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Golf 101: Links Golf – Celebrating the Game’s Timeless Terrain

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In this installment of our Golf 101 Series, we’re going to take a look at Links golf and trace the origins and evolution of the game and these courses. We’ll look at some of the iconic venues and championships played on them, as well as understand the vast differences between these courses and the “Parkland” courses that we typically experience and see on television.

Golf traces its origins to 15th century Scotland, where the game was first played on coastal “linksland” – open, grassy land unsuitable for farming between the sea and arable land. This sandy, undulating terrain, with its wispy grasses and coastal winds, nurtured the development of golf and shaped its early challenges.

Key features that define links courses include few trees, natural hazards like pot bunkers, thick, rough, firm, fast-draining turf, and exposure to the elements. Links courses also used the land’s natural movement, with rolling fairways and challenging greens. Famous early links courses like St Andrews Links and Prestwick Golf Club on Scotland’s west coast established templates for routing and design that influenced links courses across the British Isles and later worldwide.

Today links courses are still concentrated in Scotland, Ireland and England and remain an integral, prestigious part of golf. Modern links masterpieces like Royal County Down, Turnberry’s Ailsa course, Ballybunion, and even Oregon’s Bandon Dunes showcase links golf at its best – beautiful seaside landscapes paired with a one-of-a-kind test of skill and creativity.

Pot bunkers, gorse bushes, rumpled fairways, cliffside greens, small streams called “burns,” and coastal winds demand players to carefully navigate the natural terrain on these courses. Success requires imagination and shotmaking artistry to conquer Links Golf’s timeless challenges. Check out our latest piece, discussing influence of sandy terrain on the game of golf, as described in George Waters’ book “Sand and Golf.”

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Links golf, tracing its roots back to 15th century Scotland, epitomizes the game’s primal connection with nature. It was on the rugged, windswept coastal stretches of linksland where golf first blossomed, a game shaped as much by the lay of the land as by the creativity of its players. This unique terrain, nestled between the ocean and farmland, was characterized by its open, sandy expanses and undulating topography. Unlike the manicured courses of later years, these early golf grounds were wild and untamed, molded by natural elements rather than human design. The absence of trees, presence of deep pot bunkers, thick rough, and firm, fast-draining turf defined these courses, requiring golfers to adapt and invent new ways of playing to navigate these challenges.

Over the centuries, the essence of links golf has remained in tact, preserving its distinguished status within the sport. Concentrated primarily in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England, these courses continue to offer an experience steeped in tradition and prestige. The quintessential links course is a harmonious blend of natural beauty and golfing challenge. Its seaside landscapes, often accompanied by dramatic coastal winds, provide a stage not just for a game of skill but also for artistic expression. Golfers are compelled to use imagination and finesse, adapting their play to the whims of the landscape and weather. In this way, links golf remains not just a test of physical prowess but also a celebration of strategic thinking and adaptability, qualities that lie at the very heart of the sport.

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Historical Highlights: St Andrews

The historic Old Course at St Andrews Links, the “Home of Golf,” founded in 1552, is more than just a golf course; it is a hallowed ground that has profoundly shaped the game of golf. Its establishment laid foundational principles for course routing and design that have resonated through centuries, influencing the development of links courses across the British Isles and around the globe. Nestled against the rugged Scottish coastline, this iconic course presents many natural challenges, from its notorious pot bunkers, deep and strategically placed, to the wild gorse bushes that add beauty and complexity to its layout. The fairways of St Andrews, known for their distinctive rumpled character, mimic the natural undulations of the seaside landscape, demanding a high degree of creativity and strategic thinking from golfers.

Characteristics

At St Andrews, each hole tells a story woven into the fabric of golf’s history. The course’s design, characterized by double greens, wide fairways, and blind shots, has become a template for what constitutes true links golf. The challenges posed by the Old Course are as mental as they are physical; golfers must not only contend with the whims of coastal winds but also navigate the subtleties of its terrain. The Old Course’s influence extends beyond its physical features; it has become a symbol of golf’s enduring traditions and the spirit of the game.

