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What is a Links Course?

Criteria for 'Links' Come from Long-Ago Scotland

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Old Course at St. Andrews Hole 2

The Old Course at St. Andrews is the iconic links course.

David Cannon / Getty Images

Today, in many parts of the world - definitely not the UK, but in many other places - it is common to see the term "links" or "links course" used in one of the following ways:

  • As a marketing term that is applied to any golf course that is relatively treeless;
  • Or as a general term used as just another name for "golf course," a synonym for "golf course."

It's not a crime to use the term "links" in either of those ways, but it's also not accurate. That's because a links course is a specific type of golf course, and the term has specific geographic meaning. Fact is, unless you've played golf in the UK or Ireland, there's a very good chance you've never seen a true links course in person.

Linksland Geography

The British Golf Museum says that "links" are coastal strips of land between the beaches and the inland agricultural areas. This term, in its purest sense, applies specifically to seaside areas in Scotland.

So "links land" is land where seaside transitions into farmland. Links land has sandy soil, making it unsuited for crops. Such land was often, in times past, thought to be worthless because it was not arable for crops.

But back in the mists of Scotland, someone had the bright idea to start knocking a ball around that land, hitting it from point to point. And from those humble beginnings, links golf courses emerged.

Because they were close to the beach, lots of sand bunkers were a natural (the soil was very sandy, after all). But such bunkers had to be deeply recessed to prevent sand from being blown away by the constant wind. Because the soil was of a poor quality and constantly buffeted by the seaside winds, not much would grow on it - mostly just tall, reedy grasses, and certainly no trees.

Hallmarks of True Links Courses

So a true links course is not any golf course that is treeless. The term "links" historically applies specifically to strips of land in seaside areas that feature sandy soil, dunes and undulating topography, and where the land is not conducive to cultivated vegetation or trees.

Because they were built on narrow strips of land, early links courses often followed an "out and back" or "out and in" routing. The front nine went out from the clubhouse, one hole stringed after another, until reaching the 9th green, which was the point on the golf course farthest from the clubhouse. The golfers then turned around on the 10th tee, with the back nine holes leading straight back to the clubhouse.

In modern terms, a "links course" is more broadly defined as:

  • a golf course built on sandy soil that is buffeted by wind;
  • that has few if any trees, but has a tall, thick rough of native grasses;
  • that features many bunkers, with many of them deep to prevent sand from blowing away;
  • that plays firms and fast with sometimes crusty fairways and greens that feature many knolls and knobs to create odd bounces and angles;
  • and most of whose greens are approachable on the ground, allowing run-up shots.

Links golf is, it's often said, "played on the ground" as opposed to being "played in the air," as with parkland-style golf courses. That means that links courses provide lots of roll-out and allow (or even require) golfers to run balls up to its greens, rather than demanding all carry to reach soft greens that hold shots.

View Photos of Links Courses
Pictures are worth a thousand words, or so they say. Here are photo galleries of three seaside links courses that show what a true links looks like:
The Old Course at St. Andrews
Turnberry Ailsa Course
Royal Birkdale

Sources: R&A, USGA, Golf Digest

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