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Red, White and Few: Links Golf Courses in the United States

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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 247 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 five in the United States.

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Traditional seaside links courses are concentrated in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England. Links masterpieces like The Old Course at St Andrews, the “Home of Golf,” and Royal County Down, the great Irish course, one of the best links courses 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 and sandy terrain, often featuring dunes and minimal tree coverage. 

Regardless of where you stand on the “true links” debate, what is unquestionable is that the U.S. has a wealth of courses that echo the best of the British links experience. In this post, we’ll explore America’s “true links” golf courses and some notable courses that provide the links experience in their unique ways.

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British Influence

Some of America’s most revered courses, such as Augusta National, Pine Valley, and Pinehurst, were heavily influenced by the links of the British Isles, even in their inland settings. Alister Mackenzie had a hand in both Cypress Point and Augusta National, where he and Bobby Jones shared a love of the Old Course at St Andrews and looked to develop an inland course that celebrated its strategic elements. See our posts “Birth of the National” and “Mackenzie’s Masterpiece” for more.

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Prestwick “The Alps”

George Crump began his journey to create Pine Valley in 1910 when he and his friend Joseph Baker traveled to play and study Europe’s best golf courses. Their itinerary included rounds at St AndrewsPrestwick, Turnberry, Hoylake, SandwichDeal, Prince’s, Sunningdale, Walton Heath, and Swinley Forest.

Charles Blair (C.B.) Macdonald was introduced to golf while studying at the University of St Andrews in Scotland in the 1870s. He studied under Old Tom Morris at the Old Course. He became enamored with the strategic design principles of the classic Scottish links courses such as North Berwick and Prestwick and lamented the poor quality of American golf courses.

After returning to Chicago in 1874, MacDonald became a successful stockbroker and hardly played golf for the next 20 years. In the early 1890s, MacDonald rekindled his passion for golf and established Chicago Golf Club in 1892. He laid out a rudimentary 6-hole course that he soon expanded to 9 holes and then America’s first 18-hole course in 1893. 

MacDonald went on to bring the classic British template to America, resulting in the “National Golf Links of America,” as well as many classics such as Shinnecock Hills, Yale Golf Club, and Long Island’s Lost Gem, the Lido Golf Club, once considered on the same level as Pine Valley and Cypress Point.

Manmade Marvels

MacDonald’s attempt at creating a Scottish-style links course resulted in the short-lived Lido Golf Club, constructed on a 115-acre parcel of sandy marshland along the Atlantic Ocean. It was the first course in America in which the landforms were manufactured. To convert the site, over 2 million cubic yards of sand were brought in to shape the land into a seaside links-style course with sweeping dunes and views of the Atlantic.

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Bayonne Golf Club

In 1921, the LA Times reported that the course cost over $1 million to construct and set a new record as the most expensive to date, somewhere between 10 and 15 times the amount spent on the average private course in the country at that time. The impacts of the Great Depression and World Wars led to the Lido’s ultimate demise. The Lido was recently resurrected over 1,000 miles away at Sand Valley in Wisconsin by many principals involved in bringing Pacific Dunes and Old MacDonald to life. Old MacDonald was initially planned to be a replica of the Lido before becoming an homage to C.B. MacDonald.

Almost 80 years later, Eric Bergstol, a New York developer, and Richard Hurley, a Ph.D. in agronomy from Rutgers University, embarked on an ambitious project. The goal was to create an authentic links-style course reminiscent of the legendary seaside courses in Scotland and Ireland at an abandoned landfill on the banks of the Hudson River!

At Bayonne Golf Club, Bergstol took a page from the classic links of Great Britain and Ireland, with routings carved out of windswept dunes. He highlights courses such as Lahinch,  Ballybunion, Royal PortrushRoyal County DownTurnberry, Royal Aberdeen, Royal DornochMacrahanish, and North Berwick as inspiration, even naming the opening hole “Dell,” after the classic blind one-shotter at Lahinch.

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, which contains some wooded inland holes.