The original 18-hole layout, as we know it, took shape in 1764. Holes such as the “Road Hole” (17th) and landmarks like the “Principal’s Nose” bunkers and Swilcan bridge have become iconic. Six additional 18-hole courses were built more recently – the “New” Course in 1895, Jubilee in 1897, Eden in 1914, Strathtyrum in 1993, Balgove in 1995, and Castle in 2008. Playing at St Andrew’s is not just a test of golfing skill but an immersive experience in the history and soul of the sport, where every shot echoes the centuries and legends that have shaped the game.

While steeped in tradition, St Andrews has evolved and even has a live webcam, where you can check in to see what’s happening from multiple perspectives.

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The Open Championship

The Open Championship, golf’s original major, was first played in 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland. This annual tournament on classic seaside links courses defined golf’s prestigious traditions. The Open provides the ultimate test on golf’s classic terrain by rotating between historic courses like St Andrews, Carnoustie, Royal Birkdale, and Muirfield. The challenging conditions demand players be creative and thoughtful to conquer the undulating fairways, pot bunkers, gorse bushes, and coastal winds.

As revered as the Open Championship (referred to as the “British Open” by American journalists) is, there was a period when the Open could not attract the top American golfers of the day. In the book Duel in the Sun, Michael Corcoran details the 1940s-1960s when the cost of and time commitment of overseas travel, limited purses, and proximity to the US PGA Championship were causing the best players in the world to stay home.

Arnold Palmer is credited with turning the tide, making the trip to play at St Andrews in 1960, then winning at Birkdale in 1961 and Troon in 1962. Palmer’s two Open victories and continued participation restored American golfers’ interest in playing The Open after years of absence. This significantly boosted the Championship’s worldwide status and appeal.

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Memorable Moments

The Open has created countless memorable moments and crowned golf’s greatest champions. Tom Morris Jr. won four straight Opens starting in 1868, a feat unmatched in major championship history. Harry Vardon’s six Open titles remain a record (Tom Watson won five and came up just short of a sixth in 2009), while legends like Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, and Jack Nicklaus hoisted the Claret Jug. Iconic winning moments include Arnold Palmer’s charge in 1961, Tom Watson’s “Duel in the Sun” victory in 1977, and Greg Norman’s incredible final round in 1993. The Open’s rich history and one-of-a-kind venues make it golf’s most revered championship.

Other iconic Open Championship moments include Ben Hogan’s remarkable victory in 1953 at Carnoustie in his only Open appearance. Despite battling injuries from a near-fatal 1949 car accident, Hogan triumphed by four strokes for his third major title that year.  In 2000 at St Andrews, Tiger Woods completed the “Tiger Slam” by winning his fourth straight major championship to hold all four major titles at once, becoming just the fifth golfer ever to achieve the career grand slam.

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Scotland

The craggy Ayrshire coastline has nurtured some of golf’s most celebrated links, including Royal Troon, Turnberry, and Prestwick – host of the first Open Championship in 1860.  Further north, the windswept landscapes of Aberdeenshire and beyond boast an array of revered seaside tests like Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay, Trump International, and Castle Stuart overlooking the Moray Firth. Yet the rich legacy of Scottish links golf stretches down the coastline with gems at every turn.

The quirky West Links at North Berwick near Edinburgh beguiles with its historic red brick starter’s hut and iconic “Redan” 15th hole along the Firth of Forth. Carved through the dunes of Dumfries & Galloway near the Irish Sea, Southerness and Machrihanish charm with rugged beauty and unique templates for hole designs. From Muirfield to Dornoch, Turnberry to Carnoustie, the sheer breadth of personality, beauty, and challenge across Scotland’s links landscape cements its status as the game’s heartland.

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England

The craggy coastlines of Kent and Sussex boast revered seaside tests like Royal St George’s, site of 15 Open Championships, and Royal Cinque Ports, whose rumpled fairways tumble through the dunes.  Royal Birkdale and Royal Liverpool have carved their legends in North West England while hosting The Open and Ryder Cup. Yet the rich legacy of English links golf stretches around the coastline with gems at every turn. Carved through the Norfolk dunes near the North Sea, Hunstanton offers a quintessential links experience with rambling holes over rumpled terrain. Down in Devon, the West Course at Saunton mesmerizes with its backdrop of Braunton Burrows, England’s largest dune system. From St Enodoc to Ganton, Hillside to Aldeburgh, the breadth of beauty and challenge confirms England’s status as a links golf heartland. 

