Tips for Playing on a True Links Golf Course

The allure of the game of golf is often embodied in its diverse terrains, and among the most iconic and challenging of these is the true links golf course. Characterized by its seaside location, a links course is forged by nature’s hand, with landscapes shaped over millennia by wind and water. 

Never played on a links course before? You might be in for a rude awakening. But relax; read our guide below and you'll come armed with newfound knowledge to tackle this formidable challenge.

The Origin Of Links Golf

The word "links" is derived from the Old English word 'hlinc', referring to a ridge. True to its etymology, a links course traditionally occupies the sandy, ridged land connecting the beach to the inland areas or the 'linksland'.

The genesis of links golf is deeply intertwined with the sport's history, tracing its roots back to the rugged coastlines of Scotland in the 15th century. Here, the game's earliest enthusiasts found the naturally occurring sandy dunes and hollows, firm fairways, and deep bunkers to be the perfect, albeit challenging, backdrop for the sport. 

black and white golf

This type of terrain was not only readily available but also unsuitable for farming or urban development, making it a natural choice for the emerging sport.

The significance of links golf in the sport's tapestry cannot be understated. The Old Course at St. Andrews, often referred to as the "Home of Golf", or fondly as “Old Lady” is a quintessential links course and has borne witness to some of the most defining moments in golf's rich chronicle. 

Links courses demand a different kind of play, one that calls for adaptability, an understanding of the elements, and often, a touch of creativity. Here, golf is not just about precision but also about strategy, as players navigate the ever-present winds, the unpredictable bounces, and the intricacies of terrain left largely to nature's whims.

The sheer prominence of links courses in major tournaments, like The Open Championship, underscores their enduring appeal and challenge. These courses serve as a testament to the game's origins, a nod to a time when golf was a battle not just against fellow competitors, but also against the raw, untamed elements of the Scottish coast. 

For many, playing on a true links course is a rite of passage, and an opportunity to experience the game in its purest, most ancient form.

Unique Characteristics of a Links Course

If you’re looking to play a casual round of golf, newsflash- links might not be the best choice. Steeped in tradition and surrounded by nature's elemental fierceness, links courses present a unique set of challenges. For the uninitiated, this takes some getting used to. Let's check out what some of the distinguishing characteristics of these golfing marvels include.

Sea-side Location and Influence of Wind:

Links courses, historically, are the golf world's coastal gems. Born in Scotland, these courses are typically situated on sandy, dune-covered stretches of land between agricultural plots and the sea.

links course at pebble beach

Their proximity to vast water bodies ensures that they are almost constantly subjected to the whims and fancies of coastal winds. This ever-present breeze (or, often, a howling gale) becomes an invisible adversary, demanding golfers recalibrate their game strategy. 

Every shot, from drives to putts, requires consideration of the wind's direction and intensity. A perfectly struck ball can be sent astray by a gust, making club selection and shot trajectory pivotal to a successful round.

Undulating Fairways and Lack of Trees:

If you're looking for the manicured, flat expanses typical of many modern golf courses, you won't find them on a traditional links course. This terrain is shaped by nature's hand, and the fairways undulate and weave between dunes. 

These wavy fairways can lead to awkward stances and uneven lies, testing a golfer's adaptability and shot-making skills. Trees, usually a staple on other golf courses, are a rare sight on links courses. 

Their absence means fewer obstructions but also fewer reference points, demanding a keen sense of direction and spatial awareness from the golfer.

Deep Bunkers and Firm, Fast Greens:

The bunkers on links courses are a world apart from those on their inland counterparts. They are deep, cavernous, and often steep-sided, aptly nicknamed "pot bunkers." Landing in one can quickly add strokes to a hole, as you may be forced to play sideways or even backwards to escape their sandy clutches. 

The greens on links courses, made firm by sandy soil and coastal breezes, are notoriously fast. These greens are known to play tricks on the mind with their subtle borrows and breaks influenced by the surrounding dunes.

The Importance Of Your Ground Game

On most courses, golfers focus on getting the ball airborne, prioritizing height to ensure the ball lands softly on the green. But on links courses, the ground game reigns supreme. 

Given the firmness of the fairways and the gusty winds, shots that stay close to the ground – those that roll and bounce – often fare better. 