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Pacific Dunes

Other prominent coastal courses that have hosted Major Championships, such as Shinnecock Hills, Chambers Bay, Whistling Straits, and the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, can certainly be considered links courses, even if they fall short on some of the criteria put forward in “True Links.” Relative newcomers such as Arcadia Bluffs’ “Bluffs” course and the courses at Sand Valley fall into the same category. The Hamptons’ ultra-elite Maidstone, designed in 1891 by Scotsman Willie Park, Jr, is also worthy.

Four great links courses at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort—the original Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes, the tribute Old MacDonald, and 2020s Sheep Ranch—are considered America’s most authentic true-links golf courses. Cape Cod’s Highland Links, a short nine-hole course I’ve played, is America’s first, dating back to 1892, even older than some celebrated tracks in the British Isles.

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Highland Links

Highland Links is a hidden gem in Truro, Massachusetts that runs along the windswept bluffs of Cape Cod overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Founded in 1892, it is the oldest golf course on the Cape and one of the most scenic. The 9-hole links-style track sits on land that is now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, making it federally protected property with a lease agreement to operate as a public course.

It was originally designed by Willard Small, the son of a local hotelier, as part of a golf resort and adjacent to the Highland House Hotel. The course layout took advantage of the natural sandy, hilly terrain along the bluffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, reminiscent of the ancestral links courses of Scotland.

Today, Highland Links is a public 9-hole golf course leased by the Town of Truro. Its location within the Truro Highlands Historic District, next to the historic Highland Light lighthouse, helps maintain its heritage and traditional Scottish links-style character.

We have featured Highland Links in a few posts on this site, “Guiding Lights,” celebrating some iconic lighthouses, and wrote a full writeup on it as part of our Legendary Links series. I admit that when I happened on the course by chance 15 years ago, I was unaware of its significance and that I would be writing about it!

Bandon Dunes Resort

Bandon Dunes Golf Resort was the brainchild of Chicago-based developer Mike Keiser, who made his fortune selling greeting cards from recycled paper. The course’s inception was rooted in Keiser’s vision of creating a British-style links course on the Oregon coast, reminiscent of the sport’s origins in Scotland. Keiser’s passion for golf and entrepreneurial spirit led him to the untamed gorse and rugged terrain of southern Oregon, where he would eventually build one of the world’s most revered golf destinations. Bandon’s success spawned other links-inspired projects at Cape Breton’s Cabot Links, Wisconsin’s Sand Valley, and Tasmania’s Barnbougle.

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Old MacDonald

Four of the Bandon courses – the original Bandon Dunes, which opened in 1990; the 2001 addition Pacific Dunes; 2010’s Old MacDonald, and the latest, 2020s, Sheep Ranch, are true links courses sporting all of the characteristics of the quintessential links courses of the British Isles. We have covered two of them in “Legendary Links,” it’s just a matter of time before we complete the set. Keiser teamed with David McLay-Kidd for the original Bandon Dunes, Tom Doak for Pacific Dunes and Old MacDonald, and Coore/Crenshaw for Sheep Ranch.

While its predecessor, Bandon Dunes, has been compared to a Scottish links, Pacific Dunes draws parallels with the dramatic links of Ireland, its natural and rugged character blending seamlessly with the coastal dunescape. The fairways, rippled by the natural terrain, are framed by dunes and native vegetation, while the greens are well-guarded by bunkers and gorse.

At Old MacDonald, a lone, dead cedar tree stands prominently atop a dune that juts out along the 3rd hole, “Sahara.” The so-called “ghost tree” has become one of the most photographed landmarks at Bandon Dunes Resort, and the logo is featured on much of the course’s merchandise.  I couldn’t help but notice the use of hole names from the original Lido, which the team of Keiser and Doak have now reproduced at Sand Valley in Wisconsin.

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Old Mac – “Ghost Tree”

The holes themselves practically tell you what’s to come, with names like “Biarritz,” “Eden,” “Cape,” “Ocean,” and “Hog’s Back.” The influence of St. Andrews can be felt throughout, not just with the large greens and familiar hole names but with their signature characteristics. Golf Digest stated that Old MacDonald “looks like it was lifted, cleaned, and placed from the West of Scotland.”

