Having been obsessed with golf since my father first put a club in my hands at the age of six, I have probably read as many descriptions of golf courses as any living 28-year-old.
And over the years of seeing blurbs in magazines and ads about all sorts of facilities, I've noticed that there's one word that tons of courses - all courses whose fairways aren't tree-lined, more or less - use to describe themselves.
Perhaps I'm over-sensitive, but it's become a pet peeve of mine, because in 99% of these cases, it's misapplied.
A lot of courses and marketing companies have used the concept to signify a premium, "authentic" golf experience, even when the reality is quite different from actual links golf.
In the end, "links" is another type of golf course - no more, no less. It's descriptive, yes, but it's not necessarily an indicator of higher quality in and of itself (though many golfers do favor the virtues and characteristics of links golf).
However the term has been used in decades of golf course marketing, "links" describes a very specific sort of terrain and soil for golf, and even though thousands of American courses fancy themselves "links golf courses," they are not links golf courses.
So...what is a "links golf course"?
Official definitions vary to some extent, but golf course architecture experts and golf historians seem to agree that for a golf course to be truly considered a links golf course, it needs to satisfy these main criteria:
- The golf course sits on coastal land.
- The coastal land on which the course sits has naturally sandy soil, which makes the turf play fast and firm in all but the wettest stretches of weather.
- The turf of the course consists primarily of fescue and bent grass
Other defining characteristics of links golf courses include the following:
- Age. Lots of links are old - a century or more, in many cases. But there certainly are modern examples of links golf.
- Looks. Low-lying fairways and greens are commonplace, with manmade features - with the exception of wee pot bunkers - kept to a minimum.
- Tradition. This is often a function of age, but you don't often find big tennis complexes, swimming pools or fitness centers on the grounds of links golf courses. Sometimes there isn't even a practice range to speak of. Carts are almost unheard of. But there are a lot of people who love playing golf knocking the ball about.
According to authors Malcolm Campbell and George Peper in their book True Links, there are only 246 courses in the entire world that qualify as links golf courses.
Given that golf sprang up in the British Isles on linksland (i.e. areas that "link" the coast with the mainland) considered unfit for farming, the vast majority of the world's links golf courses are located there, and particularly in Scotland.
But not all of them. There are a handful of courses elsewhere around the world that Campbell and Peper consider links golf courses.
There's Kennemer Golf & Country Club, one of a handful of courses in the Netherlands that are widely considered links...
And Denmark has a links: Fanø Golf Links.
There are a few true links courses in Australia, too - especially in Tasmania, where both Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm attract golfing pilgrims from thousands of miles away...
In New Zealand, the venerable Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club is a beloved links...
And there's even a links course in Africa: South Africa's Humewood Golf Club...
For all the mystique that surrounds the idea of "links golf," it's important to note that not all great golf courses are links courses, and not all links courses are necessarily great (though the vast majority of them are enjoyable at the very least). The fame of the links courses of the British Isles tends to overshadow an extremely strong cadre of heathland golf courses, and even some acclaimed inland/parkland golf courses, too.
Links golf in the U.S.
In America, where the game is centuries younger, golf course developers have long traded on the romantic notion of "links golf" to market their own courses, even when those courses had key differences with their true-links forbears.
Perhaps the most notable example is Pebble Beach Golf Links, whose stretches of cliffhanging holes above the Pacific Ocean have won it acclaim as one of the world's most famous courses.
But Pebble Beach is, strictly speaking, not a links, because its soil isn't particularly sandy and many of its holes - the first three and the 12th through the 16th - occupy coastal forest land.
But should Pebble Beach's not-quite-links identity take anything away from its prestige? Absolutely not - Pebble Beach is one of the world's great golf courses, period.
Nevertheless, calling Pebble Beach a "links golf course" does not quite encapsulate its unique identity.
A few hundred miles up the coast, there is little doubt that most of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort's courses do merit classification as "links golf courses." The original Bandon Dunes course, as well as Pacific Dunes, Old Macdonald and Bandon Preserve, all hit the marks for qualification as links golf courses.
Bandon Trails, though...not as much, because much of the routing heads through coastal forest.
But does that matter? Links or not, Bandon Trails is also a great course. In fact, some people consider it their favorite course on property.
There are numerous other courses that might be mistaken for links golf courses, but are really something else, and something awesome.
One prime example I've played is Lawsonia Links in central Wisconsin.
Yes...I know it even has "Links" in its name. But despite its open, mostly treeless property and awesome ground features courtesy of architects William Langford and Theodore Moreau, it's not an actual links golf course, because the sea is hundreds of miles away.
The same goes for the great courses of the rolling hills through America's Great Plains. Sand Hills, Dismal River, Prairie Club, Wild Horse, Bayside...all these courses are inspired by the great links of the world, and they play firm and fast, but they're not, strictly speaking, links, because like Lawsonia, they're far from the coasts.
But that shouldn't stop you from seeking to play them.
Of course, the presence of an ocean does not a links golf course make, either.
For example Kiawah Island Resort's Ocean Course has as much ocean frontage as any course in the world. But it's not a links, because its turf is Paspalum grass, rather than the hardy fescues and bent grasses that prevail at other links.
And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is no big deal. The Ocean Course is a definite bucket-list course, and whether or not it qualifies as a links has no bearing on that fact.
I know...this may seem like much ado about nothing. But if you went to a restaurant that bills itself as Italian, only to find the menu was all sushi, you'd feel deceived, wouldn't you?
So it is with links golf. If you book a round on a mislabeled "links golf course," especially in a warm-weather golf destination (where these not-quite-accurate descriptions are most prevalent) and find shots your tee shots and approaches plugging in mushy fairways and greens, you're probably going to feel a bit misled.
Bottom line: with all sorts of misinformation causing confusion and frustration everywhere these days, we should strive to describe our great golf courses as accurately as possible.
Greater accuracy in describing courses will facilitate one of the greatest things about the golf community: its camaraderie, especially in the sharing and comparing of golf courses and experiences over a drink in the 19th hole.
What do you think of the concept of links golf, and the way it's marketed? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!