The 'bump and run', a shot played to land short of the green and roll out, becomes an essential tool in your arsenal. By using the contours and firmness of the land, you might be able to achieve results that aerial shots might not offer.

Natural Rough and Local Flora:

The rough on links courses are a mix of native grasses and shrubs, all of which have adapted to the salty, windswept environment. This rough is not just longer grass but a cocktail of fescues, marram, gorse, and heather. 

wind resistant grass

Stray shots can easily get tangled or lost, making accuracy off the tee paramount. Beyond the challenge it poses, this local flora also adds to the course's visual beauty, painting a picture of rugged, natural splendor.

Mastering the Wind on Links Courses

Golf is as much an art as it is a sport. And nowhere is this artistic flair more evident than when playing on links courses, where the wind often becomes the most formidable opponent. 

The gusts, breezes, and gales will test your skills, patience, and adaptability. Yet, with a few key strategies, you can turn this seeming adversary into an ally. 

Let's delve deeper into the art of mastering the wind.

Adjusting Your Club Selection

First and foremost, it's essential to adjust your club selection based on the wind's direction and intensity. If you've ever felt the frustration of hitting what felt like a perfect shot, only to watch the wind knock it down short of the green, you're not alone. The key? Adaptation.

golf irons

When playing into the wind (a headwind), consider using more club than you typically would for the given distance. If you usually hit a 7-iron for a 150-yard shot, you might need a 6-iron or even a 5-iron to achieve the same distance against a strong wind. This is because the wind increases the ball's air time, effectively reducing its forward momentum.

Conversely, when the wind is at your back (a tailwind), the ball can travel further than expected. In this case, club down. That same 150-yard shot might be achievable with an 8-iron in strong tailwind conditions. However, remember that tailwinds can also reduce the ball's stopping ability on the green due to the decreased spin and increased rollout.

Ball Flight Control

While adjusting your club is crucial, controlling your ball flight is equally, if not more, important when playing in windy conditions. A lower trajectory shot tends to be less affected by the wind compared to a high-flying shot. How can you achieve this?

Focus on making a few adjustments:

  • Ball Position: Move the ball slightly back in your stance. This promotes a steeper angle of attack, resulting in a lower ball flight.
  • Swing: Aim for a three-quarters swing. This can reduce the spin rate, ensuring the ball stays lower and is less influenced by the wind.
  • Follow Through: A more abbreviated follow-through can further help in reducing ball height.

If you're feeling more adventurous, shaping your shots (drawing or fading) can use the wind to your advantage. Instead of fighting against a left-to-right wind, for instance, a right-handed golfer can embrace it with a fade, allowing the breeze to guide the ball towards the target.

Embracing the Wind

Many golfers' first instinct is to battle the wind, to overpower it. This is often a losing cause. Instead, the real magic happens when you learn to harness it to your advantage. Consider the wind as another tool in your golfing arsenal, rather than an enemy.

For crosswinds, which can be particularly tricky, aim to start your ball on the windward side and let the wind move it towards the target. It's almost like setting your sail and letting the wind guide you towards your destination.

Remember, wind direction and intensity can change rapidly, especially on links courses. Regularly tossing a tuft of grass or checking the movement of trees (if there are any) can give you a real-time idea of what you're up against.

The Impact Of The Ground Game

Imagine yourself as a soldier, crawling beneath thick cover to protect yourself behind enemy lines. Only this is, in this case, that enemy is the wind. Knowing how to keep it on the ground is your best m.o. 

Here are some considerations for your ground game.

Utilizing the Fairways

Ever dreamt of watching your ball roll endlessly after a well-struck shot, gaining yards like a snowball gains size? Links courses can make that dream come true, thanks to their firm and fast fairways.

The underlying soil structure and often sandy base of links courses mean that they naturally drain well, keeping the surface firm even after rainfall. When you combine this with the matted-down turf from the prevalent winds, the stage is set for some truly impressive roll-outs. To harness this:

  • Select the Right Club: It's not just about hitting the ball far; it's about controlling where it ends up. Sometimes, opting for a 3-wood or hybrid off the tee can yield better results than a driver, ensuring you're positioned correctly for your next shot while still benefiting from the added roll.
  • Play for Position: Understand that the ball will roll further than usual. Plan your shots not just based on where the ball will land, but also where it's likely to end up after it rolls. This foresight can be the difference between a birdie opportunity and a scramble for par.
  • Embrace the Run: Use the firm conditions to your advantage, especially on approach shots. Landing the ball short and letting it run up onto the green can often be more accurate than trying to fly it all the way to the flag.

