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The debate rages about the meaning of "links"

Brandon TuckerBy Brandon Tucker,
Managing Editor

"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 While Sir Walter Simpson had somewhat cleared things up, the old Scottish definition appeared outdated.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 and on Instagram at BrandonTuckerGC.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Golf

    Golf Away wrote on: Nov 22, 2013

    the west coast of the North Sea ..." and NOT the west coast of Scotland so it is correct.


  • St. Andrews Gof Course

    Georgina Kyle wrote on: Jun 14, 2010

    On the west coast of Scotland??? Not the last time I was there.
    Otherwise, an interesting article on Limks courses.


      • RE: St. Andrews Gof Course

        Jim Watson wrote on: Aug 12, 2012

        Please note that the article said, "... the west coast of the North Sea ..." and NOT the west coast of Scotland so it is correct.


          • RE: RE: St. Andrews Gof Course

            Marta Withrow wrote on: Aug 19, 2012

            Is this the Jim Watson that grew up in St. Andrews in the 50's-70's, with brother, Dougie, by chance?


      • RE: St. Andrews Gof Course

        KB wrote on: Jul 14, 2010

        West Coast of the NORTH SEA, not Scotland.
        (Scotland's East Coast is the North Sea's West Coast. The article is correct.) ...last time I was there...


          • RE: RE: St. Andrews Gof Course

            AC wrote on: Jul 17, 2011

            Well it is confusing. Generally speaking land masses have coasts, not bodies of water. But anyway, back to the golf ...


  • St Andrews

    Mark Boulton wrote on: Jul 29, 2009

    I found the article fascinating. But it did raise a question with me that I have not been able to answer. In the article is states that it all began at St Andrews according to research that may not be the case. Looking at most golf publications that answer to the question where it all began is always St Andrews. However looking at the internet there are some more details at www.scottishgolfhistory.net the site list the oolest golf sites as Perth 1502, Carnoustie 1527, Montrose 1562, Musselburgh 1567, St Andrews 1574, Dornoch 1619 and Leith 1619. Interestingly the Musselburgh golf club claims to be the oldest club in the World.


  • U.S. Links Courses

    Noel DeKing wrote on: Jul 21, 2009

    Shinnecock Hills Golf Club is the most famous links-style golf course in America. It is located in the town of Southampton, tucked between Shinecock Bay and the Atlantic Ocean on Long Island in New York state. It has hosted the U.S. Open four times in three different centuries, most recently in 2004. It claims to be the oldest formal organized golf club in the United States (1891).


  • links ???

    chuck r wrote on: Jul 17, 2009

    my eyes hurt from reading all that print and i still don't know what a links style course is


      • RE: links ???

        Al Berger wrote on: Dec 14, 2009

        Yes, yes, I've seen all the descriptive definitions of a "links" style golf course, but why was the word "links" chosen? What is linked to what?
        My dictionary defines "links" in terms of sausages, not golf.


          • RE: RE: links ???

            John wrote on: May 21, 2015

            "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."
            This according to Donald Steele, English architect and golf author in the article


          • RE: RE: links ???

            John Spink wrote on: Jan 18, 2010

            links means grass over sand
            Golf was first played, under formalized rules, on Leith Links, Edinburgh. This is why St Andrews describes itself as the home of golf anf not the birthplace of golf.


          • RE: RE: links ???

            Al Berger wrote on: Dec 14, 2009

            By the way, a superb description of the type of "links" course mentioned in some of the earlier messages is in the novel "The Legend of Bagger Vance," by Steven Pressfield, and it's depicted quite well in the film adapted very loosely from the book. It stars Will Smith as a mysterious caddy (Pressfield spells it "caddie," for some reason), whom the novel reveals as an incarnation of the Hindu warrior god Krishna. The story is supposed to be based on the Bhagavad Gita, by the way.
            It's a fascinating allegory (the book, not the film, which by the way is available in DVD form), and it's described by reviewers a as a sort of paean to the game of golf. I recommend it highly.
            Al Berger


              • RE: RE: RE: links ???

                Al Berger wrote on: Dec 14, 2009

                Again by the way, the Bagger Vance film stars Matt Damon and Charlize Theron along with Will Smith. The caddy's name, Bagger Vance, is a reference to Bhagavan, which is another name for Krishna. I like the film very much, but after you see it, read the book. You won't regret it.
                Al Berger.


  • Links style golf courses

    Dave Erdmann wrote on: Jul 20, 2008

    This artical is one of the best comprehensive explanations of the definition of a "links" course, both historical Scotish design and it's American modernization. I can now speak knowledgeably to my fellow golfing know-it-alls with a level of confidence.
    Thanks very much,


      • RE: Links style golf courses

        John wrote on: Nov 16, 2010

        It is a joke to leave out Chambers Bay, but obvious. They say it’s because it is “100 miles from the ocean”. Chambers is on Puget Sound an arm of the Pacific Ocean for the news of the east coast crowd. But Chambers is rapidly costing rounds at Bandon, so the Bandon crowd who produced the book couldn’t put it in there. Look at the list of who “helped” with the book, the owner and designer of Bandon. Very fair.


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