News & Opinion

Links offer golfers a down-to-earth feel

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Nothing in our game beats links golf. Nothing.

I fell hard for links golf, a term for courses near the water that literally link the sea to the rest of the land, the first time I played one in Scotland. That is, once I quit using my lofted wedges as if I were playing a Pete Dye target golf course. Golf writer Tom Coyne, in his book “A Course Called Ireland,” may have summed it up best about why so many Americans find the siren call of links golf irresistible.

If parkland courses in the style of Augusta National is the "cover girl, lovely and unforgettable," he wrote, "then linksland is the girl who doesn't bother with makeup but still turns your head, authentic and irresistible, the one you'd travel all the way to Ireland to spend a few more hours with."

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The approach to the 18th green at Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush

© GOLFFILE/THOS CAFFREY
The approach to the 18th green at Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush

Growing up, American golf fans got to see windswept, dunes-splotched landscapes ruled by Mother Nature and devoid of artificial lakes, railroad ties, island greens, motorized carts or sympathy. We never saw Scottish and Irish opens until recently, and the Scottish used to be played at a parkland course. The British really was the one time all year when Americans would see links golf.

It’s why I’ve always loved waking up at some ungodly hour before sunrise to watch the British Open and see how the best in the world battle the elements. In Royal Portrush, which kicks off the 148th British Open today (tee times), we have as good of a reminder of what the game was in its earliest and purest form. Links golf is typically played on rock-hard fairways filled with quirky bounces, blind shots that require aiming at a white-painted rock or taking a line over a church steeple or a smokestack in the distance.

“There is an art to playing links golf,” Tiger Woods said during his pre-tournament news conference. “It's not, OK, I have 152 yards. Bring out the automatic 9-iron and hit it 152. Here, 152 could be a little bump-and-run pitching wedge. It could be a chip 6-iron. It could be a lot of different things.”

In most corners of the world, golfers stop fretting once their ball lands; in links golf, that's when the torment begins.

"It's still target golf, but the target sort of moves," said NBC/Golf Channel commentator David Feherty, who grew up in Northern Ireland. "It could be 50 yards short of where you want your ball to end up, and you have to read what the ground is going to do."

Prepare to see players invent all sorts of bump-and-run shots and putt from off weather-hardened terrain. When the landscape is a links course, the mysteries are many, and the bounces good and bad, but rarely anything in between. Count Brooks Koepka among the converts.

“Every time I'm over a golf ball, I see about 20 different shots you could play,” he said. “To me, it makes it interesting. It makes it fun.”

The late Bernard Darwin, the renowned British golf writer who reported on the 1951 Open at Portrush, described links golf as “the exhilaration that is born of sea and sand hills.” His description of Royal Portrush has stood the test of time: “Mr. H.S. Colt, who designed it in its present form, has thereby built himself a monument more enduring than brass.”

The links golf courses that make up the British Open rota require a different type of temperament for the heather and gorse and pot bunkers deep enough for a flock of sheep to take cover. All over town – from the rail station to the town square – pennants boast that Northern Ireland is made for golf, and how true it is.

“This is just a wonderful golf course,” said Woods, a three-time British Open champion. “It can play so many different ways; depends on the wind, what it does. Some of the bunkers here, you wonder why in the hell is it there. And then all of a sudden, it's in play.”

Justin Thomas, a former PGA champion, is making just his fourth British Open appearance and has missed the cut in his past two Open starts. He lamented the fact that he played with the same game plan whether it was raining sideways and cold as he had the day before when it was sunny and 65.

“It’s taken me a couple of years to learn,” Thomas said.

Rory McIlroy has played Portrush from the time he was 8 years old and recalled getting to play there on his 10th birthday and meeting Darren Clarke. McIlroy said that it was only on Saturday that he figured out part of Portrush’s genius.

“I think one of the great things about this golf course is off the tee it makes you challenge at least one bunker,” McIlroy said. “If you try to take all the bunkers out of play, it’s going to be very difficult. You’re leaving yourself a lot of long shots.”

But can McIlroy and his fellow competitors figure out the wind –direction as well as intensity – which is the course’s true defense? The wind is one reason why links golf can be an acquired taste.

Tom Watson was a reluctant convert. Even after winning at Carnoustie in Scotland in 1975 in his Open debut, he remained a stubborn American.

"I played St. Andrews in 1978, and I did not like it," he said. "I preferred American-style target golf. But I started to change my mind in 1979, and now I love links golf. I like going to places where you are required to use other tools in the tool chest, rather than just throw-it-up-on-the-table golf."

In time, Watson was playing chess when the rest of his competitors were playing checkers, and it amounted to five victories during a nine-year span (and nearly a sixth in 2009 at Turnberry at age 59), as golf's oldest championship came to define his career.

Royal Portrush emphasizes the irons, with fairways narrowing to small greens. And virtually all of the holes curve left or right, forcing a player to maneuver the ball on most shots. There are few bunkers, but hundreds of natural hills, mounds and hollows that give the golfer the feeling of being alone on some uninhabited planet. To Woods, the British Open is the major best suited for his game.

“When you come to an Open Championship, it's set up for anyone,” he said. “Anyone can roll the ball on the ground. You don't have to hit the ball very far. You can actually hear it land and still roll it out there far enough. It opens up the field. The only difference is that when you come over here, it's understanding how to play on the ground. It's a very different game. And chipping is different. The lies are tighter.”

Add it all up and it’s why links golf is the heart and soul of the game, a reminder of what golf once was and what it always should be.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak