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Links Golf Courses: 10 Key Characteristics

10 characteristics links featured

Links-style golf takes its name from the native linksland, or coastal terrain characterized by sandy soil, dunes, and natural hazards, which has proven ideal for golf course construction. The word “links” comes from the Old English word hlinc, meaning rising ground or ridge, and refers to an area of coastal dunes. The game of golf developed in this traditional setting is renowned for its unique challenges and natural beauty.

dunbar links golf course

Features that define links-style 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. 

In this post, we’ll discuss ten key characteristics of links golf courses, from the quirky blind shots, gorse bushes, rumpled fairways, dunes and hillocks, cliffside greens, small streams called “burns,” and ever-present coastal winds

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st enodoc links golf

There is a running debate about what makes a links-style golf course. According to the book “True Links” by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper, there are only 246 authentic links courses worldwide (as of 2010), with the vast majority located in Great Britain and Ireland. “True Links” golf courses represent less than 1% of all golf layouts globally, with only a few examples in the U.S., such as those at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon.

Traditional seaside links courses are concentrated in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England and remain an integral, prestigious part of golf. Traditional links masterpieces like The Old Course at St Andrews, the “Home of Golf,” and Royal County Down Golf Club, the current number one golf course in the world, showcase links golf at its best—beautiful seaside landscapes paired with a one-of-a-kind test of skill and creativity. These courses are characterized by their coastal settings, often featuring dunes and minimal tree coverage.

Interestingly, America’s most famous “links,” Pebble Beach Golf Links, is not a links course! While it has some key links characteristics, such as its spectacular seaside location, it is not built on sandy soil and does not check all of the boxes required to make it a true links course, nor does its neighbor Cypress Point. Pacific Dunes is America’s most authentic true-links golf course, while Cape Cod’s Highland Links, a short nine-hole layout I enjoyed playing, is America’s first.

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Links golf courses offer a stern test rooted in the game’s origins on Scotland’s windswept coasts. The unique challenges it presents are enough to confound even the best players in the world in their first attempts. Legendary champions like Bobby Jones and Tom Watson initially struggled before reaching the pinnacle. Sam Snead confused St Andrews for an “old abandoned golf course” when he first got off the train.

Navigating a links course requires thoughtful shotmaking. Golfers must adapt to challenges by preparing for the elements, adjusting for wind, utilizing the ground game, and dealing with uneven lies. Links golf will also test your patience, requiring you to take your medicine when in a bad situation or when conditions shift.

For more on this, check out our post “Watson’s Winning Ways,” where we detail Tom Watson’s 5 Open victories and some of his strategies for dealing with the elements and conditions of links golf.  You might also be interested in our “Essential Rain Gear for Your Scottish Golf Trip” and “10 Essential Tips for Playing Links Golf.”

Weather

Links in Great Britain are renowned for their challenging weather conditions, particularly the ever-present coastal winds, one of the most defining features 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 aim and alignment to combat the wind’s influence.

rain gear links golf course

Accurate shot-making and course management become paramount, as even the slightest miscalculation can lead to disastrous results. The firm, sandy turf can cause the ball to run and bounce unpredictably. 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!”

Out-and-Back Routing

An “out-and-back” links is a routing where the holes extend outward from the clubhouse and return along a similar path. This design was originally developed in Scotland and tailored to fit the narrow strips of coastal land available for golf courses. Examples from our Legendary Links series include Royal Troon, Panmure, Dunaverty, Machrihanish, and Royal West Norfolk, among many others.

troon map out and back routing

The layout efficiently uses limited space and introduces a strategic element by having the outward and inward nines face opposite directions. This exposes players to varying wind conditions throughout their rounds. As players progress, they face different wind conditions, requiring constant shot and club selection adjustments. Depending on the wind and player, a shot could call for a 9-iron one day and a 3-wood the next.

Moreover, the out-and-back configuration contributes to the course’s overall flow and experience. The proximity of greens to the next tees promotes a smooth pace of play, while the changing scenery and strategic demands keep the round engaging.