The cross-bunker on the “Long” 6th is reminiscent of “Hell,” and the 11th hole, “Road,” doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a model of its namesake 17th, minus the hotel. North Berwick’s “Redan” and Prestwick’s “Alps,” with its blind approach, are represented, as they were at the National Golf Links, right down to the inclusion of the bell you’ll need to ring, indicating that you’ve cleared the green.

Tom Doak calls it “a wonderfully playable walking course with the full panoply of Scottish links elements,” while owner Mike Keiser describes it as “a course that celebrates the best of the British Isles.”

At Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes, Sheep Ranch, and Old MacDonald, the primary mode of transportation is walking – to preserve the game’s traditions and minimize the ecological footprint. Mike Keiser stated that the resort is dedicated to creating “golf as it was meant to be.” This sentiment is echoed by The Walking Golfers Society, which believes that walking enhances the game’s physical, social, and experiential aspects.

Senator Course
Senator Course

In addition to the aforementioned American courses, we covered Michigan’s Arcadia Bluffs, Florida’s Streamsong Red, and even Cape Cod’s lost links of Cedar Bank. A Facebook follower recently brought the Senator course at Prattville, Alabama, to my attention. With an out-and-back routing, 160 pot bunkers, and mounds that rise to 40 feet high, it’s lack of proximity to the sea and the presence of trees are what keeps it from the “true links” moniker. The Outer Banks’ Nags Head Golf Links also plays along the sea and provides an authentic links-style golf experience.

In our Legendary Links series, we have shown how sandy terrain shaped the game of golf and explored dozens of classic links from Great Britain and Ireland and their defining characteristics, histories, and even obscure facts. We’ve also seen how that influence spread worldwide to places like South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Sweden. Below, we’ll highlight three unique and influential US courses that may not meet all of the “true links” criteria but have carried the tradition forward.

National Golf Links of America

The National Golf Links of America, located in Southampton, New York, is considered one of the most prestigious and influential golf courses in the United States. It was the brainchild of C.B. Macdonald, regarded as America’s first great golf course architect. MacDonald adapted features of famous British links courses but tailored them creatively for American conditions. In the decades since its opening in 1909, the National Golf Links of America has earned high praise, stellar rankings, and a reputation as one of the greatest golf courses ever designed in America and globally. 

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National Golf Links of America

After searching for suitable linksland to build his course, Macdonald found an ideal site in Southampton on Long Island, not far from Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. The land was rugged, rolling, sandy terrain dotted with native grasses that mimicked the linksland of Scotland. Though the site had never been used and was considered worthless, Macdonald saw its raw potential.

After several years of routing and construction, the National Golf Links of America opened in 1911. The course was routed in the classic out-and-back links style, with holes running north-south on the front nine and south-north on the back nine. Macdonald incorporated his famous “template holes” into the design, including the Redan, Eden, Alps, and Punchbowl. He also added new template holes of his own, like the Double Plateau. The course featured open, windswept holes, crowned greens, and penal bunkering.

National Golf Links is renowned for its wide open, rolling terrain framed by fescue grasses, with iconic landmarks and tributes like the famous Windmill, “all clear” Bell between the 2nd green and 3rd tee, Redan 4th hole, and the glorious stretch of holes on the back nine hugging Peconic Bay.  

Sankaty Head

Sankaty Head Golf Club was founded in the 1920s on a sandy seaside site along the Atlantic coastline on Nantucket. It is a classic links-style course characterized by rolling, windswept terrain, scenic ocean views, fescue grasses framing the fairways, and strategically placed pot bunkers.

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Sankaty Head

Sankaty Head was initially designed in 1921 as a 9-hole layout by H. Emerson Armstrong, who aimed to design a championship layout akin to the great Scottish links courses of the era. The course opened in 1922 and was expanded to 18 holes soon after. It was updated by Eugene “Skip” Wogan and A.W. Tillinhaust in the late 1920s and Jim Urbina and CJ Penrose in 2016.

The first nine opened for play in September 1922, and the 18-hole course was completed soon after. In 1925, golf architect Eugene “Skip” Wogan enhanced the bunkering, while A.W. Tillinghast made minor modifications to the course in 1927. 

