In terms of Major venues, it’s fair to say that 2015 has been something of a vintage year. Of course, any time we are treated to the sight of the world’s finest tackling both Augusta National and the Old Course in the same calendar year it’s going to be a special season. But the extra dimension added by both Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits made the 2015 Majors truly memorable… mostly for all the right reasons.
Links lovers rejoiced, for 2015 promised a festival of seaside golf. Even the Green Jackets tried to get in on the act, setting up Augusta National to play more like the inland links that Bobby Jones and Dr Alister MacKenzie first envisaged, with the running, ground game being actively encouraged. After decades of target golf this was a welcome return to a style of play rarely practised on the professional Tours.
Jordan Spieth’s dismantling of the course, founded on impeccable course management, straight driving and prowess on the greens not seen since Tiger’s pomp, gave truth to the old adage that a great putter is a match for anyone – one that anyone who’s ever played on a links will attest to.
Chambers Bay just two months later was even more of a throwback. Despite being five years younger than the Masters champion, this remarkable course on the Puget Sound in Washington State polarised opinion even before a ball was struck in anger.
Word circulated that the slopes were ridiculous, the greens rollercoasters and even the tees sharply angled. Once play started, however, it was a breath of fresh air. Players were using slopes and contours to their advantage – as well as being punished by them. Strategy suddenly became important. The bunkers were penal and a visit invariably cost a stroke… but isn’t that the point?
Was it a links? No. Did it play like a links? Absolutely!
Either side of this we had The Open at St Andrews, where the cream eventually rose to the top of an extraordinary leaderboard, and a USPGA at the remarkable Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. Designed by Pete Dye as a Lake Michigan homage to the classic links of the UK, this beast of a course – featuring more than 1,000 bunkers – forced players to think and play in a very different way than they were used to. Again, it was a brilliant week.
And so as the season draws to a close we once again find ourselves back on the links. But this time it’s the real deal, with St Andrews Old, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns hosting the European Tour’s elite, as well as stars of stage, screen and sport. Let’s be clear though – it’s the three courses that are the real A-listers here.
Four rounds over these magnificent layouts on the east coast of Scotland will give you the full flavour of links golf in all its different forms. From the wide open spaces and double greens of the Old Course, to the burn and bunker-strewn minefield of Carnoustie and the artificially authentic dunes of Kingsbarns, this week reminds us why links golf remains the purest form of golf in the world.
There’s something so beautifully simple about playing golf on the coast. Courses don’t need to be tricked up when there’s wind and rain to contend with. The bumps and hollows that define a links, formed over decades and even centuries, provide an infinite number of routes to the hole. Or if things aren’t going so well, plenty of roads to ruin. The greens can be large and inviting, as per the Old Course, but sometimes a short chip from the rough is preferable to a 100ft putt. And then there’s the bunkering. Pots so deep you can’t see over the lip, where coming out backwards is often the only play and one shot gone feels like a good result.
Great links have that magical ability to be different every time you play them. That 340-yard par-4 can be driven on one day, yet proves unreachable in two the following morning when a hoolie blows in. There’s always a par-3 that can be anything from a pitching wedge to a 3-wood, depending on which way the wind is blowing. Making a three when it’s playing long always feels like a shot gained.
We love the firm, crisp turf… and nipping irons off it. We love putting from off the green, bunting 7-irons from 100 yards out or chipping with a hybrid and watching the ball ride the slopes towards its destination. We love the wooden fences, beyond which lie the dunes, the beach and sea. We love seeing swallows flying low to the ground, punching through the wind in a way we’d like our back-foot iron shots do. We love the swaying fescue grasses of the light rough, the glorious yellow flowers of the gorse and whins, the salt in the air and the sound of silence when the wind drops.
Most of all we love to be outside, taking on the course and the elements in the company of friends, at any time of the year. Links golf truly is the game for all seasons.
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Scotland – St Andrews, Turnberry, Kingsbarns, Royal Dornoch, Trump Links, Gullane
Ireland – Royal Portrush, Royal County Down, Doonbeg, Tralee, Portmarnock, Rosapenna
England – Royal St George’s, Royal Cinque Ports, Princes, Royal Birkdale, Royal Liverpool
Wales – Royal Porthcawl, Royal St Davids, Aberdovey, Nefyn, Pennard, Porthmadog