Avoiding the Deep Bunkers

Links bunkers are infamous. They aren’t just simple sand traps; they're deep, cavernous pits to hell, often with steep faces that can easily turn a potential birdie into a bogey or worse. The key is to navigate around them with intelligence.

deep sand bunker in scotland

  • Study the Course: Before you even set foot on the first tee, acquaint yourself with the layout. Knowing where these bunkers are can shape your strategy, allowing you to play short of them or take a line that steers clear altogether.
  • Adjust Your Aim: The wind can play tricks on links courses. A shot that would be safe on a calm day might drift into a bunker when the breeze picks up. Always factor in the wind direction and strength when picking your line, especially off the tee.
  • Know When to Lay Up: It's not a sign of defeat; but rather, a mark of an expert strategist. If a bunker guards the green and you're not confident in carrying it, play short. It's often easier to chip from the fairway than to extricate yourself from the depths of a links-style bunker.

Reading the Greens

Understanding the Terrain

As you step onto the green, the first thing that you must reckon with is the terrain. Remember, links courses are fashioned by the hand of nature, molded by the coastal environment, and sculpted by time.

This coastal environment imparts distinct characteristics to links greens. Often, the land is sandy and free-draining. This means that after rain, while most greens elsewhere might become soft and slow, a links green can still retain a surprising firmness and speed. 

The slopes you'll encounter are not mere whims of a golf course designer; they have been carved out over centuries by winds, seas, and shifting dunes.

How does this affect your game? The slopes can be more pronounced and less predictable than on parkland courses. The hollows might be deeper, the rises more abrupt.

Judging the Speed

Speed is an essential factor on the greens, and on links courses, this can be particularly tricky. You might already know that greens on a sunny day are faster than after a rainy afternoon. But did you know that on links courses, the change in moisture levels throughout the day can lead to even more pronounced differences in speed?

cloudy skies over golf course

Morning dew or a brief coastal shower can temporarily slow down the greens, but as soon as the sun emerges, they can dry up rapidly and become slick once again. This can be challenging, especially if you're playing 18 holes at various times of the day. Your touch on the 2nd hole might not serve you as well by the 15th.

What's the solution? Always be observant. Before putting, feel the green with your feet. Does it feel firm or slightly spongy? Use your practice putts to gauge the speed. 

Adjust your stroke based on your observations and remain adaptable. If the greens are faster, remember to focus on a smooth stroke. If they've retained some moisture, you might need to be slightly more aggressive.

The Influence of the Wind (Again)

You’ve probably seen us mention the wind several times already. On a links course, it’s an ever-present challenge. Yes, you've contended with it on the fairways, used it to your advantage, or cursed it when it sent your ball astray. But did you know that it doesn't stop influencing your game once you're on the green?

On many modern golf courses, trees and other obstructions often shield the greens. But on true links courses, greens can be exposed, open to the whims of the wind. A strong gust can cause your ball to wobble, change its course slightly, or even impact the speed of a putt.

How do you handle this? Firstly, acknowledge the wind. Feel its direction and gauge its strength. If you're faced with a crosswind, recognize that your ball might drift slightly. A headwind can slow your ball down, while a tailwind can make it roll out further than you might expect. Adapt your line and speed based on these factors.

Course Management and Strategy on Links Courses

Stepping onto the fairways of a links course, you're not just entering another round of golf; you're accepting an invitation to engage with the sport in its most raw and traditional form. 

But how do you navigate this ancient playground effectively? The answer lies in effective course management and formulating a coherent strategy.

Know Your Environment

Before you even tee off, take a moment to understand the course's unique geography. The seaside location means wind will always be a significant factor. Start by checking the day’s wind forecast.

Knowing its direction and speed can inform your decisions from club selection to shot type. It’s also important to remember that links courses are typically devoid of trees, so there’s little to shield you from the elements.

