For many golfers, the dream of playing a links-style golf course is on the top of their golfing bucket list, but unfortunately, links-style courses are far and few between in the US.
The vast majority of the links-style courses can be found across the pond in Scotland and Ireland. Australia also has several traditional links-style courses located in the country’s southeast.
Having been lucky enough to have played links courses on more than a few occasions, I can tell you that, in my opinion, there is genuinely no better golfing experience. I love the wide-open expanses, the wild fescue grasses, the gigantic greens, and the diabolical bunkers. Many links-style courses are located on the coastline and offer spectacular panoramic views and have unique flora and fauna; it’s a beautiful day out on the links that every golfer should experience.
As golf fans, you’re probably aware that the British Open is played on links-style courses each and every year. The tournament is the only major championship that’s played outside the US. The British Open operates on a rolling calendar, meaning different links-style golf courses get the right to host the event each year.
Ok, so now we’re done with the pleasantries, let’s get down to business because if you’ve never played golf on a links-style course, boy, are you in for a shock. You’ll be faced with situations requiring you to hit shots you’ve never played before; there are not many golf courses in the US where you’ll be forced to putt from more than 100 feet.
The goal of this guide is simple; when you get the chance to tee it up on a links-style course, I want you to play great golf and have the best-golfing experience of your life.
In this guide to links golf, you’ll learn:
- What a links-style golf course is
- Tips on playing links golf
- Equipment that you’ll need
- Tips on putting
- Tips on specific shots for links golf
- Mastering the bunkers and much, much more.
So without further adieu, let’s get you prepared for your next big bucket list challenge; conquering and enjoying links-style golf.
What Is a Links Golf Course?
If you live in the US, the chances are you’ve probably never had the opportunity to play links-style golf, and for a very good reason. Most of the courses in the US are “resort-style” or “parkland-style” courses which are vastly different from links-style courses in nearly every way.
Links Golf courses are defined as “a large open undulating stretch of land beside the sea laid out for the playing of golf.” The word itself is derived from the Scottish word “hlinc” which means “rising ground” or ridge and refers to an area of coastal dunes and sometimes to open parkland.
Links golf courses tend to differ in four main ways; let’s take a closer look.
The lie of the Land
The first thing you’ll notice when you’re standing on the first tee is the wide-open and undulating fairways that look so big that, quite frankly, they’re pretty hard to miss. The soil underneath the fairways is sandy and generally very hard, which means you can expect a considerable amount of run from your tee shot and long irons.
Architects of these links-style courses use the topography of the land to create some very unique lies that, on occasion seem outright impossible to play from. The fairways are undulating and are dotted with bunkers that can be up to 10 feet deep; trust me; you don’t want to land in one of them.
The Greens Are Different; Vastly Different
On a links-style golf course, the greens are absolutely massive, and although there are some courses in the US that have similar characteristics to links courses, none of them genuinely stack up. The greens are undulating and often require you to putt from 100 feet or more, and choosing the right line to putt on is a nightmare due to the undulating surface.
The speed is the most significant difference between the greens on links-style courses and the resort-style course. The greens on resort-style courses are lightning quick compared to links-style courses, renowned for being much slower; this is why many PGA Tour players struggle to putt well at the British Open.
Yes, even some of the grasses you’ll encounter are vastly different from those found in the US; now, that’s not to say you won’t find them on courses in the US, but they’re few and far between.
Fescue is the grass of choice for golf course designers of links courses as the grass needs very little if any maintenance. Fescue grass is thick, really thick, and even the best players in the world have trouble getting their ball back on the fairway. Generally, the fescue can be found lining the fairways and strategically placed at the edge of some greens and bunkers.
Deep Deep Bunkers
The bunkers found on links-style courses are very deep and often have huge lips, making them almost impossible to play out of. Some of the bunkers are so deep they even have stairs to help players and caddies get in and out of them.
Avoiding bunkers is your best bet, but no matter how well you strike the ball, you’re inevitably going to end up in one. If you find yourself in a deep bunker, take your medicine; don’t try the “hero” shot; it will only lead to disaster.
