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

Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, Balgownie, Aberdeen, Scotland

In this installment of our Golf 101 Series, we will examine Links Golf and the origins and evolution of the game. 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.

st enodoc church crse
St Enodoc

Key characteristics that define links courses include abundant natural hazards like pot bunkers, sandy waste areas, sandy and firm, fast-draining turf, and shots affected by exposure to the elements. They also feature proximity to the beach and the seaside, often used as a strategic design element. Blind shots, gorse bushes, rumpled fairways, sand dunes and hillocks, cliffside greens, small streams called “burns,” and ever-present coastal winds demand that players carefully navigate the natural terrain. Links courses also use the land’s natural movement, with rolling fairways and challenging greens.

Traditional seaside links courses are concentrated in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, 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 Pacific Dunes showcase links golf at its best—beautiful seaside landscapes paired with a one-of-a-kind test of skill and creativity.

Local landscapes have been incorporated into the routings, with Castle ruins, stone walls, lighthouses, and railway lines serving as backdrop. The seaside locales pressent spectatular vistas with remote islands, beaches, cliffside views and dramatic elevation changes. Holes are often routed along the villages, with walking paths crossing the course, further connecting the locals with their namesake courses.

Our Legendary Links series of course histories and writeups pays tribute to these courses, identifies hidden gems, and documents the migration and influence of links golf around the world to some of the unlikeliest of places. We also include a DID YOU KNOW? section that highlights interesting and obscure facts about the course, location, and connection to the locale. Donald Steel’s “Classic Golf Links” was my initial introduction and education into Links Golf, and I consider it required reading.

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Links golf, tracing 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.

aberdeen course 1
Royal Aberdeen

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, the presence of deep pot bunkers, and 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 intact, preserving its distinguished status within the sport. These courses offer an experience steeped in tradition and prestige, with shotmaking options that offer an alternative to the target golf that has become the norm. 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 must use imagination and finesse, adapting their play to the whims of the landscape and weather. In this way, links golf remains a test of physical prowess and a celebration of strategic thinking and adaptability, qualities that lie at the heart of the sport.

Migration

prestwick crse
Prestwick

The Industrial Revolution and the advent of railroads played pivotal roles in the rise of golf in Britain during the late 19th century. Industrialization’s economic boom led to an increase in disposable income and leisure time for the emerging middle class. This newfound affluence, coupled with the expansion of the railway network, facilitated the growth and accessibility of golf courses across the country.

The development of the railways was instrumental in the spread of golf from its traditional stronghold in Scotland to England and other parts of Britain. The improved transportation links enabled people to travel more easily to coastal areas and seaside resorts, where many early golf courses were established. The railways provided access to these golfing destinations and made transporting equipment and materials required for course construction possible.

crail golfing society intro
Crail Golfing Society

Between 1890 and the outbreak of World War I, a remarkable golf boom occurred in England. Over a thousand new golf clubs were formed, nearly one new club per week for a quarter of a century. This rapid expansion was fueled by the availability of suitable land, the growth of suburban areas, and the sport’s increasing popularity among the middle and upper classes who could afford leisure pursuits.

The “links” between the courses and the towns they are located in have a special, intertwined relationship deeply rooted in these coastal communities’ fabric. The development of golf and these seaside towns went hand-in-hand, each shaping and influencing the other over time.

Famous early links courses like St Andrews and Prestwick Golf Club on Scotland’s west coast established templates for routing and design that influenced the evolution of course design across the British Isles and later worldwide, migrating through renowned architects such as Charles Blair MacDonald. MacDonald brought his templates to the United States in the early 1900s, with contributions such as National Golf Links of America and the lost links of Long Island, “The Lido.” MacDonald’s legacy was honored at Bandon Dunes with the modern classic Old MacDonald.

Weather

scottish rain tee

Links in Great Britain are renowned for their challenging weather conditions, particularly the ever-present wind, which might be the most defining feature of links golf. Gusts can vary from a gentle breeze to howling gales, constantly shifting in direction and intensity. Players must master the art of controlling trajectory and spin and adjusting their stance and swing to combat the wind’s influence. Accurate shot-making and course management become paramount, as even the slightest miscalculation can lead to disastrous results.

The firm, sandy turf causes balls to run and bounce unpredictably, demanding precise distance control. Pot bunkers, deep and perilous, lie in wait to swallow errant shots. The ever-changing coastal weather can also bring sudden rain squalls, adding another layer of complexity to an already demanding test of golf. Embracing and adapting to these unique conditions is the true essence of links golf in Great Britain. Packing the right gear and being prepared for any weather is key. The Crail Golfing Society warns visitors, “There is no such thing as bad weather in Scotland – just the wrong clothing,” and “The golden rule in this part of the world is always come prepared!”

Historical Highlights: The Old Course at St Andrews

swilcan bridge
Swilcan Bridge

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.

Set along the 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.

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 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.

In our post, “Bobby Jones in Great Britain,” we highlight the legend’s journey with links golf, from a young phenom battling a temper to a Grand Slam winner and adopted son of Scotland. Having won the Open and Amateur Championships at St Andrews, he was invited back and given the “Freedom Of St Andrews” in 1958. The ailing Jones traveled back to St. Andrews one last time to receive the award in front of a crowd of 1,700.  In his address, he summed up his experiences, “I could take out my life everything, but my experiences here in St. Andrews, and I would still have had a rich and full life.”