Optimize Tee Shots

On many traditional parkland courses, the aim might be to hit the ball as far as possible off the tee. On a links course, however, accuracy trumps distance. 

The fairways are often generous, but landing in the rough or bunkers can be punishing. Therefore, don't hesitate to use a fairway wood or even an iron off the tee to ensure you're in the short grass. Play for position, not just distance.

Use the Ground to Your Advantage

One of the beautiful aspects of links golf is the firm and fast fairways. Instead of always trying to fly the ball to the hole, learn to use the contours of the land. A well-struck iron shot that lands short can run up onto the green.

fast fairways

This technique can be especially effective when the wind is against you. Learn the art of the ‘bump and run,’ where you intentionally play a shot to land before the green, letting it roll towards the hole.

Navigate the Bunkers

The bunkers on links courses aren't just minor inconveniences; they're genuine hazards. They tend to be deep, with steep faces, making recovery difficult. When you're planning your approach, it’s often better to be short of these bunkers rather than risk being in them. If you do find yourself in a bunker, prioritize getting out and back into play, even if it means not advancing the ball towards the hole as much as you’d like.

Green Strategy

Links greens can be large but also incredibly sloping. Landing on the green doesn't always guarantee an easy putt. It’s crucial to study the pin position and the surrounding contours. Sometimes, it’s better to aim for a portion of the green that gives you an uphill putt, rather than directly at the pin. 

And if you're just off the green? Consider putting. The tight lies and firm conditions of links courses often make a putter a more predictable choice than a wedge.

Flexibility in Your Approach

While having a plan is essential, being flexible and adapting to the conditions is equally important. Links golf can be unpredictable, and rigidly sticking to a preconceived strategy can spell trouble. Be prepared to change your approach based on the day's conditions or how the course is playing.

We also recommend you arm yourself with high quality nourishment, such as Whole In One Bars. Hunger and fatigue can quickly make your round feel like torture, so avoid that by fueling your body properly.

Mental Game on a Links Course

Links golf is unlike any other form of the game. The rolling fairways, deep bunkers, thick rough, and ever-present wind demand not only physical skill but also a resilient mindset. As you prepare to embark on a round on a links course, it's vital to fortify your mental game. Here’s how to shape your psychological approach to tackle the unique challenges that lie ahead.

Staying Patient: Accept Bad Breaks and Unpredictable Bounces

First and foremost, understand that links golf will challenge your patience. Unlike parkland courses, where conditions are relatively consistent, links courses are a product of their natural environment, crafted by the coastal winds and sandy dunes over centuries. This means that even the most well-struck shots can take an unexpected turn due to a hidden hollow or a gust of wind.

You, the passionate golfer, must adopt an unwavering patience. Recognize that every player on the course will face their share of unpredictable bounces and gusty interferences. 

When that errant bounce takes your ball into a bunker or sends it off-course, don't let frustration mount. Instead, breathe deeply, accept the challenge, and play the ball as it lies. You've likely heard the adage, "You can only control what you can control." This wisdom is profoundly true in links golf. Embrace the unpredictability as a part of the game's charm, rather than as an adversary.

View the Course as a Unique Test and Opportunity to Grow

If you approach the links course as a daunting task, it might very well become one. However, if you see it as a unique test and an opportunity, you've already won half the battle. Remember, links courses are where golf originated. Playing them connects you to the sport's rich history. Each shot is a nod to tradition and offers a lesson in adaptability.

Rather than being daunted by the challenges, embrace them. View every difficult lie or tricky wind condition as a puzzle, waiting to be solved. Let it ignite your competitive spirit. This perspective transforms each hole from a mere stretch of land into a story, an experience, and most importantly, a chance to learn and grow. Ask yourself: How can this shot make me a better golfer? Every swing, every decision on a links course shapes your game, making you more versatile and adaptive.

Stay Present: Focus on One Shot at a Time and Do Not Get Ahead of Yourself

The allure of the 18th hole or the anticipation of a challenging par-3 coming up can sometimes divert your attention. But in links golf, it's crucial to remain grounded in the present. The contours of the land, the direction of the wind, the position of the sun - every moment is distinct and requires your full attention.

