Danish golf is underrated thanks to lesser-known gems like Fanø. (Wikimedia Commons)

Danish golf is underrated thanks to lesser-known gems like Fanø. (Wikimedia Commons)

There are a few true links courses in Australia, too – especially in Tasmania, where both Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm attract golfing pilgrims from thousands of miles away…

Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania is one of Australia's true links courses.

Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania is one of Australia’s true links courses.

In New Zealand, the venerable Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club is a beloved links…

Paraparaumu Beach brings links lovers to New Zealand. (NewZealand.com)

Paraparaumu Beach brings links lovers to New Zealand. (NewZealand.com)

And there’s even a links course in Africa: South Africa’s Humewood Golf Club

Humewood has the distinction of being the only true links in Africa. (All Square Golf)

Humewood has the distinction of being the only true links in Africa. (All Square Golf)

For all the mystique that surrounds the idea of “links golf,” it’s important to note that not all great golf courses are links courses, and not all links courses are necessarily great (though the vast majority of them are enjoyable at the very least). The fame of the links courses of the British Isles tends to overshadow an extremely strong cadre of heathland golf courses, and even some acclaimed inland/parkland golf courses, too.

Links golf in the U.S.

In America, where the game is centuries younger, golf course developers have long traded on the romantic notion of “links golf” to market their own courses, even when those courses had key differences with their true-links forbears.

Perhaps the most notable example is Pebble Beach Golf Links, whose stretches of cliffhanging holes above the Pacific Ocean have won it acclaim as one of the world’s most famous courses.

But Pebble Beach is, strictly speaking, not a links, because its soil isn’t particularly sandy and many of its holes – the first three and the 12th through the 16th – occupy coastal forest land.

But should Pebble Beach’s not-quite-links identity take anything away from its prestige? Absolutely not – Pebble Beach is one of the world’s great golf courses, period.

Nevertheless, calling Pebble Beach a “links golf course” does not quite encapsulate its unique identity.

A few hundred miles up the coast, there is little doubt that most of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort’s courses do merit classification as “links golf courses.” The original Bandon Dunes course, as well as Pacific Dunes, Old Macdonald and Bandon Preserve, all hit the marks for qualification as links golf courses.

Bandon Dunes supplies some of the most authentic links golf in the U.S. (Jason Scott Deegan/Golf Advisor)

Bandon Dunes supplies some of the most authentic links golf in the U.S. (Jason Scott Deegan/Golf Advisor)

Bandon Trails, though…not as much, because much of the routing heads through coastal forest.

But does that matter? Links or not, Bandon Trails is also a great course. In fact, some people consider it their favorite course on property.

Bandon Trails isn't a links, but it is a universally-acclaimed course. (Oleg Volovik/Golf Advisor)

Bandon Trails isn’t a links, but it is a universally-acclaimed course. (Oleg Volovik/Golf Advisor)

There are numerous other courses that might be mistaken for links golf courses, but are really something else, and something awesome.

One prime example I’ve played is Lawsonia Links in central Wisconsin.

Yes…I know it even has “Links” in its name. But despite its open, mostly treeless property and awesome ground features courtesy of architects William Langford and Theodore Moreau, it’s not an actual links golf course, because the sea is hundreds of miles away.

Lawsonia is a Langford & Moreau masterpiece in central Wisconsin.

Lawsonia Links is a Langford & Moreau masterpiece in central Wisconsin…but it’s not quite a links, because it’s far from the sea.

The same goes for the great courses of the rolling hills through America’s Great Plains. Sand Hills, Dismal River, Prairie Club, Wild Horse, Bayside…all these courses are inspired by the great links of the world, and they play firm and fast, but they’re not, strictly speaking, links, because like Lawsonia, they’re far from the coasts.

But that shouldn’t stop you from seeking to play them.

Of course, the presence of an ocean does not a links golf course make, either.

For example Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course has as much ocean frontage as any course in the world. But it’s not a links, because its turf is Paspalum grass, rather than the hardy fescues and bent grasses that prevail at other links.

Strictly speaking, Kiawah Island's Ocean Course is not a links. But it's still a spectacular bucket-list golf course. (Kiawah Island Resort)

Strictly speaking, Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course is not a links. But it’s still a spectacular bucket-list golf course. (Kiawah Island Resort)

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is no big deal. The Ocean Course is a definite bucket-list course, and whether or not it qualifies as a links has no bearing on that fact.

So what?

I know…this may seem like much ado about nothing. But if you went to a restaurant that bills itself as Italian, only to find the menu was all sushi, you’d feel deceived, wouldn’t you?

