Golf in the twenty-first century is played on more than 30,000 courses worldwide. Only 246 of them—less than 1 percent—may be classified as links. Formed more by Mother Nature than man, the original links along the coast of Scotland were the game’s crucibles, where golf as we know it was born. In the hearts and minds of golf purists, they are the only real and true courses—all others are imitations. Ask Tiger Woods for his favorite place to play, and he’ll name a links. Jack Nicklaus will do the same, as will thousands of rank-and-file golfers.
Links golf is the game distilled to its core virtues. To walk beside the sea with a brisk breeze on your cheek and firm, sandy turf beneath your feet is to experience golf not only as it was hundreds of years ago but arguably as it should be today—a simple, beguiling game in need of no embellishment. Surely there is no more complete test of one’s skill—or character. Standing up to the elements, handling the good and bad bounces with equal grace, using mind over muscle to navigate a curious landscape—these are the challenges that the golf architect Alister MacKenzie called “the pleasurable excitement of links golf.”
In contrast to inland golf, where a ball hit into water or trees typically costs at least a stroke, on a links course there is almost always a way out of trouble and into the cup—or three or four ways, if you can but discern them. Because of the near-constant wind, the fairways of most links are generous, although there is invariably a preferred side. Finding it is the essence of golf strategy, as it originated at the Old Course at St Andrews. There, as the British golf writer Henry Longhurst observed, “On every shot, whether a short pitch or a full drive, you must step back and say, ‘Wait a minute, what exactly do I want to do here?’” The player needs not just physical talent but also imagination. The idea is to choose the right shot, then hit the right shot right.