Golf courses come in many shapes and sizes, each with their own unique characteristics. From seaside links courses to lush parkland layouts, no two golf courses are exactly alike. Understanding the key differences between types of courses is an important first step to improving your game.
The most common types of golf courses are links, parkland, desert, and heathland. Links courses originated in Scotland, built along the sandy coastline with few trees and rolling terrain shaped by the wind. Parkland courses feature lush grass, trees lining the fairways, and bunkers and water hazards that require accuracy off the tee. Desert courses take advantage of the arid landscape and require less water and maintenance. Heathland courses have sandy soil, undulating fairways, and natural vegetation like gorse bushes that can make shots more challenging.
In this post, we’ll review each course type, their base characteristics, provide some examples, and historical context. As always, we’ll close with some further reading to expand your knowledge and education.
As we explore popular course types, keep in mind that many courses now blend attributes from multiple categories to create unique and interesting playing experiences, and we will cover this scenario as well. Once you get a good understanding of the course variations, move on to learn about the terrain, specifically the strategic use of sandy terrain and how it has influenced the evolution of course design.
Links golf courses originated in Scotland in the 15th century, when shepherds started hitting stones into rabbit holes in the coastal terrain connecting the sea and farmland. This rugged, sandy, windswept land along the coast came to be known as “links land.” Early links courses featured few trees, undulating fairways, dramatic bunkering, and firm, fast-draining turf. They emphasized creativity and imagination in shot-making.
Over time, links courses spread across the British Isles and then later worldwide, though true seaside links remain concentrated in Scotland, England, Ireland, and Wales. Distinctive design features still include rumpled fairways, pot bunkers, gorse bushes, rolling terrain, and coastal locations, which pose unique strategic challenges. Famous links courses include the Old Course at St. Andrews, Royal County Down, Royal Birkdale, Turnberry, Lahinch, and Ballybunion. Links courses now comprise over 60% of layouts in the UK and Ireland.
We’ve covered links courses in detail in three previous posts, “Golf 101: Links Golf – Celebrating the Game’s Timeless Terrain,” “Winning Ways,” about Tom Watson’s success at The Open Championship, and “Golf’s Sandy Terrain,” a review of the book “Sand and Golf,” by George Waters. The book “True Links,” states that only 4 true links courses exist in the US.
Parkland golf courses originated in the early days of golf as the game moved inland from seaside links courses in Scotland and England. Built on lush, pastoral inland sites, parkland courses feature gently undulating terrain, tree-lined fairways, and meticulously manicured turfgrass. The park-like environment contrasts sharply with rugged seaside links courses. Parkland layouts require intensive maintenance and irrigation to sustain the carpet-like playing surfaces golfers have come to expect.
The most famous parkland course worldwide is Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters Tournament. Its sweeping fairways, vibrant spring blooms, and iconic Amen Corner epitomize the parkland style popularized in the United States. Other landmark U.S. parkland courses include Oakmont, Winged Foot, Baltusrol, and Congressional. In the British Isles, historic inland courses like Sunningdale, Wentworth, and The Belfry forged the parkland design model.
Today, parkland courses comprise over 60% of layouts in the UK and Ireland and an even higher percentage in the U.S. Lush conditions, tree-framed holes, strategic bunkering, and scenic beauty make parkland courses appealing for golfers at all skill levels, especially beginners. Major championships are frequently contested on leading parkland courses on both sides of the Atlantic.
Desert golf courses originated in the southwestern United States, especially areas like Palm Springs, California and Scottsdale, Arizona, as the popularity of golf expanded to hot, arid regions. Built amongst cacti, rocky outcroppings, and sandy arroyos, desert courses take advantage of dramatic desert vistas and the challenges posed by the natural terrain. Signature features include waste bunkers, doglegs routed around desert features, and holes framed by mountains in the distance.
Famous early desert course architects like Robert Trent Jones Sr., Pete Dye, and Jack Nicklaus pioneered design strategies tailored specifically to the desert environment. They moved less earth than traditional parkland courses, embracing the existing contours and working holes between native desert areas. Careful use of turfgrass, contouring, and drainage create playable surfaces amidst rugged surroundings. Desert courses require about half the water of traditional designs and thrive in abundant sunlight.
