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Golf’s Sandy Terrain: The Soul of the Game

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Golf originated on the sandy coastal links of Scotland, with features like fairways, greens, and bunkers naturally occurring. As golf spread globally, sandy sites have remained ideal locations, providing architects with optimal conditions for creative design. This allows for a variety of strategic options for both the architect and the golfer, which makes for a more interesting golf experience.

Many top modern courses are located on naturally sandy ground. Courses may appear visually distinct, like those in Australia’s Sandbelt versus America’s Great Plains, but share key traits. Sandy sites challenge creativity and provide a unique experience, remaining the benchmark for elite courses, as well as the heartland of the game’s traditions.

In this post, we’re going to present some of the information provided in the book “Sand and Golf” by George Waters. If you have spent any time on this site, it should be clear that I am a big fan of golf books and audiobooks. I usually have two or three in progress at any point in time. Whether listening in the car, reading at home, researching or learning about the swing, it’s just what I do.

I received my signed copy of the book from George Waters, thoroughly enjoyed it, and will take you through some of the key points and highlighted courses. The book contains dozens of great images taken by the author, but I will not be displaying them here. I will present some similar imagery to convey the feeling and context of the landscape, not aim to serve as exact replicas.

I encourage you to follow George on Twitter and Instagram @gwatersgolf and do send him a direct message to order a signed copy of the book direct from the author!

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Chambers Bay

About “Sand and Golf”

“Sand and Golf” explores the unique features of sandy terrain that make it so well-suited for golf. Written by acclaimed golf writer George Waters, with a foreword by leading golf architect Tom Doak, the book studies similarities and differences among courses built on sandy sites, across the world. It aims to analyze and explain why golf thrives on sandy sites.

Golf originated on the sandy links lands of Scotland, so the very nature and challenge of the game developed in partnership with sandy ground. This book traces how playing surfaces, course features like bunkers and greens, and even strategic concepts were shaped by links landscapes.

There are a multitude of notable sandy golf courses worldwide. For instance, Pine Valley Golf Club and Sand Hills Golf Club are among America’s 100 greatest golf courses. Other examples include Royal Troon, Lahinch, Streamsong and several of the courses at Bandon Dunes golf resort.

From Melbourne’s sandbelt to the coastal dunes of Oregon, the book profiles top sandy courses worldwide. While the environments differ, common traits emerge – firm, fast conditions promoting creativity, rugged bunkers, meandering holes, and wind as a constant factor. Sand and Golf explores why golf on sandy terrain brings out the game’s essential spirit.

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Pine Valley

History and Origins

In our post “Links Golf – Celebrating the Game’s Timeless Terrain,” we followed the evolution of the game back to the coastal “linksland” in 15th century Scotland, where shepherds would hit stones into rabbit holes in the coastal dunes using sticks. These sandy stretches of land along the coast shaped the early development of the game. The firm and fast playing conditions promoted a style of play along the ground. The natural contours and hazards of the dunes were incorporated into early course designs.

As the sport formalized, greens and fairways were mapped out by identifying the existing areas of shorter grass among the dunes that were naturally suited to playing golf. Likewise, the first bunkers emerged from the bare sandy areas scattered throughout the links landscape. Golfers would have to avoid these hazards carved out by the wind or face a difficult explosion shot from the sand. So the essential features and challenge of the game developed in partnership with the sandy terrain.

Even as golf expanded inland and onto other landscapes, it retained these core attributes borrowed from links golf – greens, fairways, bunkers, firm playing conditions promoting creativity. But the game remains inherently tied to its origins on Scotland’s sandy coasts. As George Waters notes, golf “works so well on sandy ground because it quite literally belongs there.” The legacy of links golf continues to shape the sport today.

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Natural linksland landscape

Benefits

Golf courses constructed on sandy terrain offer a unique set of benefits that enhance the game’s experience and challenge. One of the primary advantages of sandy terrain is its excellent drainage capabilities. Sand-based terrain drains rainwater well, which means that the course is rarely unplayable due to weather conditions. This feature also promotes good drainage, healthy air, and water circulation, which are essential for maintaining the quality of the course.

Another advantage is that it allows for a much lower-impact maintenance program. Courses built on sand also have the potential to preserve, and even enhance the natural processes of the surrounding landscape. The dynamics of wind, water, plants, and animals that created the original fairways can continue to shape and evolve the course over time.

Moreover, sandy terrain allows for the creation of unique course contours, making each hole unique and often classifying the terrain as ‘rolling’. Tom Doak, known for his work on Pacific Dunes, has leveraged these features to create courses that engage the golfer’s imagination and decision-making.

Furthermore, sandy terrain allows for the creation of natural hazards, adding an extra layer of challenge and strategy to the game. For instance, the original sand traps were areas of bare sand scattered throughout the course, adding a natural element of difficulty. See our full post on National Golf Links of America for more.

