Links? Or not to links? It's definition is the question at Dunbar Golf Club in Scotland
NORTH BERWICK, SCOTLAND - When a Scottish golf club’s historian pulls a chair up to your table in the dining room, be sure to sip your pint a little slower and soak in the knowledge.
That was the case today following a round at Dunbar Golf Club in East Lothian, Scotland. The course is steeped in history, like so many of the clubs around Edinburgh. In the clubhouse following my round with one of the assistant pros, I had a historical question. He noticed a few tables over the club historian, John Harris, enjoying some afternoon tea and asked him to come give us some authority on the question at hand.
What became a simple question turned into a great chat about not only Dunbar, but the many unique aspects of links golf design and history.
One particular point of the discussion I found quite illuminating was what actually defines “links” golf. For many, links golf must be on sandy, rolling dunes. Meet members at clubs awash with towering dunes and they will tell you a hole without dunes is a hole not worth playing. At Dunbar, the course is set along the sea (I’m not sure I’ve ever played a course with so many tee boxes right on top of the coastline), but there aren’t a great deal of dunes. Some undulations abound, like on the par-5 10th hole, but while the soil is sandy, the dunes aren’t really there.
So is Dunbar a links? Well, Harris devoted an entire page in his book to the matter. He said it took him the better part of four years to research the club’s history, including reading every local newspaper dating back to the mid-1800s with a reference to golf in it, plus every minutes the club ever wrote, also dating back this far. He concluded that the origin of the word comes from the plot of land that was between the sea and farmland, and not necessarily dunesland. Land unsuitable for farming is more like it. In this case, there are a lot more courses that can be characterized as a true “links", even if the dunes are absent.
Of course, the American definition is a bit looser. A “links” can be a course by the sea, or simply on any body of water. It can be a “links” if the architect builds a series of mounds on either side of the fairway, or it can be a “links” if the owner of the course thinks it sounds good in the name.
There are some courses defined as a links because the clubhouse has plaid wallpaper, but I digress…
East Lothian’s dunes are far inferior compared to the mighty dunes of Scotland’s northeast coast, like at Royal Aberdeen (the front nine especially) and Cruden Bay - or most of Ireland (though I’ve yet to see Muirfield in person). I always thought that the amount of wind and exposure to the coastline determined how big the dunes grew, but it has more to do with whether the sand can be captured and stay there, versus being washed away or spread out. That seems to be the case around here, a little more so than St. Andrews and Fife across the way.
It was fascinating stuff to discuss over a pint of St. Andrews Ale after whacking the ball around a bit on one of the most scenic and friendly courses you’ll find over here, that is a challenge but won’t send you home bruised and battered (at least when it’s just a mild, 10-20 mph wind). I mentioned to them their course is a bit like a poor man’s Turnberry the way the rocky coastline creeps up against the links (though of course, Turnberry has some spots with massive dunes). And while the lighthouse is a little further away than on the Ailsa, the Bass Rock is closer than the Ailsa Craig, so it’s a draw!
Stay tuned for more on golf in East Lothian, including full reviews and photos of Dunbar (including a bit of history) coming soon to the WorldGolf.com network.
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