The seaside links of England boast a spectacular collection of revered tests like Royal St George’s and Birkdale, while hidden gems like Saunton and Hunstanton offer their unique flavors. The full breadth of the English coastline features an impressive range of layouts carved through the dunes, confirming England’s stature alongside Scotland and Ireland as a true links golf heartland.

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Ireland

Ireland’s west coast boasts some of the world’s most celebrated links stretching from Royal County Down and Portrush in Northern Ireland down to Ballybunion, Lahinch, Doonbeg, and Tralee. Further south, hidden gems like Carne, Enniscrone, and Connemara charm visitors with their rugged beauty and unique tests across the rumpled dunes.

Located on Ireland’s rugged southwest coast, Waterville Golf Links charms visitors with its stunning oceanfront landscape. Designed by Eddie Hackett, Waterville winds through towering dunes with thrilling seaside holes like the par-3 12th and the cliffside 17th. Further south near the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, Tralee Golf Club features a world-renowned back nine designed by Arnold Palmer.  

The rich legacy of Irish links golf stretches around the coastline with gems at every turn. Carved through the towering sandhills of Donegal near the Atlantic, Rosapenna and Ballyliffin Links mesmerize with wild terrain and endless views. Over in Dublin, Portmarnock and The Island have carved their stellar reputations in the shadow of Ireland’s vibrant capital. From Royal Portrush to Waterville, Ballybunion to European Club, the breadth of personality, beauty, and challenge confirms Ireland’s stature alongside Scotland as links golf’s heartland.

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Wales

Wales boasts spectacular seaside golf along its rugged coastline, led by venerable tests like Royal Porthcawl, host of the 1995 Walker Cup and 2025 Women’s Open.  Further west, the wild dunes of Pennard perch dramatically on cliffs high above Three Cliffs Bay offer breathtaking vistas. Hidden gems like Aberdovey and Nefyn & District charm visitors with their raw beauty and unique challenges carved through the windswept linksland.

The rich legacy of Welsh links golf stretches all around the coastline, with standouts at every turn. Conwy and St Enodoc offer quintessential seaside tests in North Wales, while Pyle & Kenfig and Ashburnham have carved their stellar reputations further south.  From the Irish Sea to the Bristol Channel, the full breadth of the Welsh shoreline features an impressive range of layouts – confirming Wales as a true links golf heartland alongside Scotland, England, and Ireland.

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The rugged coastlines of Australia and New Zealand boast acclaimed modern links such as Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand’s North Island, and The National Golf Club on the southern coast of Victoria. Across the Atlantic, Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia have earned rave reviews for their dramatic seaside landscapes and quintessential links charm. Further south, Punta Espada in the Dominican Republic charms golfers with ocean vistas and a tropical links layout by Jack Nicklaus.

Links-style designs can also be found across the American landscape, from Chambers Bay near Seattle to Whistling Straits in Wisconsin to the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links south of Monterey. The courses at Oregon’s Bandon Dunes Golf Resort are widely considered the truest links experience in the U.S., with their windswept dunes and firm, fast conditions. Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes, in particular, are modeled on the ideals of legendary Scottish venues like Royal Dornoch and Prestwick. With their memorable designs and location on the rugged Oregon coast, Bandon’s links capture the spirit of the game’s origins.

Seeking to create an ideal golfing experience, Bobby Jones worked with Alister MacKenzie to design Augusta National Golf Club in the early 1930s, drawing inspiration from the legendary Old Course. Jones incorporated strategic concepts and design features from St Andrews like wide fairways, natural bunkering, and run-up shots to greens at Augusta National, creating a classic inland links-style course.

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Links golf courses offer a one-of-a-kind test rooted in the game’s origins on Scotland’s windswept coasts. Undulating fairways, wispy grasses, exposure to the elements, and natural hazards like pot bunkers and gorse demand creativity and thoughtful shotmaking. To conquer a links course, golfers must carefully navigate the natural terrain and handle classic challenges like hitting low drives, precise distance control, bump-and-run shots, and sand saves.

Success requires imagination and skill to handle the exacting demands of the rumpled fairways, cliffside greens, and coastal winds. Critical links golf strategies include preparing for variable weather, keeping drives low and adjusting for wind, attacking pin positions cautiously, utilizing the ground game around greens, and avoiding bunkers through intelligent positioning.

