Campbeltown, Scotland. Old Tom Morris, 1879; J. H. Taylor, 1914; Sir Guy Campbell, c. 1946. Machrihanish is the one great Scottish links that has stayed under the radar of golfers visiting from overseas. Thanks to its remote location at the southern end of the Mull of Kintyre, it’s just too far off the beaten path for most people to venture there. Its members log perhaps ten thousand rounds per year, and at that level of play, nature does a fine job of sorting out good golf shots from bad. The fairways and greens are well-trafficked enough to present a fast surface without becoming compacted. The areas of the rough that get a fair amount of play from the golfers’ most common misses are thinned out by foot traffic, so the lies are not too bad. But if a good player hits way off-line past where the average player would normally go, he will find himself in very thick grass with a difficult shot—if he finds his ball at all.
Most of the links courses in the United Kingdom are greener, softer and more manicured than when I first saw them twenty-five years ago, not just because they are now catering to overseas visitors, but also because the turf has to be maintained differently to withstand all the traffic. Machrihanish has not changed one bit, and I hope it never does. 011-44/1586-810-277, machgolf.com
Dornoch, Scotland. Old Tom Morris, 1886; Donald Ross, c. 1895; John Sutherland, 1890-1910. Not all links are fortunate enough to have eighteen holes among the dunes. For many, there isn’t enough acreage of the right stuff, and the course must include several holes on less than ideal ground. Dornoch, the boyhood home of Donald Ross, is one of the few Scottish links to turn the situation to its advantage. Just after the Second World War, the club split the course that Ross had known to form two separate eighteens, extending the golf at each end. The course used to turn back toward the clubhouse after today’s par-three sixth hole, but building the par-four seventh and half of the par-four eighth up on the bluff away from the dunes enabled the club to add the ninth, tenth and eleventh holes coming back in along the narrower strip of links at the base of the bluff, and that lends today’s championship course its unique visual character. 011-44/1862-810-219, royaldornoch.com
Royal West Norfolk
Brancaster, England. Horace Hutchinson, 1892. All coastal links must deal with wind and water erosion, but today the most threatened of them is Royal West Norfolk Golf Club (aka Brancaster), built on a narrow strip of dunes three hours northeast of London. The higher tides along this coastline surround the golf course, so the access road from the town across the marsh is cut off for three hours at a time—conveniently, just long enough to play eighteen holes. The wind erosion is so strong that nearly all the bunkers are banked up with railroad ties to prevent the sand from overtaking the greens—the whole course looks like it was built by a demented uncle of Pete Dye. Sadly, if sea levels continue their slow rise, Brancaster will probably be the first great links to be lost back to the sea, and any who have played it will mourn its loss. 011-44/1485-210-223
Royal North Devon
Westward Ho!, England. Old Tom Morris, 1864. It was General Moncrieffe of St. Andrews, upon visiting the town of Westward Ho! in 1863, who coined the phrase, "Providence obviously designed this for a golf links," to be used by seven generations of golf course architects thereafter. First-time visitors to Royal North Devon may initially struggle to see what the general had in mind. The ground near the clubhouse is the flattest stretch of linksland possible, and the dunes along the shore scarcely seem tall enough to keep the Atlantic from flooding the course on a windy day. Set entirely on common land, horses, cattle and sheep graze in such profusion that sometimes it seems impossible to miss them all with your tee shot. Yet with a minimum of bunkers and a four-hole intervention by the spiky great sea rushes at the start of the back nine, Westward Ho! remains perhaps the ultimate reminder of how a simple game can be so much tougher than it looks. 011-44/1237-477-598, royalnorthdevongolfclub.co.uk