Recipe for a Links

A renowned minimalist architect describes how to build a modern links

By: Gil Hanse

“The true links were molded by divine hands. Linksland, the fine grasses, the wind made bunkers that defy imitation, the exquisite contours that refuse to be sculpted by hand.”
—Robert Hunter, The Links (1926)

Wind. Sand. Turf. Contours.

The great American golf course architect and writer Robert Hunter succinctly captured the key ingredients necessary to create a links. While these elements are not all that constitute a true links—quirky contributors such as pot bunkers, gorse and broom, walls, clubhouses in play, and roads also play roles—wind, sand, turf and contours are the staples.

Hunter noted that Great Britain and Ireland have been “lavished” with long stretches of natural linksland—indeed, those seaside tracts gave birth to the game itself—while we on this side of the pond have not been so fortunate in our “dispensation” of natural links.

For most American golfers, “links” equates to a treeless course. During our restoration projects, I often have been accused of trying to create links courses via tree removal. If only it were so easy!

In fact, building a links course is not as simple these days as it was in the late 19th century, when most of the great links were established. For one, there is little natural linksland left. Second, building a links requires overcoming rigorous environmental standards and significant land costs. As a result, course architects need to ask themselves what constitutes a true links experience and how can that experience be created on non-linksland sites, which are more readily available for course development.

If you accept, as I do, Hunter’s recipe, it becomes easier to create a links on ground that is not naturally linksland. Such is the case on our current project, Castle Stuart in Inverness, Scotland, where we have set out to transform a windswept site on the shore of the Moray Firth into the closest possible thing to a true links.

Wind is the greatest variable in the design of a links, and it is certainly not lacking at our site. The dreaded “prevailing wind” is a term we have grown to both love and hate. This wind’s direction refuses to be ignored; however, to rely on it for all our design considerations would be folly. The truth is that the wind changes constantly, sometimes during a round. Such is the importance of wind in any design that we must construct holes that will work in a three-club tailwind, headwind and crosswind.

One such hole is our 18th, a downhill par 5 that plays into the prevailing wind (left). Taking into account the angles of play for the second shot, as well as the contours, the green can accommodate a wide variety of wind conditions.

Mark Parsinen, my co-designer at Castle Stuart, and I have attempted to provide for this by offering width off of the tee corresponding with preferred angles of attack for any wind condition. The green approaches have also been prepared with varied wind conditions in mind and are generally free of any required carries. This should allow run-up shots to be played through and over a set of contours that will provide challenges under a variety of conditions.

At the base of all true links courses is the one constant, the free-draining nature of sand. At Castle Stuart, one of the fundamental needs of the site selection was sandy soil, as well as a reserve of sand. Although the sand was not distributed over the entire property, we have been thrilled to find that our reserve has been more plentiful than originally thought. As a result, we have been able to provide a deep cover of sand—about three feet deep—over the more marginal soils. Just as in a true links setting, we have the base to provide the requirements for our next ingredients.

There is nothing like true, tight links turf. Since links golf does not truly begin until the ball hits the ground, a tight sward of velvety fescue turf is our conduit for those skittering, careening and bounding shots you can only find on a true links. The fine blades of fescue can knit more closely and provide less friction to the ball on the ground. Our turf program is in the very capable hands of Stuart McColm and Chris Haspell, whose commitment to produce a pure strand of fescue is a key component of Castle Stuart.

Fescue also offers tight lies that exaggerate the differences between well and perfectly struck shots, with the results quite apparent to the golfer. Links turf also promotes a wide variety of shots that we would never attempt at home on our lush courses. The joyful bump and run, Texas wedge, even 80-yard putts are best sampled on the backs of fescue-covered fairways, approaches and greens.

I would be lying if I did not say that as an architect I find the contour of the ground the most fascinating aspect of links golf. Every preceding ingredient is necessary to highlight the contours, but within these elevations the magic of links golf emerges. On a links, the best path between the ball and the hole is rarely a straight, high one, even to a flag clearly within view. A shot that lands away from the target and is propelled the rest of the way along the ground like a pinball by the heaving land is the essence of links golf.

But that won’t happen if the contours are not shaped properly, and the fun of playing over these landforms is eclipsed only by the pleasure of creating them. And my cohort Jim Wagner and I have been given the envious task of shaping the vast majority of the features.

The Castle Stuart site had some contours, but nothing close to classic linksland. To re-create these ripples, we studied many links courses, especially Royal Dornoch and the Old Course. At Dornoch, we examined the contours around the greens and in the shelves that separate parallel fairways like Nos. 4 and 12. At the Old Course, the 2nd green, the approach to the 3rd green, and the area between the 5th and 14th holes were great references. We rolled balls off the slopes to see how shots would react and even measured them to achieve the correct scale

Ultimately, we want our landforms to look as natural as possible, the way early designers like Old Tom Morris “found” their courses, allowing the lay of the land to promote and formulate the strategy of the holes.

Strategically, we want the contours to encourage players to “intuit” their way around the course by subtly dictating strategy and lines of play. From the correct angle, the contours will support shots, helping them along the ground toward the hole. But from the wrong angle, the same contours can be what Mark calls “confounding,” rejecting the shot

Ultimately, when players are asked to negotiate firm, wind-shaped contours that are supportive or confounding, properly scaled and artfully located, they remain in a positive frame of mind and often rise to the challenge. The contours inspire and engage them to attempt shots they might not otherwise contemplate. Even if they are not successful, something about the naturalness of such features makes facing accountability for their poorly played shot more tolerable, with hope for a recovery often the next thought. The freedom of mind that leads to this type of shotmaking provides for fun, imaginative golf.

The Secret Ingredient
Our fondest hope for Castle Stuart is that we are creating a fun course to play that reflects our deep love for links golf. We believe we have assembled a team that comes as close as humanly possible to transforming a site naturally endowed with great topography, a panoramic setting and an abundance of free-draining soils into a true links course.

Given our definition, it is possible to build a links just about anywhere, as long as the four ingredients are in place. (For example, I believe Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska could be classified as a links, despite its distance from the sea.) But nothing compares with the opportunity to do so on the Scottish coast. Because although it is possible to reproduce the playing characteristics of a links, it is impossible to re-create the senses of place and history—the magic—that only the birthplace of golf can provide.

For a golf architect, adding to this tradition is a huge honor, albeit with a great responsibility. As per Hunter’s checklist, we have prepared our recipe and stockpiled our ingredients. But will we have “defied imitation, and produced the exquisite contours that refuse to be sculpted by hand”?

I cannot say for sure. But I invite you to judge for yourself when Castle Stuart opens in 2009.


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