So it is with links golf. If you book a round on a mislabeled “links golf course,” especially in a warm-weather golf destination (where these not-quite-accurate descriptions are most prevalent) and find shots your tee shots and approaches plugging in mushy fairways and greens, you’re probably going to feel a bit misled.

Bottom line: with all sorts of misinformation causing confusion and frustration everywhere these days, we should strive to describe our great golf courses as accurately as possible.

Greater accuracy in describing courses will facilitate one of the greatest things about the golf community: its camaraderie, especially in the sharing and comparing of golf courses and experiences over a drink in the 19th hole.

What do you think of the concept of links golf, and the way it’s marketed? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

 

24 Comments

  1. C Ruston ON Canada

    November 14, 2017 at 9:09 am

    I was fortunate to play the 2 Links courses, Cabot Links & Cabot Cliff in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Fabulous courses alone the Northumberland Strait. Are these considered ” true links ” golf courses. By your description they seem to be.

  2. Tim Gavrich

    November 14, 2017 at 9:49 am

    C–
    Yes, I think both Cabot courses can be considered true links!
    –Tim

  3. Jack P

    November 14, 2017 at 10:02 am

    You left out the three most notable qualifications to be a links course: Wet, Windy, and Cold. Generally a place where no sane person would want to take a walk let alone play golf. The promoters do have their hands full trying to promote “links golf”.

  4. dwcjr

    November 14, 2017 at 10:05 am

    The other marketing term that is misleading, but does not seem to be as prevalent now as 20-30 yrs. ago is come play our “championship” course. What is that? I have played the Ocean Course at Kiawah, and while it has all the makings of a Links, I believe Paspalum grass, while very expensive and a much newer strain, is a most hearty grass to withstand the salty, misty air. It is most similar to any of the the fescues and gives an excellent, firm lie. I do agree that “links” has been an
    overused and misleading term. Dornoch is the ultimate links course.

  5. Paul F

    November 14, 2017 at 11:09 am

    Cabot Links would qualify, but the Cliffs actually do go thru some coastal forests and as such would not be a true links.

  6. Tim Gavrich

    November 14, 2017 at 11:13 am

    dwcjr–
    EXCELLENT point. “Championship course” is probably Golf Course Marketing Pet Peeve #2 for me!.
    –Tim

  7. Peter Mills ON Canada

    November 14, 2017 at 11:14 am

    I’m a long-time member of a true links course and host of many Opens at Hoylake, England. Having recently played and immensely enjoyed both Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, I would have to say that Cabot Cliffs doesn’t meet the technical definition of “links” in the article. If Pebble, which I’ve also played, isn’t a links course along the cliffs then Cabot Cliffs can’t be one either. Cabot Links comes closer, but may not have the sandy soil and turf technically required. To be sure they are both bucket list courses.

  8. Georg K

    November 14, 2017 at 11:16 am

    Agree fully with your comments. But a century and more ago “Links” had a different connotation. It was used in a broader sense than today. Not as a term for a special kind of golf course, just another word for “golf course” in general. The oldest golf course in the US, Oakhurst Links, is from the 1880’s and located in the mountains of West Virginia. I don’t think that name is a modern marketing construction, but rather a reflection of the more general interpretation of the word “Links” that was common in those days. The distinction between links courses, heathland courses, parkland courses etc came much later. Do you agree?

  9. Craig Greiner

    November 14, 2017 at 11:25 am

    Great article.
    I grew up at the Garden City Golf Club on Long Island, N.Y.(1899). When I was a kid we saw deer, pheasant and quail because although it is situated in the middle of a residential area it had a good amount of woods and cover. Over the years they have cleared the course of most of the trees to try to regain the links style atmosphere. Just curious if you have heard of it?
    If you have time please comment on Shinnecock. Links style.

  10. Art

    November 14, 2017 at 11:34 am

    Ok, so most of what we calll links golf is not actually. What should we call it? Is “links-style” too offensive? We no longer play the game with a feather ball and hickory shafted club—can we still call the game golf?

  11. Tim Gavrich

    November 14, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Georg–
    That’s a great point about the evolution of the term “links.” I do still like the romanticism of it, e.g. “A day on the links,” but I wonder whether that colloquial use of the word was what emboldened golf course marketers to start using it in ways that led to the stretching of its other, more technical definition.
    –Tim

  12. Mike Marshall

    November 14, 2017 at 11:51 am

    Many of the British Isles links mentioned in Peper’s book are only part links, maybe nine holes on linksland and nine inland. A great example is Pwllheli– not a typo, this is in Welsh!!– which has nine wonderful links holes, and nine very ordinary inland ones. Many links are a bit like this because the placement of a clubhouse had to be a bit inland as building on wind blown sand was not a good option. I’ve played nearly three quarters of those officially sanctioned links and there is no greater experience in golf.

