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10 Essential Tips for Playing Links Golf Courses

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Playing on a links golf course presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities that differ significantly from your typical parkland settings. Characterized by their coastal locations, sandy soil, and often windy conditions, links courses demand a more strategic approach to the game, emphasizing ground play over aerial shots. The undulating terrain, deep pot bunkers, and thick rough requires you adapt mindset and technique to deal with the course as well as the elements.

tom watson britishopen wind

In this post, we’ll review 10 essential tips for adapting your game to the demands of links golf. You’ll need to embrace an array of shots like the bump and run, knockdown, and “texas wedge,” in order to keep the ball below the ever present coastal winds. An understanding of the wind’s impact on ballflight, alignment, shot selection, and even tee height can also set you up for success. Preparing youself for the elements by packing the right gear will also get you on the right path and make your rounds more enjoyable.

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Along the Ground – the Bump and Run

When playing a links golf course, unless you’re in a greenside bunker, it’s generally advisable to leave your higher lofted wedge in the bag and opt for lower lofted golf clubs around the greens. Links courses also allow bump and run type shots to feed with the contours and run farther after landing. It provides greater accuracy and control in links conditions when you need to keep the ball under the wind.

In our Legendary Links series, we featured two great Irish courses in Royal County Down and Portmarnock, and highlighted the way two Irish legends – Harry Bradshaw and Rory McIlroy, approach the pitch and run and bump and run shots respectively. While the shots are similar in execution, the pitch and run will typically fly a bit higher and works from a longer distance, while aim with the bump and run is to get the ball on the ground immediately.

rory bump and run links

Starting with the pitch and run, we saw Harry Bradshaw interviewed by Gene Sarazen on Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. Bradshaw gave quick lesson and demonstration of his technique, using a 9-iron. The pitch and run ideal for links golf because it takes advantage of the firm, fast-running fairways to get the ball rolling quickly. It keeps shots low under the wind by using less lofted clubs (7-iron to pitching wedge).

Bradshaw’s technique is very simple and effective – he played the shot off of his back (right) foot with a square stance, tweaked his setup by intentionally tucking his right elbow into his ribcage, and the played the shot like a putt, with a pendulum motion and firm wrists. He swung the club back and down into the ball with full extension.

The bump and run is another essential shot for the tight lies, firm greens, and windy conditions you will encounter. Use a short iron, play the ball back in your stance, make a putting stroke to minimize wrist hinge, focus on contacting the ball first, and visualize the landing spot. Links courses demand creativity – with the bump and run’s simplicity and consistency, it takes nerves and doubts out of tricky greenside shots. 

Like Harry Bradshaw, Rory favors the bump and run with a less lofted club when playing links golf. Similar to Bradshaw’s pitch and run, Rory makes a few setup adjustments and hits the shot like a putt. “You want to keep the ball back in your stance. If anything, you want to try and get a little bit closer to it. Get the shaft a little more vertical.” He describes his technique, “I don’t try to do much else. I try to take a lot of wrist hinge out of it and go pretty rigid…almost just like a long putt.”

Understand the Effects of the Wind

Five-Time Open Champion Tom Watson has produced a series of instructional videos (you can find them on Prime Video) and multiple must-read books: “The Timeless Swing” and “Getting Up and Down,” where he shares lessons learned from a lifetime in golf. The key is to club intelligently, control trajectory, aim appropriately, and swing smoothly and within yourself in windy conditions.

watson wind - links golf tips

Preparation and course management are crucial when the wind picks up. Here are some of Watson’s thoughts on how wind affects golf shots with strategies for playing in windy conditions:

  • Headwinds hurt distance more than tailwinds help. A 10mph headwind can reduce carry by 17 yards for a typical tour pro drive.
  • Crosswinds affect shot shape and direction. A 20mph crosswind can push a shot 20-30 yards offline. Aim and allow for extra curvature. More on this below.
  • To control distance into a headwind, club up and make smoother, slower swings to reduce backspin and ballooning.
  • Downwind, club down and allow for extra distance. Be cautious of extra rollout on approach shots.
  • On short shots, headwinds reduce rollout while tailwinds increase rollout. Adjust landing targets and “goalposts” accordingly.
  • On all shots, focus on making solid contact to reduce spin and allow the wind to affect ballflight naturally.
  • Be prepared to aim off line depending on wind direction. Don’t try to overly manipulate shot shape.

