Especially in the United States, the term "links" is frequently misapplied. "Links" refers to a very specific type of golf course. But nowadays it is common for any golf course that is relatively treeless to call itself a links course. And that's not accurate.
But in America, they get away with it. Most American golfers - and I am one - have never seen a true links course ... except for the ones we see each year while watching the British Open.
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.
So a true links course is not any 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, 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 would then turn 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 by Ron Whitten, the golf course architecture beat writer for Golf Digest, to include golf courses built on sandy soil (whether seaside or not) and that are buffeted by winds. Whitten says a links course must play firm and fast, with sometimes crusty fairways and greens that feature many knolls and knobs to create odd bounces and angles. And, of course, a links course, in Whitten's definition, needs to be relatively treeless with a native rough that is tall and thick.
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
Sources: R&A, USGA, Golf Digest