Sandy Soil

The undulating, rolling landscape of links courses creates an ever-changing playing experience, with slopes and hollows affecting ball behavior. In 15th-century Scotland, shepherds would use sticks to hit stones into rabbit holes in the coastal dunes. These sandy stretches of land along the coast shaped the game’s early development.

machrihanish beach sand

The natural contours and hazards of the dunes were incorporated into early course designs, while firm and fast playing conditions promoted a style of play along the ground. 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.

The essential features and challenges of the game were developed in partnership with the sandy terrain, which allows for the creation of natural hazards. The original bunkers were areas of bare sand scattered throughout the course, adding a natural element of difficulty. Check out our post, “Golf’s Sandy Terrain: The Soul of the Game,” for more, as well as some insights from George Waters’ great book, “Sand and Golf.”

Scenic Vistas and the Sea

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Seaside Links golf courses are renowned for their breathtaking vistas where the land meets the sea, creating a dynamic and visually stunning environment that sometimes overshadows the golf. Expansive ocean views, rolling dunes, and rugged coastal terrain characterize the natural beauty of these courses.

The constant presence of the sea not only enhances the scenic quality but also introduces unique challenges to the game. The influence of the coastal region creates a constantly changing environment that can transform a course from one day to the next. This variability means no two rounds are the same on a seaside links course.

The aesthetic appeal of these courses is unmatched. The land’s natural contours, the sound of crashing waves, and marine life add to the immersive experience. Views across the bay to remote islands, the iconic lighthouses of Scotland’s Turnberry, Ireland’s Old Head, Nantucket’s Sankaty Head, and Cape Cod’s Highland Links serve as dramatic landmarks and even aim points during a round.

Sand Dunes and Rolling Terrain

Links golf courses are renowned for their distinctive rolling terrain, undulating fairways, and towering sand dunes, all-natural features shaped by centuries of coastal wind and weather. This rugged landscape defines links courses’ visual and aesthetic appeal and significantly influences the play. Unlike the lush, soft fairways of parkland courses, the hard-packed turf of links courses encourages the ball to roll farther, which can be both an advantage and a hazard.

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The rolling terrain leads to uneven lies and unpredictable bounces, with each shot requiring careful consideration of the land’s contours. The variability in elevation and slope across the fairways can turn what seems like a straightforward shot into a complex strategic decision.

Sand dunes, often lining the fairways and sometimes guarding the greens, add another layer of challenge. These natural barriers can obscure sightlines, making it difficult for players to gauge distances or see the target. The unpredictable nature of the dunes, with their steep faces and irregular shapes, can penalize misjudged shots severely. In contrast, well-placed shots that use the contours of the dunes to advantage can offer rewarding outcomes. The aesthetic appeal of these towering dunes, with their wild grasses waving in the coastal breeze, belies the strategic complexity they add to the course.

Burns

In Scotland, streams known as “burns” are commonly encountered on links golf courses. These small watercourses meander through the terrain, often cutting across fairways and guarding greens, adding a natural and strategic element to the game. Burns can vary in width and depth, but their presence demands careful shot selection.

old course hotel swilcan burn

Theoretically, a ball can be played from a burn. The unpredictable nature of these streams, which can swell after rain or remain deceptively calm, often leads to risk-reward decisions that can make or break a round. Their integration into course design is a testament to the traditional Scottish approach to golf, where the natural environment plays a central role in shaping the play.

The Swilcan Burn at the Old Course at St. Andrews plays on the 1st and 18th holes. Players are forced to lay up short of the burn on their opening tee shot and hit their approach over it on the home hole. The iconic Swilcan Bridge, the site of many legendary photo-ops, escorts players across the burn, with a similar relationship that we see each year at Augusta, as the Hogan and Nelson bridge’s grace Amen Corner and Rae’s Creek.