Dealing With Crosswinds

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Heavy crosswinds can be extremely difficult and require a counterintuitive adjustment in aim and strategy. As Watson learned the hard way, our natural inclination is not to allow enough for effects of a strong wind.

Competing in the 2008 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, Watson faced fierce crosswinds up to 35 mph. On the par-4 11th hole, he aimed the center of his “goalposts” at the right edge of the fairway, expecting his ball to curve left. But the wind grabbed his tee shot and hooked it wildly into the left rough. The very next day, with the same howling wind, Watson aimed an incredible 40 yards right of the fairway’s edge.

Though it seemed extreme, this time, his ball held its line and found the short grass. Tom Watson realized you must visually exaggerate your aim adjustment in heavy crosswinds. It will feel uncomfortably offline, but that’s the key to handling shots pushed way off course by the wind.

Your mind can barely comprehend the effect, so you must aim farther than seems plausible. Watson learned this vital links strategy through difficult experiences. But that radical aim adjustment soon became instinctual for one of history’s greatest wind players.

Tee Height

In links golf, where the courses are characterized by their open, windy, and often undulating terrain, adjusting the tee height based on the prevailing conditions can help set you up for success. On windy days, teeing the ball lower lower trajectory, minimizing the impact of headwinds and increasing accuracy and control. Conversely, in calm conditions or when playing downwind, a higher tee height can maximize distance by promoting a higher launch angle.

decisions of the tee, wind

A wet fairway offers less roll after landing, making a higher tee advantageous for gaining distance through the air. Conversely, a dry and hard fairway allows for more roll so that a lower tee height can capitalize on this added ground distance.

When facing a headwind, the air resistance against the ball increases, leading to higher spin rates. The wind “grabs” onto the dimples, magnifying backspin. This results in a higher trajectory and steeper descent angle, often reducing carry distance. There is also greater overall air resistance slowing the ball’s flight. Controlling distance and flight can be challenging with a headwind. Golfers often opt for lower-lofted clubs to reduce trajectory.

A tailwind can add yards but also cause issues if not adjusted for. Tees set too high may balloon shots, leading to an overly high trajectory and shots falling short. Tailwinds reduce effective backspin, lowering trajectory. There is less air resistance, so the ball maintains speed for greater carry distance. But less spin means a more horizontal landing angle and potential for increased roll. Tailwinds require lofted clubs to launch shots higher.

For more on playing in the elements and learn from one of the best of all time, see our post “Winning Ways,” on Tom Watson. We learn how he handled the wind conditions found at the Open Championship, and review his football themed alignment tecnhique. Our post “Chasing Distance: Optimizing Tee Height” will also provide evidence-based techniques for finding your optimal tee height, and when to make changes.

Keep The Ball Low – Shots You Need

When playing on a links golf course, keeping the ball low is a crucial skill due to the firm fairways, undulating terrain, and often windy conditions. Two shots you need that can help you achieve this are the knockdown and the punch shot.

wedge drill kapalua

The knockdown shot is designed to travel the same distance as a regular shot but with a lower trajectory and increased spin. To execute a proper knockdown, set up with the ball positioned slightly back in your stance and distribute more weight (60-70%) on your front foot.

This encourages a descending blow where the club strikes the ball before taking a divot. During the swing, focus on a smooth tempo and finish low, ensuring your hands stay ahead of the clubhead through impact. The knockdown is ideal for maintaining control in windy conditions or when precision is paramount.

