From the Golf Journal Archives - The Appeal of British Links Golf

Jan 06, 2012

By Richard S. Tufts, Former President, United States Golf Association

(Note: This article originally appeared in the August 1963 issue of Golf Journal.)

For a hundred years it has been the practice of the British to play their title events on certain “championship” courses, all located hard by the sea. There is a sound reason for this preference, since it was on this links land that the game of golf was nurtured and in no place on this globe can the game be played under conditions any better suited to its enjoyment.

As Robert Hunter said in his book on course architecture, “The Links:” “The true links were moulded by divine hands. Links-land, the fine grasses, the wind-made bunkers that defy imitation, the exquisite contours that refuse to be sculptured by hand – all these were given lavishly by a divine dispensation to the British.”

What is there about this links land that should set it apart from all other golf terrain?

Mr. Webster defines “links” as “sand hills with surrounding level or undulating land, as along the seashore,” and then proceeds to quote the Encyclopedia of Sports as follows: “Golf may be played on any park or common, but its original home is the ‘links’ or common (public) land which is found by the seashore, where the short close turf, the sandy subsoil and the many natural obstacles in the shape of bents, whins, sand holes, and banks supply the conditions which are essential to the proper pursuit of the game.”

Until recent years all the great championship courses in the United States were, for the most part, designed to reproduce the natural conditions found on British links land. Insofar as the architect, using materials at hand, was successful in copying the work of nature, to just such extent his course became pleasing to the eye and exacting as a test of the golfer’s ability. However, this counterfeit could never be perfect because our clay soils and hot sun do not permit exact reproduction of the turf conditions found on links land; and we lack the ever-changing wind conditions which provide the final spice to play on British seaside courses.

In recent years we have seen a trend in American golf course architecture which makes use of features that are not natural in appearance. These include large greens rather uniformly tilted against the play, big shallow bunkers of white sand, and immense tees. The result is certainly spectacular and makes for golf on a grand scale. This departure from the traditional may be the answer to the handicaps of turf and climate under which our architects work, but it does indeed reduce the skill required to play golf to the execution of relatively few shots; mainly drive, second, wedge and putt.

What, then, are the characteristics of the links courses that make play on them so skillful and enjoyable?

The first introduction will be disappointing. Where are the noble trees, the lush, sweeping greensward, and the spectacular vistas? Gone with the wind – literally. The entire course lies stretched out before the observer with the view broken only by rolling dunes, ugly patches of forbidding gorse, (called whins in Scotland), long unkempt areas of seaside grass and with only an occasional glimpse of a green or two and the often brownish fairways. It gives the appearance of a battlefield, as indeed it is the field of battle between the elements of wind, rain and sea and those growing things which hold the loose sand together. When a man strikes off from the first tee, he must experience a certain thrill in knowing that he, too, is to engage in battle amid these surroundings.

Then comes the first iron played from the fairway. The ball sits up invitingly, but the loosely played shot, which might bring satisfactory results at home, results in disaster when played from the thin turf of fine-textured grass on its hard sandy base. But experience will show that a shot which is well and crisply struck never goes out of control and that the skillful player can do things with a golf ball that are not possible to accomplish on a soft turf.

On the approach to the green, there is every prospect that on the first wedge shot the ball will take off across the green like a frightened jack rabbit.

Here is a new problem! The greens are surrounded with little ridges, mounds and hollows, which in wet weather drain readily in the sandy soil. Rather than the simple procedure of playing a standard type of shot to a selected spot, the golfer is faced with the problem of adapting his play to the terrain. Every club from wedge to putter can be used to advantage for a given distance, the decision depending upon the ability of the golfer to evaluate the effect which the texture of the turf and the various angles and slopes will have on the action of his ball.

And the trouble shots are real! The bunkers are deep with steep sod-banked sides, the grass is tough and resistant, the heather is like steel, and the gorse is prickly! It is not a question of avoiding a few trees to reach the green but, rather, of the execution of both skill and judgment to get the ball back in play to best advantage.

There is little enjoyment in links golf for the golfer who finds his pleasure in a comfortable ride around the course with the incidental execution of such simple shots under favorable conditions as will not tax his limited ability to think and to play. But those who look upon golf as a challenge should never be satisfied until they have played British seaside golf.

This description of links golf may leave the impression that there is a certain monotony to the conditions under which it is played. Nothing could be further from the truth.

At St. Andrews the Old Course is bordered on one side by the New Course and on the other by the Eden, yet there is no similarity among the three. Troon and Western Gailes, near Glasgow, dodge about among their sandhills and dunes, while a few miles south much of Turnberry skirts a high rocky headland. Classic Muirfield circles about in what Andra Kirkaldy called on “old water meddie” while in plain sight is the high sandy hill over which the holes of Gullane wander.

Down in England, Royal St. George’s lies hidden among its huge dunes, but its neighbor, Prince’s, lies exposed over gently rolling terrain. Fascinating Rye is different from them all as it stumbles up and down over its long sandy ridge.

Back in Scotland, Dornoch, far to the north, climbs up and down a long plateau which borders those holes that run along its beach. Except for “Hagen’s Woods” at Muirfield, Carnoustie alone of this lot can boast of a few trees to go with its accursed burns.

And so it goes – the story is the same but told with infinite variety, and the visitor never tires of the challenge and the variety of links golf as played along the shores of the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the English Channel.

Characteristic of links courses is this deep bunker with steep sod-banked sides; grass is tough and resistant. This is the seventh green at Troon in Ayrshire, Scotland. Johnny Goodman of the USA is putting in the 1938 British Amateur. (USGA Museum)