One of the great appeals of links courses is that no two are alike. Sand dunes are like snowflakes, each created by a natural process that leaves a slightly different shape, so a hundred acres of ground with wave after wave of dunes is bound to have a character of its own. Indeed, on many links, the nature of the topography changes completely from one end of the course to the other—Royal St. George’s has towering dunes at its far end and shoulder-high ridges near the clubhouse. You never know what might be around the next corner, and that’s part of the fascination of links golf.
For years when golf writers asked me how many true links courses existed in America, I had to bite my lip. By the strictest definition—sandy ground that had formerly been part of the sea—only a handful of holes at Maidstone on the east end of Long Island and the public course at Truro on Cape Cod would have passed muster in the eyes of a visit ing Scotsman. There are perhaps 250 true links in the world today, and I’ve walked around the better half of them in learning the craft of designing and building golf courses. I’ve found that even the simplest of links has been worth a look (or a game), and picking favorites is not an easy task, because once you start it’s hard to stop. But I’ve selected fourteen that together give a sense of the variety that links golf provides. Some are older than Turnberry or even Hoylake and some are brand new, but each has the kind of character that will brighten your eyes after you’ve crossed several time zones on an overnight flight to get there.
The Old Course, St. Andrews
St. Andrews, Scotland. Nature, fifteenth century. The home of golf has not one links course but four of them, running parallel. The granddaddy of them all isn’t in the biggest dunes but set back a bit where the ground was slightly more fertile and less likely to be buried under sand drifts in the early days of golf course maintenance. The Old Course was originally a narrow out-and-back strip, but as the game grew in popularity, the native whins (prickly, impenetrable shrubs also known as gorse) were cut back to widen the fairways so golfers going out and coming home would not do battle head-on.
The difference between the lowest point of the Old Course and the highest is less than twenty-five feet, but there are few pieces of ground anywhere with a greater range and frequency of small undulations. Players steering away from the deeper bunkers in the middle of the course find their shots being turned away from the hole by contours at the front of the greens, as if the hand of God were part of each hole’s defenses. The result is the most complicated course in the world—and the only one I know of where your plan of attack must be reconsidered after every shot. 011-44/1334-466-666, standrews.org.uk
West Links at North Berwick
North Berwick, Scotland. David Strath, 1878. The West Links at North Berwick has never been considered a true "championship" course: Just after significant additions were made in the first years of the twentieth century, the advent of the Haskell ball and then of steel shafts relegated it again to the second tier of difficulty. But Bernard Darwin wrote a hundred years ago that it is "an exceptionally good school in which to learn the art of approaching," and this aspect proved to be very popular in the early 1900s, when the town became a summer-home retreat from the city.
The scenic layout hugs a very narrow strip along the coast, with fabulous views of the Firth of Forth and various small, rocky islands—the beach and the water are more in play at North Berwick than on any other famous links. There are also some terrific golf holes. The short par-four thirteenth (pictured), with its green nestled in a hollow on the far side of a low stone wall, is one of a kind, and the famous par-three fifteenth, the original Redan, was used as a model by early architects on scores of great courses around the world. 011-44/1620-892-135, northberwickgolfclub.com