  13. Jim

    November 14, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    I wonder if either Atlantic City Country Club or the Bay Course at Seaview would be considered a links course since they sit on a Bay not the Ocean. Certainly sandy soil and a lot of fescue.

  14. Jock Wilson

    November 14, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    It’s a fair point made. I come from Scotland and I always thought a links meant the coastal 9-holes out and 9-holes back “linked” in St Andrews style or Troon or Prestwick Old course. I come from Ayrshire and as well as the wind and rain (it’s not that cold, it just feels cold when it is windy and wet!)the tight almost-never-flat lies on very short grass, moss or even lichen are key to the experience. In summer when it is dry any long iron shot to the green is a nightmare – basically you have to learn to bounce and run it onto some greens. There’s a raised upside-down-bowl green at Girvan that I had the displeasure of taking nine shots from my drive to get the ball to stick one day. The view over the sea from various angles was nice however – although I did begin to wonder if I would be there after dark. Maybe that’s why Scotland has such very long evenings with wonderful light. To give golfer time to struggle to the 19th hole! 😉

  15. Sergey

    November 14, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    Recently I enjoyed playing Thracian Clifs in Bulgaria. Very butifull and well run course with practically 100 % along the Black Sea coast line. It falls well with the difinions in the article – grass and soil are exactly as described. The only thing is that it’s not as old as those in Scotland 😀

  16. Tim Gavrich

    November 14, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    Craig–
    I have indeed heard of Garden City Golf Club but have not yet had the pleasure of playing it (playing in the Travis Invitational is a competitive golf goal of mine). I’ve seen a few photos of it over the years and it looks tremendous. The restoration of the 12th green in particular looks fascinating.

    As for Shinnecock, it is not listed among the 246 “true links” but having never played it, I can only guess as to why. It has to be right on the cusp of consideration, I’d think.
    –Tim

  17. G. David Parent

    November 14, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Highland Links on Cape Cod Massachusetts claims it is the oldest links course in America, I played it a couple of weeks ago and I would say it qualifies.

  18. Darryl Peterson

    November 14, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    I was always under the impression that besides the Sandy soil and coastal prerequisites, there is the out on 1 and back to the clubhouse on 18 thereby “linking” the holes like a chain and thus the “links” connotation.

  19. John Jessup

    November 14, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    Grew up near Humewood GC where my Dad was a member for most of his life. He was a 7 handicap at 72 years old!

    Wind is an integral challenge. Don’t know how even the good players score well there. He had developed a way of hitting his irons that caused them to start very low and build up into the wind dropping down softly. There was a 130-140 yard par 3 there that when playing into the teeth of one of the two prevailing winds where even low handicappers needed a 3 wood or driver sometimes.

  20. Bob Marshall, Oakville, Canada

    November 14, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    I have played several true links courses in Scotland and consider Arcadia Bluffs on the shores of Lake Michigan to be a links course by your definition. It has sandy soil, fescue grass and sits on “coastal” land – a large lake rather than an ocean. Do you agree?

  21. Jan E. Espelid

    November 15, 2017 at 1:09 am

    A list over the 246 true links courses of the world, as defined by The Links Association, is published at MigrantGolfer.com

  22. Andrew Paul

    November 15, 2017 at 2:40 am

    I would like to remind all that Ireland has some of the greatest links courses in the world! Just to name the most famous: Ballybunion, Lahinch, Tralee, Waterville, Royal Portrush, The European at Brittas Bay, Ballyliffin and so on… you also asked about Shinnecock in a comment-the neighbouring golf course „Golf links of America“ is a true links course where many famous links golf holes of the British isles have been rebuilt and put into a fascinating variety of unique architectural golf holes! The only problem: it is private and you need an invite!

  23. Kit

    November 15, 2017 at 8:54 am

    I have played a links style course near Orangeville Ontario. It is a links course in every respect including frequent fog other than the fact that it is over 1500 miles from the Atlantic coast and is not old. It has bent grass, fescue, pot bunkers, is generally firm allowing the ball to be run up to many of the greens. I have also played Hunter’s Point in Welland Ontario. It also satisfies most of the links criteria. Sadly, it has gone into receivership and is not likely to survive much longer.

  24. Tim Gavrich

    November 15, 2017 at 9:03 am

    Bob–
    I think Arcadia Bluffs might fall into similar territory as Whistling Straits, where the manufactured nature of the course probably keeps it from being a links in the same sense as the more natural ones in GB&I and Bandon Dunes and the like. Also, links purists would probably quibble over it being situated on a lake, rather than a sea or ocean. But again, I wouldn’t let the designation take away from the merits of the course. It’s a fun debate to have.
    –Tim

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