The front nine plays in the shadow of the iconic Sankaty Head Lighthouse, which looms over the 5th hole, aptly named “Light A’Port,” and serves as a target for blind shots throughout the front nine.

Some holes pay tribute to the island’s history with “Light Ahoy,” “Round the Horn,” “Long Journey,” and “Thar She Blows,” making up the closing stretch. Sankaty Head also contains nods to great holes and features of classic courses and templates with names such as “Pine Valley,” “Westward Ho,” and “Coffins Corner.”

Sand Hills Golf Club

In the Sand Hills region of central Nebraska, Sand Hills Golf Club is considered one of the world’s greatest and most natural golf courses. An inland links, it was masterfully crafted by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who discovered the routing by walking the dramatic landscape for over two years, identifying over 130 potential holes. The course stretches across the sandy hills and prairie grasses with bold contours, strategic bunkering, and tricky greens.

The terrain and natural contours of the region make it an ideal location for golf, with soil that drains well, providing perfect conditions for firm, fast fairways and greens. The towering dunes are reminiscent of those found at classic British links such as Royal St. George’sCarne, and St Enodoc. The course has a linksland feel, routed around the land’s natural movement, impacted by the elements. It has all of the characteristics of a quintessential links, except that it could not be further from the sea.

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Sand Hills

Coore and Crenshaw moved less than 4,000 cubic yards of dirt in the construction process in an era where moving up to a million cubic yards was normal. They discovered dramatic contours and sandy wastelands ideal for golf, using the winds to naturally shape bunkers and uncover fairways and greens hidden in the dunes.

The minimalist design philosophy allowed them to fully embrace the unique setting rather than imposing or artificially shaping the land to fit a golf course. A CBS report stated, “The course is so subtle, if it weren’t for the flagsticks, you wouldn’t know it’s here.”

Sandhills has no yardage markers, ball washers, signs, or trees. There aren’t even rakes in the bunkers, as the wind is relied upon to straighten up. Brad Klein compared the course’s “haunting beauty” to the links of Ireland and Scotland.

The course opened in 1995 as an ultra-private club, and despite its “middle of nowhere” location (290 miles from Omaha, 320 miles from Denver), Sand Hills has cemented itself as one of the world’s best. Its success proved that a relatively remote, minimalist course built on spectacular yet isolated land could not just succeed but inspire a “second Golden Age,”  a revolution in golf course architecture towards fully embracing natural terrain over shaping the land to fit holes.

Further Reading

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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.

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America’s Linksland: A Century of Long Island Golf
by William Quinn

Summary: Whenever golf “meccas” are discussed, you can be sure that Long Island, New York will not be mentioned. But it should be. And the reasons are clear in America’s Linksland: A Century of Long Island Golf, by William Quirin. In size, Long Island is small; it measures a mere 1,200 square miles. In terms of golf history, however, it’s huge. The first famous golf course in this country, The National Golf Links of America, is located there. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, the site for the first playing of the U.S. Open, is located there. The site for the 2002 U.S. Open, Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, is located there. And the history goes on an on. 

Carefully researched and beautifully written, America’s Linksland is a heart-felt tribute to one of golf’s most historic places. Vintage photos of golf in the early days, and spectacular color photography by L.C. Lambrecht of some of Long Island’s best courses, add even more to its appeal.

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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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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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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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A Course Called America
by  Tom Coyne

Summary: In the span of one unforgettable year, Coyne crisscrosses the country in search of its greatest golf experience, playing every course to ever host a US Open, along with more than two hundred hidden gems and heavyweights, visiting all fifty states to find a better understanding of his home country and countrymen.

Coyne’s journey begins where the US Open and US Amateur got their start, historic Newport Country Club in Rhode Island. As he travels from the oldest and most elite of links to the newest and most democratic, Coyne finagles his way onto coveted first tees (Shinnecock, Oakmont, Chicago GC) between rounds at off-the-map revelations, like ranch golf in Eastern Oregon and homemade golf in the Navajo Nation. He marvels at the golf miracle hidden in the sand hills of Nebraska and plays an unforgettable midnight game under bright sunshine on the summer solstice in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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