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National Golf Links of America

Course Examples

The book dives deep into how golf thrives on sandy terrain by featuring over 40 top courses built upon sand worldwide. Rather than focusing on famous household names, Waters unearths hidden gems that epitomize golf’s ideal partnership with sandy sites. Courses like Barnbougle Dunes, set amidst massive windswept dunes along Tasmania’s rugged shores. Stalwarts such as Pinehurst, Cypress Point, North Berwick, and St. Andrews are also mentioned throughout the book.

Waters reveals how talented architects worked in harmony with the natural sandy features – whether along the Oregon coast or Australian sandbelts – allowing the land to shape routing and strategic choices. While the settings differ, Waters illuminates shared traits that make golf ideal on sand – firm, fast playing surfaces that promote creativity; natural contours and hazards; wind as a constant challenge; and holes that fit seamlessly into the dunes rather than oppose them.

As golf originated on Scotland’s sandy coasts, the book conveys how these courses built upon sand allow the pure spirit of the game to shine and the variety of environments showcases sand’s versatility.

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Pinehurst

Pacific Dunes

One of the most acclaimed modern courses highlighted is Pacific Dunes in Oregon. Nestled along the rugged Oregon coast, Pacific Dunes epitomizes golf in harmony with natural sandy terrain. Architect Tom Doak routed the course through massive dunes in a seamless manner, with holes tumbling down to the ocean and then back into the rippling dunescape. Its unconventional par-71 layout exudes creativity, including the famous stretch of four par-3s on the back nine. Signature offerings like the cliff-lined par-4 13th and the breathtaking 148-yard 11th, peering down into the Pacific, showcase Doak’s bold and strategic design.

While the ocean vistas are dramatic, it’s Pacific Dunes’ world-class architecture that has earned its acclaim. Doak crafted an inventive routing that utilizes both the seaside and inland holes to maximum effect. Critics praise the course for its excellent use of contours, bold and rugged bunkering, and the way it seems to fit seamlessly into the sandy site. It’s a layout that promotes imagination and demands every club and shot. It’s no surprise that Pacific Dunes continues to rank among the finest modern designs globally. Doak documented his work in the book “The Making of Pacific Dunes,” and we have written a full writeup on the course and its history.

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Pacific Dunes

Sand Hills

Hidden amidst the sandhills of remote central Nebraska lies one of golf’s true masterpieces – Sand Hills Golf Club. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw routed this minimalist marvel through 8,000 acres of massive dunes, moving barely 4,000 cubic yards of earth. The architects embraced the rumpled terrain and wind-sculpted features, crafting an ingenious layout over, around and through the waves of sand. With little done to alter the natural contours, the course remains perfectly suited to the land. Undulating fairways tumble through the hills, playing firm and fast to challenge even the most precise players.

Critics universally praise Sand Hills as a triumph of partnership between designer and site. The course is credited with sparking a renaissance in minimalist design and destination golf. Signature one-shotters like the downhill 217-yard 4th and the short par-4 2nd tempt bold play. While the endless rolling terrain evokes a magical, seaside-like feel far from any ocean. The masterful architecture of Sand Hills will likely stand the test of time – a testament to the synergy possible when golf seamlessly fits the land. See our full writeup on Sand Hills for more details.

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Sand Hills

Barnbougle Dunes

Barnbougle Dunes is an acclaimed links-style golf course located on the windswept sand dunes of Tasmania’s dramatic northeast coast. Designed by acclaimed golf architect Tom Doak and Australian golf professional Mike Clayton, the 18-hole championship course opened in 2004 to widespread critical acclaim.

Meandering through rolling coastal dunes overlooking the Bass Strait, Barnbougle Dunes channels the spirit of traditional Scottish links golf with its undulating fairways, pot bunkers, dramatic movement on the greens, and ever-present coastal winds. The routing incorporates the natural contours of the dunes landscape beautifully, with holes playing along the shoreline as well as inland through sand hills covered in native grasses and vegetation. Signature holes like the cliffside par-3 7th and the thrilling risk-reward par-5 13th exemplify Doak and Clayton’s minimalist design philosophy of letting the natural terrain shine.

The clubhouse at Barnbougle Dunes, perched atop a dune overlooking the ocean, complements the rugged natural beauty of the course and surrounding landscape. Between its breathtaking setting, world-class golf, welcoming hospitality, and air of remote tranquility, Barnbougle Dunes makes the case for Tasmania as one of the world’s premier golf destinations. See our full writeup on Barnbougle Dunes for more details.

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Barnbougle Dunes

Cruden Bay

Cruden Bay Golf Club, located in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, is set amidst towering sand dunes, with the natural contours of the land being used to great effect. The course was originally designed by Tom Morris and Archie Simpson, and the current layout is the result of a redesign in 1926 by Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler. Many of Tom Morris’s original greens and routing are still in place, creating a unique blend of old and new.

