Call of the Wild

A five-time British Open winner’s advice for tackling—and enjoying—the unique challenges of links golf

By: Peter Thomson

I have a friend who is better known as the “Great Explorer,” on account of his propensity for trailing off the fairways and prowling through the undergrowth of our parkland layout in search of his tee shots. He knows every square inch of its territory intimately.

Consequently, when he took the train while on a visit to London to play the esteemed Honourable Company’s Muirfield course, he was overwhelmed with joy and expectation upon entering its laneway gate. “Not a tree in sight! This is surely the course for me!”

His companion opined that he would never get around in less than 100, but the G.E. was confident. Bets were laid. Alas, our hero was counted at 100 as he holed out at the 14th.

Like many a golfer who steps on linksland for the first time, our friend greatly underestimated its challenge. Links golf is a vastly different experience, labeled by some as real golf. Its demands are numerous and present an examination unlike any in golf.

There is some truth that linksland members can be snobbish about their golf, but on the other hand, they have something to be uppity about. Links golf is uniquely precious: Of the 30 million or so golfers of the world, just a handful get to play their golf by the sea, on tracts of sandy land left high and dry and empty. Not all courses by the sea are links. Pebble Beach, for example, wouldn’t qualify; it might be categorized as clifftop or coastal meadow.

By the process of geography and climate, some unusual aspects apply to golf on dried-up coastal beaches. First, there is the matter of the turf itself. There is never any expectation the first-time golfer will find any grass under his ball when he finds his first tee shot—certainly not by comparison with what he has left behind. Seaside links are never lush, even if they are green—a color that usually disappears in summer.

One can still be shocked at the aspect of the British Open at Royal St. George’s and Hoylake (Royal Liverpool) of recent times that exposed to the world the hue of untoasted biscuit, or what the fashion world calls oatmeal, with just thin sparse cover of fairway grass that made them more dust than vegetation.

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To deal with the hard and sparse dry turf, it is essential to alter one’s parkland technique. To get the iron shots airborne with enough punch to reach the target, the ball must be “squeezed” against the turf, giving it a more downward blow than one would apply on lush fairways. In doing this, there is a marked loss of distance. What might be a 7-iron shot at home base might be as much as a healthy 5-iron, struck with a weighty divot. Newcomers to links golf should throw away the distance charts, as dealing with tight lies and the ever-present wind render yardages irrelevant: A 100-yard approach shot might be best played with a 5-iron.

The second problem on a links is the strangeness of it all. Parkland holes usually are “framed” by the tree lines, so that when one peers forward to plan the next stroke, the picture is an easily realized landscape kept in the mind’s eye over the ball. A links course provides none of that. Consequently, it is not so easy to aim oneself at the target. If you are not used to aiming over your left (or right) shoulder, your shots are apt to end up in the wrong destination. This is a complication even top pros fail to master.

Then there is the ever-present wind to be taken into account. How much to allow? In the old days, the balls were much influenced by wind of any strength. The modern ball is less likely to be blown off course. Nevertheless some adjustment has to be made, even in a zephyr, and especially with a wind in one’s face, which magnifies any swing fault.

By far the most urgent of the many tasks one has in playing seaside links is avoiding bunkers, because most links have punishing ones that can destroy a good round as quick as a wink. For one thing, links bunkers have unusual depth and as Orpheus found, there is hardly any joy taking a subterranean dive.

These bunkers vary in size. Royal Lytham & St. Annes has a collection of small ones, but never think you have the advantage—there are 200 of them! St. Andrews Old has relatively few at 112, but each is a real horror, with vertical front walls, revetted like World War I trenches.

Tiger Woods in winning the 2000 Open at St. Andrews managed to avoid all of them. In contrast, Jack Nicklaus languished in Hell Bunker on the 14th hole for the duration of four strokes in 1995, while Tommy Nakajima in 1978 became famous in modern day Opens by getting into an argument with the outrageous Road Bunker, taking five to get out.

Yet bunkers are not the end-all of the matter. Links, essentially natural, will have loads of unexpected rough vegetation that can carry you away. You might find it where you would least expect it—in little pockets by the greens, or in the midst of innocent patches of fairways.

Bunkers too often have “wild” edges.

Royal County Down features thick, aged heather and wiry sea grasses to go with the sand out of which you have to hack. These are the most lethal of all.

For all these reasons, bunkers should be treated with respect and common sense. It is not always possible to play out forward, and the notion of getting away without a penalty of distance lost is usually fantasy. It is often advisable to play out backward in the direction from whence you have come, swallow your pride and suffer the consequences. In doing so, you will have escaped further injury to your score, and experienced what golfers have been doing on links for hundreds of years.

Despite the difficulties, many golfers illogically have cultivated a fascination, often bordering on fanaticism, for links courses. Take their wildness for a start: Would you ever tolerate such unkemptness on your home course? Or put up with bunkers that destroy your scorecard? Would you keep employing a superintendent who gave you only the skimpiest of fairways on which to journey? Not likely!

Yet billionaires are at present acquiring, where they can, vacant land by the beaches to build new linksland courses for the golf tourist. There must be something deep in our psyche that gives us a strange comfort to be surrounded by nature at its most feral.

In this affluent age of golf, the Augusta Nationals of this world are no longer the ultimate in design or superintendence (if they ever were). Linksland has captured the masses and it is likely to hold its own.

One friend of mine wrote a book about it called Fairways to Heaven & Bunkers to Hell. Sort of sums it up.

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