As the 25th anniversary of the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie approaches, the dramatic final hole played by Jean Van de Velde remains a vivid example of the challenges posed by links golf, particularly the notorious Barry Burn. On that fateful day, Van de Velde needed just a double-bogey six to clinch the title but found disaster partly due to the burn, which meanders across the 18th fairway. His approach shot ricocheted off the grandstand and a stone wall, landing near the burn, and his subsequent attempt to reach the green ended in the water. This sequence led to a triple-bogey seven, forcing a three-way playoff won by Paul Lawrie.

Pot Bunkers

Pot bunkers are a distinctive and challenging feature of links golf courses, primarily found in the coastal regions of Scotland, where the game originated. These bunkers are typically small, deep, and often steep-sided, making them difficult to escape. The origins of pot bunkers are deeply intertwined with the natural landscape of links courses built on sandy soil along the coast.

prince's bunkers

This terrain naturally facilitated the formation of deep depressions, which were further shaped by animal grazing and harsh coastal weather. Over time, these natural hollows were integrated into golf courses and became known as pot bunkers.

Bunker design and strategic placement play a crucial role in the challenge of links golf. Unlike the larger and more sprawling bunkers seen on many American courses, pot bunkers are designed to penalize inaccuracies severely.

Their steep faces and deep bases can trap balls and often require players to aim to get out rather than advance toward the hole. Some pot bunkers are sod-walled, featuring layers of turf stacked vertically to form the bunker’s face. This style not only adds to the aesthetic and traditional look of the course but also increases the difficulty of escaping, as the walls are prone to crumbling under the impact of a shot. It’s no coincidence that Gene Sarazen unveiled his modern sand wedge design in the 1932 Open at Prince’s with a plan to handle the course’s demanding bunkers.

Bunker variations such as steepled or railroad ties add further variety and strategic complexity to courses. Railroad ties, like those used at Royal West Norfolk, involve wooden planks lining the bunker, which can cause unpredictable bounces and challenging recovery shots. Each type of bunker adds a unique element to the course, requiring golfers to carefully consider their shots and adding a layer of strategic depth to the game.

Blind Shots

Blind shots are a distinctive and challenging feature of links golf. They often result from the natural topography of the land, a product of the undulating terrain characterized by significant elevation changes and sand dunes. These natural elements shape the layout and strategy of the course, leading to holes where the target, whether the green or fairway, is not visible from the tee or approach area.

prestwick alps

The unpredictability and hidden hazards associated with blind shots add a layer of complexity and intrigue to the game, demanding a higher level of skill and course knowledge from players. To navigate these challenges, markers such as poles, painted rocks, or distinct features of the landscape note pin position and help players align shots towards the target.

Additionally, bells are strategically placed near greens to be rung by players once they clear the green, signaling to waiting golfers that it is safe to play their shot. These aids are crucial for maintaining the flow of play and ensuring safety on the course, especially when the terrain compromises visibility.

Players face obstructed and blind shots off the tee on par-4s, par-5s, and even short holes, like Lahinch’s 5th hole, “The Dell.” The 17th hole, “The Alps,” at Prestwick Golf Club, is a classic example, featuring a blind approach over a large sandhill that obscures the view of not only the green but also a large bunker in front. Another famous example is the 7th at Royal County Down, known as “The Blind.”

western gailes golf club train

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 increased 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. Many golf clubs were built near train stations, as the railway provided a convenient mode of transportation for members and visitors.

The railways provided access to these golfing destinations and made transporting equipment and materials required for course construction possible.  Links courses are found adjacent to the railway, with many iconic links featuring holes that run directly alongside active train tracks, with the rumbling of trains becoming part of the course’s ambiance.

Local Landscapes and 19th Hole

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.

lahinch town landscape

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.

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

The 19th hole holds a special place in the culture of links golf. The pub serves as a communal gathering spot where golfers can relax, share stories, and enjoy a drink after a round. The concept of the 19th hole extends beyond just a place for refreshment; it embodies a tradition of camaraderie and social interaction integral to the golfing experience. Notably, the Jigger Inn at St. Andrews, overlooking the 17th Road Hole, is celebrated as one of the most famous 19th holes in the world.

