We are in the midst of an especially rich segment of the year in golf, a full month in which four classic links take their place on the game’s main stage.
The trend arguably started at the end of June with
shimmering Sebonack GC hosting the U.S. Women’s Open.
The course is not a pure links (by the strictest definition,
with about 250 such courses in the entire world, few in
America truly qualify) but has the kind of bunkering and
windswept grasses and coastal setting that makes it one of
our country’s closest approximations. The Nicklaus/Doak
Long Island collaboration was a success, and it served as a
serviceable appetizer for four consecutive weeks of
championship golf on ancestral turf: last week’s Scottish
Open at Castle Stuart, Muirfield for the British Open, Royal
Birkdale for the Senior British Open and the Old Course at
St. Andrews for the Women’s British Open.
Such a sustained sequence of the original game is new to
world golf. It wasn’t long ago that the only time Americans
would see links golf was during the telecast of the British
Open. The first one I remember watching
was the final round in 1968 at Carnoustie.
The winds were brutal, allowing only
Jack Nicklaus to reach the par- 3 16th on
the fly, and only with a full driver. The
transatlantic images were in black and
white, but I remember having the feeling
that even if I’d been standing next to the
Barry Burn, everything would have
looked gray. At the same time there was
something extra fierce and noble in the way Gary Player
endured, as if he had played a slightly higher form of the game.
Now HD television makes the links courses, for my
money, golf’s most vivid canvases. Somehow, the minimal-ism of the land and the muted shades of green and brown
lend more complexity and interest. This is the quality of the
landscape’s elegant restraint that Harry Rountree captured in his famous paintings of links holes. It’s why there is
no article of clothing that looks more striking than a
colorful cashmere against the backdrop of a links.
The mystery adds to the allure. The architect Robert
Hunter put it beautifully when he wrote in 1926 that “in its
uneven diversity, its tumbling irregularity, its unrivaled
originality, links land bears no resemblance to any other
territory.” Which to me—admittedly someone who got swept
up in Michael Murphy’s Golf in the Kingdom at the impressionable age of 18 and hasn’t quite gotten the search for Zen out of
his system—makes the links the game’s chosen land.
Links to a simpler, better game
Linksland is rich with paradox. Although its courses
generally lack elaborate hazards or many trees, the relative
plainness somehow creates more, not fewer, shot options,
more demand for control and more of the randomness that
tests resolve and self-control. It fosters a brand of golf
that is more interesting to both play and watch. The
excitement lies in the most basic properties—maneuvering
the ball through the invisible air currents off the subtle
ground, avoiding the gathering bunkers and judging the
roll to the green.
“The thrill of squeezing a ball against the firm turf,
trying to keep it low into a buffeting wind,” the five-time
British Open champion Peter Thomson once wrote, “is
something that lingers in the mind forever.” With that
uncharacteristic burst of passion, the austere Australian
revealed the love that made him one of the all-time
masters of links golf.
But all these are aesthetic judgments. There are
practical, and indeed urgent, reasons to keep the links
ethos front of mind.
Linksland is rich with paradox. Although its
courses generally lack elaborate hazards or
many trees, the relative plainness somehow
creates more, not fewer, shot options.
To have the images of links golf fixed on screens for a
month will help America’s recreational players examine
the excess in our game at a time, because of golf’s changing position in the culture, it has never carried so much
The links ethos cherishes minimalist design, wider
playing areas and lower maintenance. It prizes less
irrigation and fertilizers, which produce firmer (albeit less
manicured) turf that allows the ball to both run and be so
satisfyingly squeezed; more walking; faster play; and
lower costs. All these are what American golf needs.
Almost as a rule, anything that golf can do to become
simpler will be an improvement in the current climate.
By the time the Old Course plays host to Inbee Park’s
appointment with history, the effect should have been
salubrious. So let’s take it all in like sea air and let the
oldest form of the game renew us. Golf in America has
never needed it more. N