Being mentally present means immersing yourself fully in the current shot. It means assessing the conditions, choosing your club, visualizing the shot, and executing, all without the weight of past mistakes or future challenges. 

This singular focus not only improves the quality of each shot but also enhances the overall experience of the game. The surrounding beauty, the feel of the club in your hand, the sound of the ball as it meets the clubface – these moments of pure golfing joy are amplified when you're truly present.

The Essential Shot List

Your tried and tested shot list on the links’ cousins; the parkland course, won't necessarily translate well over here. Unlike parkland courses, links terrains demand a diverse array of shots. 

Whether you're a weekend golfer looking to conquer the local links or an avid player dreaming of the Scottish coastline, understanding these key shots will dramatically transform your game. You would be well-served mastering them.

1. The Punch Shot:

You're standing on the tee, and a gusty headwind greets you, mocking your usual high ball flight. Here, the punch shot is your savior. It's tailored to keep the ball low, shielding it from the wind's unpredictable whims.

How to Execute: Position the ball further back in your stance than usual. Your swing should have a reduced follow-through, and at impact, ensure your hands are ahead of the ball. It might feel awkward at first, but the resulting trajectory will be worth the effort.

2. The Bump and Run:

The beautiful, firm fairways of links courses are perfect for the bump and run. Instead of trying to fly the ball all the way to the flag, why not let the ground do some work?

How to Play: Opt for a mid-to low-iron or even a hybrid. With a putting-like stroke, strike the ball so it lands just on the green and then let it roll, or 'run,' towards the hole. Trust the land. It's more predictable than you might think.

3. The Knockdown:

Think of the knockdown as the punch shot's older sibling. It's similar in intent but demands a tad more audacity. Especially valuable in hefty crosswinds, this shot stays low and travels fast.

The Technique: Choose more club than you typically would for the distance. Your swing should be abbreviated, resulting in reduced spin and a ball that stubbornly resists the wind.

4. The Flop Shot Over Bunkers:

Ah, the menacing links bunkers. Often deep with steep faces, they guard greens like sentinels. But with the flop shot, you can sail over them with ease.

The Approach: Grab your lob wedge. Open the face, take a full swing, and aim to slide the club under the ball. It'll pop up high and soft, clearing the bunker and landing gently on the green.

5. The Belly Putter Shot:

Just off the green, the grass is too tight for a chip but too rough for a putt. Enter the belly putter shot, a fusion of both.

The Move: Use your putter, but instead of the usual base, strike the ball with the middle of the putter’s face. The ball will pop up briefly and then scuttle along the ground, much like a putt.

6. The Stinger:

A shot that's become synonymous with Tiger Woods, the stinger is a thing of beauty on windy days.

The Method: For this low-flying missile, choose a long iron or a fairway wood. Play the ball forward in your stance, but ensure the clubface is de-lofted at impact. It’ll soar low and fast, undeterred by the gusts above.

7. The Fairway Wood Chip:

Tight lies around the links green can be intimidating. But with a fairway wood's broader sole, you can glide the club smoothly beneath the ball.

The Technique: Hold it like your putter and make a gentle chipping stroke. The ball will lift slightly and roll out beautifully.

8. Putt from Off the Green:

Sometimes, the old ways are best. Given the firm and tight conditions of a links course, you might find that your most reliable club is the one you usually reserve for the dance floor.

How to Do It: Just putt! The ball will bounce a bit initially but will soon settle into a smooth roll.

9. The High Fade:

Those challenging left-to-right winds can be a nightmare, but with the high fade, they can become an ally.

The Method: Position the ball slightly forward in your stance. Swing along an inside-out path. The ball will start left and gently curve right, riding the wind towards your target.

10. The Low Draw:

The antithesis of the high fade, this shot thrives in strong right-to-left winds.

The Technique: Place the ball slightly back in your stance and employ an outside-in swing path. The ball will shoot out right and draw back left, once again using the wind to your advantage.

Final Words

While links are undoubtedly challenging, they do offer you a chance to connect with the ancient form of golf. You’ll develop an appreciation for adversity, and perform better under pressure.

Follow some of our tips and guidelines discussed, and it will certainly make you a better links golfer.