The punch shot is meant to travel a shorter distance than a full shot, with an even lower trajectory and softer landing. The backswing is abbreviated, and the follow-through is higher, more akin to a standard swing.

To hit an effective punch, choke down on the grip for better control, and make a compact swing while resisting the urge to accelerate too quickly. This shot is particularly useful when navigating under overhanging branches or when a delicate approach is required on firm links greens. Mastering both the knockdown and punch shots provides valuable tools for keeping the ball flight low and managing the unique challenges of links courses.

When preparing to play on a links golf course, especially in a location like Scotland, it’s crucial to be well-equipped for the unpredictable weather conditions.  If you are planning a trip to Scotland, understand that the Scottish climate is notorious for its rapid changes, which can see golfers experiencing sunshine, wind, and rain all in the course of a single round. To tackle this, starting with a moisture-wicking base layer is essential. This layer helps manage perspiration and maintains body temperature. Adding a warm mid-layer, such as a quarter-zip or sweater, provides insulation, while a top layer of waterproof and breathable outer shell jacket and pants shields against rain and wind. This layering approach ensures comfort and adaptability to changing conditions.

rain gear links

Moreover, the choice of rain gear can significantly impact your performance and enjoyment on the course. Modern rain gear, made from materials like Gore-Tex, offers excellent protection without sacrificing breathability or comfort. It’s important to select rain gear that fits well and allows a full range of motion, crucial for maintaining an effective golf swing under wet conditions. Trying different sizes and styles to find the best fit for your swing and walking style is recommended. This ensures that your movement isn’t restricted, allowing you to play your best game despite the weather[1].

Lastly, considering the specific challenges of the courses you’ll be visiting is key. For instance, areas like Aberdeenshire, Angus, and Fife, which host iconic links courses such as Carnoustie, the Old Course at St. Andrews, and Crail, experience less rainfall compared to western Scotland. This regional variation in weather can influence your preparation and the type of gear you might prioritize. Packing ample rain gear and preparing for the worst while hoping for pockets of sunshine can add an extra layer of excitement and comfort to your Scottish golf adventure.

Escaping a Pot Bunker

Escaping pot bunkers is an inevitable challenge when playing links golf. These deep, steep-faced bunkers can be daunting, but with the right technique and mindset, they can be navigated successfully. In our posts on Prince’s and Gene Sarazen, we learned the story of Sarazen’s implementation of the modern sand wedge. Once Sarazen felt he had perfected the design and honed his technique, he put his new “sand iron” into play at the 1932 British Open at Prince’s. Using the club for the first time, Sarazen escaped the bunkers with ease and went on to capture the Claret Jug.

golfer bunker

Assess the Surroundings: Before taking your shot, evaluate the slope and grain of the green, as well as the wind direction. These factors will influence how the ball will behave once it exits the bunker. Pot bunkers typically contain wetter and heavier sand, so the traditional advice is to consider using a wedge with less bounce, which also works well with the firm course conditions.

Setup for Success: When faced with a greenside bunker, adopt an open stance, with your feet and shoulders aligned towards the target, and play the ball forward in your stance, more forward equals higher trajectory. Opening the face, widening your stance, and choosing your highest lofted wedge can help extricate the ball from high-lipped bunkers.

Make Your Swing: Make a full, aggressive swing with a focus on hitting a few inches behind the ball, allowing the club to splash through the sand and propel the ball out with a high trajectory. Avoid the temptation to scoop or lift the ball, as this can lead to thin shots or leaving the ball in the bunker.

Putt Your Golf Ball from Off the Green

jones links golf putt

Putting from off the green is a common occurrence on links courses due to the firm, undulating terrain and tight lies around the greens. While it may seem counterintuitive, putting from up to 40 yards off the green can often be a more effective strategy than attempting a delicate chip or pitch shot.

The “Texas wedge” allows you to keep the ball running along the ground, utilizing the contours and slopes to navigate towards the hole. The fairway and fringe may have a slightly different grain and speed compared to the green itself, so pay close attention to these subtle variations and adjust your pace and line accordingly. Additionally, consider the slopes and contours in your line, as these will influence the break and roll of the ball.

