Old Course, Ballybunion
Ballybunion, Ireland. Patrick Murphy, 1906; Tom Simpson and Molly Gourlay, 1936. There are lots of links set among large sandhills, but none are more dramatic than Ballybunion, where you play along a sandy bluff falling into the ocean and then up narrow valleys between the towering dunes. The roughs are so perfect that it’s difficult to lose a ball no matter where you hit it, but if you don’t keep on the straight and narrow, it’s just as difficult to get your next shot to stay on the greens, many of which have steep banks of short grass falling away on both sides. The size and placement of the dunes required some unusual routing choices—there are back-to-back par fives on the front and four par threes from the eighth to the fifteenth—but no one ever seems to be bothered by it, because the quality of golf is so high. Tom Watson’s pilgrimages here in the 1980s put the course firmly on the tourist map, and in the summer it is overrun with overseas visitors. 011-353/682-7146, ballybuniongolfclub.ie
Royal County Down
Newcastle, Northern Ireland. Old Tom Morris, 1891. County Down is unquestionably the most scenic golf course in the world—even though golfers frequently cannot see where they’re going, thanks to several blind tee shots. On the outward holes you play toward monstrous dunes at the far end of the course, then at the fourth tee you turn back to admire a picture-postcard view: the beach and town, the gorse-covered dunes that bloom bright yellow in the spring, the spire of the Slieve Donard Hotel behind the clubhouse and the Mountains of Mourne just beyond. The front nine is closer to the sea and often cited as perhaps the best front nine in the world of golf; naturally, the finishing holes struggle a bit to hold up this level of quality. On a calm day, when you’re hitting your drives straight over the marker posts, the course can be had—Tiger Woods shot a sixty-four here—but with the wind blowing, Royal County Down may be the toughest course in existence, as Tiger’s round of eighty-three on another occasion might suggest. 011-44/2843-723-314, royalcountydown.org
Zandvoort, Netherlands. H. S. Colt, 1929. One of the best-kept secrets in golf is that continental Europe also has its share of fine links courses. Kennemer, in a setting reminiscent of Shinnecock Hills close to the North Sea in the suburbs of Amsterdam, has perhaps the finest pedigree. The original eighteen holes were laid out by Harry Colt and his partner John Morrison, so its greens and bunkers are more thoughtful than many of the older U.K. links. The course was expanded to twenty-seven holes in the mid-1980s, with the newer holes specifically designed to add difficulty for the Dutch Open, which the club has hosted on many occasions and will again this year.
Yet there is much disagreement about whether Kennemer or Haagsche or Noordwijk is preeminent among the links on the Dutch coast, and I have heard that Royal Zoute just across the border in Belgium may be even better. True links also exist along Denmark’s North Sea coast, on the Baltic Sea in Sweden, on the Atlantic coast of Portugal and on the English Channel at Le Touquet in France. But alas, there are none along the Mediterranean, where sand dunes are rare and where the warmer temperatures do not support the fine grasses most suitable to links golf. 011-23/571-2836, kennemergolf.nl
Port Elizabeth, South Africa. S. V. Hotchkin, 1929. South Africa is five times the size of Great Britain, and with 1,800 miles of coastline, you’d think there would be a plethora of links, but there are only a handful. The most famous seaside course in the country is Durban Country Club, and although it is undeniably set among sand dunes—several holes run on top of them—the playing surface isn’t as hard and fast as a British links.
Farther south, however, the grasses start to change and the winds are more prevalent, and on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, the links of Humewood are indeed the real thing. Much of the routing is a series of parallel holes—several of them run up and down a low hill at the back of the property—but the winds are so forceful that you’ll hit a driver and wedge on one hole then turn around and hit two woods to a green right alongside the previous tee. Surely, there are many links in the U.K. with more fascinating terrain, but there aren’t many you can play in shirtsleeves nine months of the year. 011-27/41-583-2137, humewoodgolf.co.za