Links golf also requires patience and adaptability as conditions shift, along with a matchless short game to escape trouble and conquer the massive greens. Players can find success on links golf’s timeless tests by blending course management, shotmaking skills, and mental resilience.

The seaside landscapes of Links Golf demand creativity and strategic thought. Mastery of the classic links challenges, from driving into the wind to executing bump-and-run shots, can help players handle the exacting demands of the game’s most revered courses. For more on this, check out our post “Watson’s Winning Ways,” where we detail Watson’s 5 Open victories and some of his strategies for dealing with the elements and conditions of Links golf.

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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.

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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.

Duel in the Sun
by Michael Corcoran 

Summary: The 1977 British Open at Turnberry was an epic showdown between golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, with Watson prevailing by one stroke after they battled over the final 36 holes; Michael Corcoran brings this dramatic moment in golf history to life through interviews with participants and evocative details about the Open’s rich tradition and origins; Duel in the Sun recounts Watson rising to defeat Nicklaus and claim his spot at the pinnacle of golf.

Beyond the event itself, Corcoran also does a great job setting the stage, discussing the history of The Open, its challenges, and its return to glory. Highly recommended.

Born on the Links
by John Williamson

Summary: Born on the Links by John Williamson is a comprehensive history of golf spanning over 600 years, from its 15th century origins in Scotland through modern times.  Covering equipment, rules, courses, iconic players, and pivotal events, it details how golf progressed from an elite pastime to a global sport played by millions across classes and backgrounds.  Born on the Links provides a complete overview of golf’s origins and evolution into the popular modern game.

True Links
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.

A Season in Dornoch
by Lorne Rubenstein

Summary: A Season in Dornoch is a memoir by Canadian golf writer Lorne Rubenstein chronicling the summer he spent immersed in golf and the local culture of Dornoch, Scotland in 1977.  Rubenstein went to Dornoch, home of the famed Royal Dornoch Golf Club, seeking to reconnect with golf and clear his mind, but found much more – an exploration of the region’s history, people, and way of life intertwined with the game.  Blending golf tales, local history, and profiles of Dornoch’s residents, A Season in Dornoch captures the author’s journey. It provides an ode to a remote Scottish village profoundly shaped by golf. Great weekend read for any lover of the links.

When Revelation Comes: A Journey Across the Sacred Links of Scotland 
by Jim Hartsell

Summary: When Revelation Comes by Jim Hartsell is a memoir chronicling the author’s journey across the golf courses of Scotland to find peace after the tragic loss of his 21-year-old son Jordan to an accidental drug overdose.  Processing his grief through rounds at classic links across Scotland, Hartsell finds solace and revelations about continuing life’s journey through interactions with compassionate strangers met along the way.  With raw emotion, Hartsell shares how the search for meaning on Scotland’s windswept links helped him cope with unimaginable grief and loss.

The Nature of the Game
by Mike Keiser

Summary: The Nature of the Game chronicles how businessman and avid golfer Mike Keiser discovered his passion for authentic links golf in Scotland and Ireland and embarked on a mission to bring that pure golf experience to America through Bandon Dunes.  Keiser details his philosophy of “dream golf” – walking-only courses routed naturally through windswept landscapes that embrace the origins of the game.  The book provides an inside look at how Keiser partnered with architects like Tom Doak to make the dream golf vision a reality at Bandon and other sites, pioneering a back-to-basics movement in course design.  At its core, The Nature of the Game shares one man’s journey to recapture golf’s essence by creating minimalist, natural links-style courses focused on fun and camaraderie.

The 150th Open
by Iain Carter

Summary: The 150th Open is the official book celebrating the sesquicentennial (seriously, that’s a thing) of golf’s oldest major championship, produced in partnership with The R&A and capturing the history and stories that make The Open unique.  From its 1860 origins in Prestwick to today’s iconic venues, the book chronicles The Open through archival images and interviews with past champions, reflecting on characters, courses, and moments that have defined this revered event over 150 years. The comprehensive narrative and visual history in The 150th Open commemorates The Open Championship’s illustrious past and enduring prestige as golf’s most beloved tournament.

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