Iconic modern desert layouts include TPC Scottsdale, host of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, and PGA West’s Stadium Course in La Quinta, California. Carefree, Arizona boasts the first desert course in North America at Desert Forest Golf Club. While less common than parkland or links designs, desert golf has inspired creative architecture and provides unique playing experiences.
Heathland golf courses originated in England in the late 19th century as the game expanded inland from traditional seaside links courses. Built on sandy, nutrient-poor soil amidst open heathland, early heathland courses were referred to as “inland links” for their firm, fast-draining turf. Heathland terrain provided the ideal canvas for pioneering golf architects like Harry Colt, Willie Park Jr., and James Braid to create strategic masterpieces.
Signature design features of classic heathland courses include rumpled fairways framed by heather and gorse, dramatic bunkering, and slick greens that emphasize ground game approach shots. Undulating topography, rugged native vegetation, and sandy waste areas pose constant challenges. Major heathland courses are concentrated around London, particularly in Surrey and Berkshire, with other top examples found across England and Scotland. Famous courses include Swinley Forest, Walton Heath, Woodhall Spa, Ganton, and The Berkshire.
While a small number of modern heathland courses have been built, the very specific soil conditions and land management practices required make them difficult to replicate. Classic heathland courses retain a special place in golf’s landscape, treasured for their natural beauty, rich history, and unique strategic tests. Careful environmental stewardship is required to preserve their distinctive character.
Hybrid golf courses creatively combine design elements from multiple course genres – for example, linking attributes of parkland, desert, heathland or other styles. This blending allows architects greater flexibility in crafting unique layouts. A hybrid course may feature both the tree-lined fairways of a parkland design along with waste bunkers reminiscent of desert golf. Or it could blend rolling contours from a links layout with strategic bunkering and golden rough of a heathland course.
The increasing popularity of hybrid designs expands the artistic palette available to modern golf course architects. While hybrids require careful integration to avoid an artificial or disjointed feel, the creativity possible makes for more diverse golfing experiences. Hybrid courses have the potential to take the best features of various genres and seamlessly merge them into engaging new tests. Major resort destinations like Bandon Dunes in Oregon exemplify the potential of hybrid designs, blending links, heathland and even elements of parkland golf across multiple acclaimed layouts. Cypress Point consists of two distinct landscapes – a links-style seaside layout as well as a routing through the Cypress filled Del Monte forest. Maui’s Kapalua resort, host of the PGA Tour’s season opener, is another seaside course that has elements of multiple styles.
Sand and Golf
by George Waters
Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.
by Malcolm Campbell & George Peper
Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria. For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.
Wide Open Fairways
by Bradley S. Klein
Summary: In golf the playing field is also landscape, where nature and the shaping of it conspire to test athletic prowess. As golf courses move away from the “big business, pristine lawn” approach of recent times, Bradley S. Klein, a leading expert on golf course design and economics, finds much to contemplate, and much to report, in the way these wide-open spaces function as landscapes that inspire us, stimulate our senses, and reveal the special nature of particular places.
A meditation on what makes golf courses compelling landscapes, this is also a personal memoir that follows Klein’s own unique journey across the golfing terrain, from the Bronx and Long Island suburbia to the American prairie and the Pacific Northwest. Whether discussing Robert Moses and Donald Trump and the making of New York City, or the role of golf in the development of the atomic bomb, or the relevance of Willa Cather to how the game has taken hold in the Nebraska Sandhills, Klein is always looking for the freedom and the meaning of golf’s wide-open spaces.
Anatomy of a Golf Course
by Tom Doak
Summary: The book explains the thought process and strategies used by golf course architects in designing courses, including factors like hole length, placement of hazards, and routing. It aims to help golfers understand why certain design choices are made so they can better approach playing the course. Written by acclaimed golf architect Tom Doak, it appeals to both knowledgeable golfers and beginners interested in course design and architecture. The book also includes an appendix with examples of noteworthy golf courses that are worth studying.
Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel
Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests. With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.
This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.