While putting from off the green may seem unconventional, it can often be the safest and most effective option on links courses. By embracing this ground game approach, you’ll have a valuable tool in your arsenal for navigating the unique challenges presented by these classic seaside courses.

For longer shots from 30-40 yards off the green, a putting stroke with a more lofted club like a 7 or 8 iron can also be an effective alternative. The key is to make a smooth, pendulum-like stroke, striking the ball cleanly and allowing it to release along the ground towards the target. This shot requires precise distance control but can be a safer option than attempting a high, spinning chip or pitch from a tight lie.

Adapt to the Greens

Adapting to the greens on a links golf course is crucial for scoring well. These greens present a unique set of challenges that require adjustments to your putting strategy. By understanding and adapting to the undulation, firmness, wind effects, and the potential for putting from off the green, you’ll be better prepared to tackle the greens on a links golf course and improve your overall scoring.

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One of the most notable features of links greens is their undulating nature. Unlike the relatively flat greens found on many parkland courses, links greens are characterized by subtle slopes, ridges, and swales. This undulation can significantly influence the break and speed of putts. To read these greens effectively, it’s essential to walk around and observe them from various angles, paying close attention to the surrounding terrain for clues about the natural drainage patterns and slopes.

Additionally, links greens tend to be slower and firmer compared to their parkland counterparts. The fescue grasses used on these greens, combined with the coastal winds and sandy soil, create a surface that can be challenging to gauge. Distance control is key. Putts may not roll as far as expected, and the firmness can cause the ball to bounce or skid upon landing. Adjusting your pace and strike accordingly is crucial to avoid leaving putts short or blowing them well past the hole.

Speaking of wind, this ever-present factor on links courses can also significantly impact putting. Crosswinds can cause the ball to drift off its intended line, while headwinds or tailwinds can affect the speed and roll-out distance. Being aware of the wind direction and strength, and making the necessary adjustments to your aim and pace, is essential for successful putting on these courses.

Expect Uneven Lies

When playing links golf courses, one of the key challenges you should expect is dealing with uneven lies. The undulating terrain, deep pot bunkers, and firm turf create a multitude of situations where the ball may come to rest on an uphill, downhill, or sidehill lie.

uneven lie

Uphill lies require adjustments to your setup and swing. Position the ball slightly forward in your stance, and lean your shoulders to match the slope. Take one or two extra clubs, as the uphill lie will add loft and decrease distance. Aim slightly right to compensate for the tendency of the ball to draw left off this lie.

Downhill lies present the opposite challenge. The ball will tend to travel farther due to the delofting effect, so take one less club. Play the ball back in your stance, and try to keep your shoulders parallel to the slope. Expect the ball flight to be lower and with a fade or slice shape, so aim left to account for this curvature.

Sidehill lies, whether the ball is above or below your feet, are among the trickiest. When the ball is above your feet, grip down on the club to adjust for the shorter radius, and favor your toes to prevent falling back during the swing. Aim right to counteract the hook tendency. Conversely, with the ball below your feet, choke down less and keep your weight favoring your heels. Aim left to manage the fade or slice shape.

Maintaining balance is crucial on all uneven lies. Widen your stance, flex your knees, and make smooth swings to ensure solid contact. Embracing the realities of uneven lies and making the necessary adjustments is key to scoring well on a links course.

Take Your Medicine

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The unique challenges of links courses demand patience and a strategic approach to each shot. You will inevitably find yourself in a challenging situation – fairway bunker, thick rough, patch of gorse, or awkward lie.

In these scenarios, it’s key to manage your expectations and avoid the temptation of playing high-risk, heroic shots that could lead to bigger scores. Know when to take your medicine and play the safe shot. Accept a less-than-ideal outcome in order to minimize the risk of a disastrous one.