We have also visited St Andrews in our post on Bing Crosby and the evolution of the Crosby Clambake, dedicating a section to Bing’s love of links golf and travels to St Andrews to play in the Amateur. 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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Woods @ St Andrews

The Open Championship

The Open Championship, golf’s original major, was first played in 1860 at Prestwick. The annual tournament on classic seaside links courses defined golf’s prestigious traditions. The Open tests golf’s classic terrain by rotating between historic courses like St Andrews, Carnoustie, Royal Birkdale, Turnberry,Royal Troon, Hoylake, Royal Lytham, Royal St George’s, and Muirfield. Royal Portrush recently became the first Irish course to host. The challenging conditions demand players be creative and thoughtful to conquer the undulating fairways, pot bunkers, gorse bushes, and coastal winds.

prestwick open
Prestwick

The first 12 Open Championships were held at Prestwick. It hosted a total of 24 between 1860 and 1925. The first event in 1860 was by invitation, with eight local clubs invited to send their best man. Willie Park Sr won and was awarded the Challenge Belt. The following year, it was decided the event would be “open” to the world. Young Tom Morris holds the record for the lowest score in Open history at Prestwick, shooting a 36-hole total of 149 in 1868.

After his third successive Open win in 1870, Young Tom was permitted to keep the winner’s prize, then a championship belt. The membership then created the gold medals still presented each year and readied the new prize, the Claret Jug. Morris won again in 1872, his fourth straight Open, but the Claret Jug did not debut until 1873. Notably, the winner is not formally called the “Open Champion” but is referred to as the “Winner of the Gold Medal and Champion Golfer of the Year.” 

Other notable winners include Willie Park of Musselburgh, who triumphed over Old Tom Morris in 1860, and Old Tom himself winning in 1861. Other winners include John Ball Jr., Harry Vardon, and James Braid. Prestwick’s final Open Championship in 1925 attracted a crowd estimated at 15,000.

Post WWII

Unfortunately, some early courses from the Open Rota did not have the infrastructure to sustain the crowds that would descend on the course or surrounding area and were no longer hosted—see our post on Prestwick. This is also true of some of the world’s best courses and prevents them from taking center stage and hosting The Open.

The World Wars also impacted some of the great links courses. The seaside land was requisitioned for military use, and some courses were irreparably damaged, with others taking years to rebuild and recover. Courses such as Royal Cinque Ports (Deal) and Prince’s were dropped from the rota during this period and replaced by neighboring courses. Others, like Turnberry, rebuilt and continued hosting, bringing some of golf’s most memorable moments. Some of these classic layouts are still home to Open qualifying.

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Turnberry
palmer troon

As revered as the Open Championship (referred to as the “British Open” by American journalists) is, there was a period when it 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 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.

After dominating from 1921-1933, with wins by JonesSarazen, Armour, and Hagen, Americans hesitated to make the lengthy transatlantic voyage and toughts of winning the “modern Grand Slam” were not logistically possible due to travel times and the scheduling of events.

Arnold Palmer is credited with turning the tide. He made the trip to St Andrews in 1960, 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, significantly boosting the Championship’s worldwide status and appeal, ushering in a new era of American participation and dominance.

Memorable Moments

The Open has created countless memorable moments and crowned golf’s greatest champions. Tom Morris Jr. won four straight Opens 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. Young Tom Morris recorded golf’s first albatross at Prestwick in 1868. Prince’s was where Gene Sarazen unveiled the modern sand wedge en route to his Open victory in 1932. See our post “The Squire’s Tale” for that story.

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Watson & Nicklaus 1977

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. Ben Hogan’s remarkable victory in 1953 at Carnoustie was his only Open appearance during his “Triple Crown” year. Despite battling injuries from a near-fatal 1949 car accident, Hogan triumphed by four strokes for his third major title that year.

Other memorable moments include the coming out party for Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, who captivated in a runner-up finish in 1976, winning at Lytham (twice) and St Andrews. English teenager Justin Rose announced himself to the world with an impressive performance, tying for fourth in 1998 at Birkdale, capped with a hole out for a birdie at the 72nd. 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. Rory McIlroy will attempt to join the club next week at the 2024 Masters.

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.

crudenbay course
Cruden Bay

England

The seaside links of England boast a spectacular collection of revered tests and hidden gems that 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.

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 is abundant.

st enodoc layout
St Enodoc

Ireland

Ireland’s west coast boasts some of the world’s most celebrated links, stretching from Royal County Down and Portrush in Northern Ireland to Ballybunion, Lahinch, and Doonbeg. The breathtaking 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 was 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. The breadth of personality, beauty, and challenge confirms Ireland’s stature as a links stronghold.

lahinch course
Lahinch

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’s “Links in the Sky” perch dramatically on cliffs high above Three Cliffs Bay, offering 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 around the coastline, with standouts at every turn. Conwy offers a quintessential seaside test 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 memorable layouts.

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Pennard

The rugged coastlines of Australia and New Zealand boast acclaimed modern links such as Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm 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 Cypress Point south of Monterey. The courses at Oregon’s Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort are the truest links experience in the U.S., with windswept dunes and firm, fast conditions. Pacific Dunes and Old MacDonald 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.

In my book “Links Around the World,” due in the Spring of 2024, I will expand on this story, tracing the game’s origins through the courses that have defined it. We’ll cover the big names, terminology, and templates, uncover hidden gems, and explore how Links Golf has migrated worldwide.

If this topic is close to your heart or you’d like to learn more, consider subscribing to our weekly newsletter to receive updates on new posts, partners, and discount codes. Explore our “Top 20 Books on Links Golf” and the suggested reading pages from my upcoming book, “Links Around the World.”

pacific dunes course
Pacific Dunes
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Tom Watson

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 succeed 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. Many of the other posts in our Legendary Links series delve into the course itself and how some of the game’s greats have taken them on with lessons and techniques from the game’s legends. See our post on Portmarnock for an example of how Irish legend Harry Bradshaw played his signature pitch and run, and check out our Lessons from Legends series for more.

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