The course is characterized by its rugged linksland, with sand dunes as high as three-story buildings. Elevated tees are cut high into the dunes, leading to humped and hollowed fairways that bump their way along to punchbowl greens nestled in attractive dells. The course winds its way in a figure of eight through the towering dunes, with many of the holes separated from each other by the sandhills, providing a sense of seclusion.

The course has been described as quirky and eccentric, but also as a remarkable masterpiece and is considered one of the friendliest and most welcoming clubs in golf. Despite its rise in world rankings, it retains its charm and appeal. The course is often compared to other great courses like North Berwick and Prestwick for its balance of challenge and fun. It is a course that must not be missed when visiting Scotland. See our full post on Cruden Bay for more.

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Cruden Bay

Royal County Down

Royal County Down is world-renowned as one of the finest links golf courses, set along Northern Ireland’s rugged northeast coast against the picturesque backdrop of the Mourne Mountains. Originally laid out in the late 1800s on a windswept strip of linksland, the Championship Course today represents an masterful evolution shaped by luminaries like Old Tom Morris, Harry Colt, and Martin Ebert. Its epic routing threads through massive dunes and undulating linksland, with narrow ribbons of firm fairways that tumble between golden gorse and purple heather.

Iconic holes like the cliffside par-3 4th and thrilling risk-reward par-5 9th exemplify the creative strategy and memorability woven throughout. Royal County Down also boasts one of golf’s ultimate opening stretches, a set of early holes considered nearly unrivaled. While the difficulty can be immense, the abundance of teeing options allows golfers to tailor the challenge to their game.

Tom Doak has called Royal County Down’s bunkering some of the best in the world, requiring thoughtful positioning off the tee. George Waters declared it “the finest seaside course I have ever seen” with particular praise for the unforgettable stretch from the 2nd through the 5th holes. See our full writeup on Royal County Down for more details.

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Royal County Down

Swinley Forest

Designed by the legendary Harry Colt and opened in 1909, Swinley Forest threads through pine forests and heather-lined heathland on the historic Swinley Estate. Colt’s routing accentuates the sandy terrain, with pushed-up greens and swales creating an rumpled landscape. Absent are the deep bunkers prevalent at many heathland courses, with Swinley’s challenge stemming from its subtle contours and cunningly placed hazards. Colt’s template holes shine, including the Redan 4th and sweeping dogleg 9th, but the course flows seamlessly with no weak stretches.

Swinley also shines in its variety – from strong par 3s like the Postage Stamp 8th to stout 2-shotters like the 15th and 16th holes, golfers must excel in every facet of the game. Beyond the design, Swinley revels in its tranquility and privacy, cementing its status as one of the world’s most charming and enjoyable inland courses.

Based on his success with inland sand, Colt is one of the architects that were called in by Pine Valley’s founder and architect George Crump to consult on the course design. Pine Valley was carved out of sandy terrain in the Pine Barrens of my home state of New Jersey, was the first course in America constructed in this “naturalist” style, and might be the best example of the traditional influence migrating to the States.

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Swinley Forest

Architectural Principles

Architects today aim to apply links-style attributes even on inland sites. Sand-based soil provides ideal drainage, allowing for more dramatic contours and elevation changes without needing extensive grading. Architect Tom Doak notes routing holes over sandy sites allows “the land to lay lightly on the landscape”, with minimal disruption. The natural features shape strategy, while firm conditions promote the ground game.

When building on sand, architects consider factors like wind exposure, erosion risks, and vegetation. British architect Harry Colt embraced sandy sites for their firmness but advised stabilizing blowouts with marram grasses. Modern architects also weigh sustainability – how well the design complements the existing ecosystem. Coore & Crenshaw let the massive dunes at Sand Hills shape the minimalist routing. Such courses feel seamless rather than imposed.

The versatility of sandy soils allows creative architects to craft interesting designs even on flat sites. By carefully sculpting contours and native areas, the land takes on character. Kingston Heath, future home of the President’s Cup, is famed for its bold bunkering and clever greens on a sandy Melbourne plain. Distinctive courses can arise if architects respect the terrain. As George Waters writes, “golf literally belongs on sandy ground.” The game finds its purest expression there.

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Kingston Heath

Further Reading

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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.

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The Making of Pacific Dunes
by Tom Doak

Summary: Tom Doak, the architect of Pacific Dunes, recounts the history of the course, how he and his team routed it and the decisions they made doing so, and other details about the course. The book is full of color pictures of Pacific Dunes, a course ranked in the top 25 in the world located in Bandon, Oregon. If you have played Pacific Dunes – this book will enhance your memories of it. If you are going to play Pacific Dunes, you need this book to heighten your awareness and insight of how to play it. The first half of the book looks at the big picture design issues: the decisions on routing, construction, challenges, and so forth, and the second half of the book dedicates 5-6 pages to each hole (with a copious amount of color photographs) and specifically focuses on their design and construction.


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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.


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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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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.

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