For instance, if your ball lands in a fairway bunker with a high lip, playing for the green might result in a failed escape or even a penalty stroke. Instead, consider playing out sideways or backwards onto the fairway, using a high-lofted club to ensure a clean exit.

While this approach might not lead to a birdie, it can prevent a high score and keep your round on track. Remember, links golf is about adapting to the conditions and making smart decisions, even if it means sacrificing a shot or two. Lose the battle to win the war.

Further Reading

Tom Watson Golf

The Timeless Swing
by Tom Watson

Summary: In The Timeless Swing, Tom Watson draws on the knowledge from his extraordinary golf career to provide lessons to help golfers of all skill levels, using time-tested drills, tips, and exercises to cover everything from fundamentals like grip to advanced techniques like swinging in wind. Watson complements the lessons with personal anecdotes, stunning photos, and key concepts like visualizing a football goalpost as the target, making this an indispensable guide to improving your golf game from one of the most respected players in history. With a foreword by Jack Nicklaus, The Timeless Swing aims to help golfers play their best and enjoy the game more.

Tom Watson Golf

Lessons of a Lifetime – Video Series
by Tom Watson

Summary: Over the course of multiple instructional videos, Tom Watson shares the skills and techniques he has learned over his long career, covering everything from grip and setup fundamentals to advanced shot-shaping and course management strategies; Watson combines clear explanations, on-course demonstrations, and drills to provide golfers of all abilities with a comprehensive and practical education in the game of golf from one of its greatest champions; Spanning basic skills to nuanced tactics, Watson’s Lessons of a Lifetime aims to help golfers improve their games and get more enjoyment from this lifelong sport.

Tom Watson Golf

Getting Up and Down
by Tom Watson

Summary: Tom Watson’s Getting Up and Down provides instruction on short game shots from 40 yards and in, explaining his techniques for putting, chipping, pitching, and bunker play. Watson shares anecdotes from tournaments to illustrate how he executed specific shots, and includes tips on shot selection, execution, and the mental approach. This classic golf instruction book has sold over 100,000 copies by breaking down the intricacies of the short game into simple, actionable advice.

51iYwHQGrL. SL250

Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible

Summary: Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible analyzes the importance of mastering shots inside 100 yards to lower scores, based on statistical research showing short game proficiency is the key skill separating winners from losers.  Pelz scientifically studies elements like swing mechanics, trajectory, and green reading for pitching, chipping, bunker play, and putting to develop proper technique. The book reveals secrets like accelerating through impact, matching club selection to shot distance, and emulating a pendulum stroke to gain short game skills possessed by pros. Pelz emphasizes fundamentals over unconventionality, using physics-based analysis more than any instructor before him to elevate short game knowledge.

51vISW58fQL. SL250

Dave Pelz’s Putting Bible

Summary: Dave Pelz’s Putting Bible provides a comprehensive, scientific approach to analyzing and improving your putting, with insights on proper aim, reading greens, ideal stroke mechanics, and effective practice routines.  Pelz emphasizes the importance of consistent alignment, face angle, pace, and directional control for improving putting skill. This detailed guide aims to help golfers master the greens by understanding the physics and biomechanics involved in an effective, repeatable putting stroke.

evidence based golf

Evidence Based Golf
by Eric Alpenfels & Bob Christina

Summary: Evidence-Based Golf by Eric Alpenfels and Bob Christina utilizes scientific research and data analysis to provide research-based recommendations for improving golf performance in areas like swing biomechanics, injury prevention exercises, and optimal practice techniques. However, the authors note there are still many gaps in golf research that need to be addressed with more sophisticated tools and study designs. Overall, Alpenfels and Christina aim to provide golfers with proven, fact-based guidance to help decide what to do, choose the most effective way to do it, and select the best conditions for learning and improvement. The book’s recommendations are relevant for all golfers including professionals, amateurs, beginners, juniors, parents and anyone involved in the game. Through golf science, the authors seek to strengthen the practical application of research evidence to the way golf is learned, taught and played.

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