"I'm going to head out and hit the links."
It's a phrase commonly used to announce you will be playing a round of golf. Commonly you will hear SportsCenter anchors give a "to the links" segue to report a PGA or LPGA tour event. "Links" has infiltrated American golfers' speech habits almost enough to be synonymous with "golf course", but rightly so?
Sometime in the 15th century in St. Andrews, Scotland, someone decided that the east coast of Scotland would be the ideal place to begin a new game. Golf was born. And like every game, the playing surface needed to be identified. Soon enough, St. Andrews was a 22-hole golf course created on windy hollowed grounds on the west coast of Scotland. It was soon referred to by golfers as "the links".
Yet somehow over the next half-millennium golf evolved and spread throughout the world. "Links," like the game it spawned, was broadened in its meaning. "Links" and "golf course" soon became interchangeable to many golfers, even if the golf course did not possess traditional links qualities.
To find the true definition of the term, we turn to Webster.
Link (lingk) n. 1. a bond or tie. 2. any of a number of connected sausage.
No help. How about the plural definition?
Links n, pl. 1. a golf course.
Webster's dictionary, while concise of course, was of little help.
To get a true, more credible definition, we go to the source of links golf.
Sir Walter Simpson was a 19th century Scottish philosopher and the author of the 1887 book "the Art of Golf". The book is said to be the first to contain photographs of golfers in action on the links and is considered a classic especially among the Scottish. He defined "links" as such"
"The grounds on which golf is played are called links, being the barren sandy soil from which the sea has retired in recent geological times. In their natural state links are covered with long, rank bent grass and gorse. Links are too barren for cultivation: but sheep, rabbits, geese and professionals pick up a precarious livelihood on them."
So does this mean in order to have a golf course described as "links", sheep must roam freely among the fairways? While Sir Walter Simpson had somewhat cleared things up, the old Scottish definition appeared outdated.
Donald Steele, a well-known modern English architect and author of Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, defined "links" this way"
"My definition of links is the strip of land which links the sea with more fertile land, often set amongst dunes. The best terrain for golf is sand and that kind of land has minimal agricultural value - which makes such places ideal."
While there is no mention of sheep, what this modern architect and Sir Walter Simpson both agree on is that "links" is coastal and flat.
At some point between the birth of St. Andrews and the game's migration to North America, the term grew more generic.
William Newcomb is an American golf course architect who has designed several "links" tracks in the Midwest, including Calderone Farms, Thornapple Point and the Moor at Boyne Highlands - all in Michigan. He also says the Donald Ross Memorial course he built has many links-style holes. So what is the American definition?
"I would define it as treeless rolling area that has water preferably," says Newcomb.
Once again, no mention of sheep.
One of Newcomb's courses, The Links at Whitmore Lake, has certain links qualities, according to Newcomb. While the front nine is flat and rolling, trees and marsh dominate the back nine. Links golf characteristics such as water, wind, rolling terrain, pot bunkers and sheep are near non-existent on the back nine. They are replaced by forest-lined tight fairways and marsh.
Newcomb says that some developers may name their course a "links" course for marketing reasons. While many courses with this claim can be true in character, some do not adhere to traditional links golf.
"It may help define the course," says Newcomb, referring to the naming of a course. "It could also help make the course more attractive to certain golfers."
American courses can try as hard as they wish, but to achieve the true links experience, many golfers have chosen, including Newcomb, to head to Scotland to get the real deal.
So how does the average American golfer, who has been raised on groomed, fair golf courses with little exposure to the elements Scottish golf is known for survive across the pond? Newcomb has played his share of courses around the world including Scotland and even in the 1963 Masters at Augusta as an amateur. He is not so sure there is any way you can prepare for the shock of links golf.
"You have to just go do it," says Newcomb. "Go over and experience it. It's a different concept over there, a different theory. There's a lot of hit and run."
Newcomb says the first thing that a golfer new to Scottish links golf will notice is the wind. What they won't notice is where to hit the ball.
"Golfers look down the fairway and don't see a well-defined hitting area," says Newcomb. "Unlike courses here that show you where to hit the ball, the golfer must define it themselves."
Another big difference in links golf is the greens.
"Their greens are much different," says Newcomb. "They aren't designed to accept 'target golf.' They are very rolling, undulating and very challenging."
The average size of the greens are also bigger, according to Newcomb. Some greens are even double greens. You could even be faced with a 200-foot putt.
As golf came across the Atlantic, did "links" come too? Apparently, but what didn't come across is the true style. The unfair pot bunkers that hide in the middle of the fairway, the punishing heather, and piercing wind are all traits that can be emulated, but not duplicated.
Golfers can say they will be on the links in America all they want, but unless they are facing daunting winds, massive greens, naturally rolling fairways and dunes and perhaps bearing witness to an occasional sheep grazing in the fields, they are on a golf course.
Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker.
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