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Sacred Sand

Don’t get casual with the name. There’s a reason every true links starts here

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Photo: Geoffrey Cunningham
Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

“Let’s hit the links!” It makes me want to hit my head. I loathe golf snobbery, and I try hard never to come off as an on-course curmudgeon, so I refrain from correcting my golf mates about their misuse of the most abused label in the game. I don’t tell them that our course is not a links, not in the slightest, and that unless they are suggesting we head for the airport, there is no way we will be hitting one. I should tell myself it doesn’t matter. I should understand their intent, and accept that “links” has come to describe most any golf course, but I can’t bring myself to bend when it comes to the misappropriation of golf in its purest form. It does matter, because not every golf course is a links, but every links is a golf course. Rather, to me, every links is golf.

The links tag conjures a vague notion of a treeless, windswept golf course with knee-high weeds and rumpled fairways. But such details could apply to any number of newer courses (Erin Hills, Chambers Bay) and a handful of older ones (Oakmont, Aronimink) that have embraced the tree-purging trend in course restoration. All estimable layouts for sure, yet none are true links courses. Even penning “true links courses” makes me feel like a fusty golf librarian who gets nostalgic about erstwhile days of stymies and niblicks. But I stand by my links recalcitrance, because the genuine article is the stuff of pilgrimages to stir your golfing soul. Links golf is an entirely otherwise sport, and if we pretend we know it because we’ve played Pebble Beach, then we might be less likely to visit a proper one someday. And that would be a sin from which no bucket list can be redeemed. There are parkland courses (99.9 percent of the courses in America) and there are links, and we cannot save and celebrate the latter properly if we don’t give their species the weight it deserves.

The label in question comes from the Old English “hlinc,” meaning hill or ridge, or lean, and it refers to crested duneland that couldn’t grow crops, wild parcels left to grazing herds, hunters and Scotland’s first golfers. In getting the un-farmable leftovers for their game, golfers were blessed with a wobbly beach topography that designers have labored to recreate ever since. And try as we might to imitate it, the difference is foundational—literally. Take a healthy slab of dark turf for your divot and you are not playing a links, where your divot should explode in the breeze as proper sandy poof. Gorse, humps and treeless vistas are all secondary indicators; the defining characteristic of a links is as simple as sand.

Laid upon the dunes, on topography molded by tides, with crashing waves in eye- or earshot, golf in the sand hills is no subtle variant of the game we  Yanks play. Linksland’s beachy base makes it forever firm (it drains like a colander), lends itself to uniquely hearty grasses (the underfoot crunch of a links fairway is a distinct sensation) and, on a good one, the kinks and ripples are the stuff of primordial providence. Tom Morris did not drive a bulldozer or employ an expertly trained “shaper.” The wrinkles were made by miracles, and fortunate golfers can come to believe in them when they golf their way across a landscape not built, but discovered.

As precious as rainforest and as rare as the Rockies, linksland is a geological phenomenon shaped by shifting glaciers and receding shorelines. As early Earth’s mantle cooled and ocean floors sank, the waters pulled back to reveal things like, say, Europe, and as seas continued to retreat, they cut valleys and rivulets into coastlines once submerged. Paul Daley’s Links Golf recounts how the droppings of seabirds fertilized sands that sprouted grasses, and sheep munched down the overgrowth into fairways. Livestock wore sandy pits into the embankments they borrowed for shelter against the wind, shaping golf’s first bunkers, and nature finished her design via rabbits whose tightly nibbled warrens made for puttable surfaces. Add some pioneering wool traders to the mix—very old art proves that men in kilts brought the ball-whacking game of “kolf” to Scotland from the Netherlands centuries ago—and golf was born in these sacred acres. Nowhere else in sport has such a confluence of natural wonders conspired to make a game possible. (I’m pretty sure seagull guano and ice ages had little to do with Fenway or the Staples Center.)

Links golf is a walk through our geological record, and its firmness, even in a downpour, allows one to golf with the landscape rather than soaring shots to avoid it. Its winds hint that golf is meant to be more like bowling and less like darts, and it lends itself to the joyful mind scramble of a 100-yard approach that can be played with any of your 14 clubs, putter most definitely included. It celebrates creativity, and its mercurial conditions reward resolve. It’s a test not just of skill, but of character, and its punitive boundaries of ball-hungry cabbage make your course back home feel like a driving range. 

I have gotten into some trouble for suggesting that we don’t have any true links in North America, and I will concede that in Bandon and at Cabot and at a nine-holer on Long Island, golf in the dunes is happening. (Apologies to Sand Valley and Streamsong, but a real links also requires an ocean; sea breezes are as fundamental to the experience as flagsticks.) A sandy base is the scientific criteria for a links designation, but my personal metric adds location and age; for me, a genuine links lives in the British Isles and predates the use of diesel in course design. I know I am an annoying purist in this regard, but experience has taught that Ireland and Great Britain possess all the accoutrements I have come to associate with a genuine links experience: the droll caddies braving monsoons in brown sweaters, the overwhelming breakfasts, the irascible weather, the pints and the 10 p.m. daylight and the post-round soup. I’m a links ageist as well, because for all the modern links I have played—and some have been mighty—I can’t help but wonder where the digger decided a mound should go or where one should be flattened. Imitation art can be beautiful to the eye, but is it gorgeous to your gut? Newcomer Trump Aberdeen meets every classic standard for a links, but I would rather play nearby Murcar 100 times before ever walking its double-wide cart paths (cart paths on a links!) again. 

Let us all hit the links, soon and often, with an understanding of the gift to which we refer. I was once told that the difference between happiness and joy is the presence of the divine. I can be damn happy on a man-made parkland golf course, but it’s only on the discovered ones shaped by a mystery that I feel golf joy.  

Tom Coyne is the author of A Course Called Ireland and A Course Called Scotland, both New York Times best sellers, as well as the forthcoming A Course Called America. He is an associate professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.