The Red Lion is a quintessential example of this tradition, located in Prestwick, the birthplace of The Open Championship. This local pub, steeped in history, has been a favorite haunt for golfers for generations. After a challenging round on the windswept links of Prestwick Golf Club, players often head to the Red Lion to unwind, recount their on-course triumphs and tribulations, and enjoy the warm, convivial atmosphere that British pubs are known for.

Further Reading

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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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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.

royal west Norfolk

Golf Courses of the British Isles
by Bernard Darwin

Summary: “Golf Courses of the British Isles” by Bernard Darwin is a classic text that explores and celebrates the unique beauty and challenges of golf courses throughout the British Isles. Darwin, a revered golf writer and grandson of Charles Darwin, provides insightful commentary on the architecture, history, and character of iconic courses, blending personal anecdotes with expert analysis. His vivid descriptions transport readers to the very greens and fairways of famous venues, highlighting their natural beauty and the intricacies of their design. The book, illustrated with evocative drawings by Harry Rountree, remains a timeless tribute to the game of golf and is considered a must-read for enthusiasts of the sport and its storied landscapes.

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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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Great Golf Courses of Ireland
by John Redmond

Summary: This book offers a celebration of golf in Ireland, profiling 30 top links and parkland courses across the country from renowned spots like Portmarnock and Portrush to newer destinations like Mount Juliet. It details the history, famous players, and legends behind each Irish course, bringing their stories to life through extensive illustrations and photos capturing the natural beauty surrounding these layouts. Originally published in 1992, updated editions have followed over the years featuring additional content on newly developed courses and the latest enhancements at Ireland’s most storied golfing grounds. Presented in 2006 to commemorate Ireland hosting that year’s Ryder Cup, a special edition focuses on the world-class courses built in the country over the previous decade.

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Scotland’s Gift, Golf
by Charles Blair MacDonald

Summary: Scotland’s Gift, Golf is a masterpiece of early golf literature, written by the Father of American Golf Course Architecture, C.B. MacDonald. Considered by historians to be the most important book ever written on early American golf, this book details the birth of golf in the United States in the late nineteenth century and the formation of the U.S.G.A. in 1894.

In addition to a detailed summary of the characteristics of an ideal golf course, this guide provides rare insight into the methods and philosophies that MacDonald used to design some of the world’s most renowned courses, including the National Golf Links of America, Mid-Ocean Club, Lido, and Yale Golf Club. It also includes personal anecdotes and correspondence describing the development of the rules of golf, as well as the evolution of the modern golf ball and golf club.

Written in 1928, this book features 56 black-and-white photographs from the author’s personal collection, including rare photos of Bobby Jones, Young Tom Morris, and Francis Ouimet. Also included is an appendix which highlights the oldest surviving rules of golf from 1754, as well as the amended version from 1858.

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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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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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Hooked
by Kevin Markham

Summary: Now in its third edition, this concise, detailed book is for golfing tourists looking for great value courses, for golfing clubs that wish to go beyond their local area, and for Irish golfers searching for excellent but unsung courses in Ireland. Written from an amateur’s perspective, reviews focus on the energy and excitement of playing each course, giving a true representation of the golf experience, ranking each course, and providing contact information for booking.

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Book of the Links
by Martin H.F. Sutton

Summary: The Book of the Links features selected writings from prominent golf figures of the early 20th century, including Martin H.F. Sutton, Bernard Darwin, and H.S. Colt. Written in 1912, this collaborative guide provides rare insight into the methods and philosophies that were used to design, construct, and maintain the world’s most renowned golf courses.

According to Sutton, “In producing this volume, it has been my aim to provide in the first instance a compendium of information, of a more complete character than has before been compressed into a single volume, on all the points upon which golf secretaries, green committees, and greenkeepers desire instruction.”


Tom Watson Golf

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.

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