Most links-style golf courses are located right on the coast, so the weather also plays a significant factor. Wind can blow a gale, and on a few occasions, the play has been delayed and suspended at the British Open due to gale force winds.
Expert Tips On Playing Links Golf
So as you can see, what we’ve already covered, playing links golf is a unique experience. As such, learning to conquer this style of golf requires imagination, creativity, and patience; did I mention patience?
The tips you’re about to learn below are practical, simple, and easy to implement. Some require you to learn and practice some new shots, while others require you to experiment with ball flight, such as learning to hit the Tiger Woods “stinger.”
Specific Equipment For Links Golf
The first thing you’ll want to make sure you have in order are your golf clubs. If you have hybrid or fairway woods, you’re much better to substitute them for long irons. The reason for this is simple; Links-style courses are notoriously windy, and long irons have a much lower ball flight which penetrates the wind and provides plenty of run on the fairways.
Hybrid and fairway woods tend to have high ball flights, which are perfect for resort-styles courses where the greens are soft.
Next up is your attire. Links-style courses are generally susceptible to unpredictable weather; one minute, it can be warm and sunny, the next, rainy, cold, and blowing a gale. Ensuring you have wet-weather gear is a must, as is a windbreaker and a pair of warm gloves. Packing a beanie is also a good option, and don’t forget some good sunscreen, not necessarily for the sun, but it will help protect from wind-burn.
Last but not least, you’ll need a couple of pairs of golf shoes, preferably waterproof and comfortable. Most links-style courses don’t allow motorized carts, so you’ll be walking the 18 holes. I much prefer walking anyway because it gives you a chance to experience the full links style of golf.
The Tiger Woods Stinger Shot
You undoubtedly know what the Tiger Woods “stinger” shot is if you’re an avid golf fan. But for those who don’t, let me explain. The Tiger “stinger” is just another name for what you might know as a “punch-shot.”
When playing on a links-style course, it’s not unusual to be 100 yards from the green and playing into a galeforce headwind; this is where the stinger or punch shot comes to the rescue. The lower ball flight helps penetrate the wind and has the added bonus of holding its line for much longer.
When playing the stinger, you need to leave your ego in the hotel room. Forget about trying to blast a full swing with a pitching wedge instead, club down with an 8-iron, and take a smooth three-quarter swing to keep the ball low. The lower ball flight will also run on the greens, which is precisely what you want when playing links golf.
Playing the Tiger stinger is actually much easier than you think; granted, though, no matter how much you practice, you’ll probably never hit it as good as Tiger. Practice makes perfect, so get out on the practice range and start experimenting with the Tiger stinger today.
How To Play The Tiger Stinger
- Firstly move your hands down on the grip near the shaft
- Play the ball from further back in your stance
- Ensure your hands are in front of the ball; de-lofting the club
- Have 70% of your body weight on your left side (right-handed golfers)
- Take one or two extra clubs than you usually would
- Use a smooth three-quarter swing and keep your follow-through low and abbreviated.
Remember; the punch shot will not spin when it lands on the green; instead, it will run, so make sure you land the ball well short of your intended target, allowing it to run towards the pin.
Putting From The Fairway
If you’re used to playing resort-style golf courses with soft greens, then the chances are you’re an expert with your lob and gap wedge; the only problem is that these clubs rarely come in handy when it comes to links-style courses.
On links golf courses, the greens are undulating, making chipping difficult, but the wind can also blow, affecting how your ball reacts on the putting surface. Unlike resort-style courses, links courses have very little rough around the greens, making them perfect for putting instead of chipping. The adage, “your worst putt is as good as your best chip,” definitely rings true for links golf.
If you’ve watched the British Open on TV, I’m sure you’ve seen PGA Tour pros putting from 25 to 30 yards off the green. This is because they understand the above adage, and chipping on links-style courses can be risky. Fairways on links courses are cut “tight,” meaning you have to be extremely precise with your chipping to “nip” the ball cleanly and not “flub” it.
Remember, links-style courses demand different types of shots, so don’t fight against it; instead, embrace the challenge because, in the long run, adding new shots to your arsenal will only help to improve your golf.
Learning To Play the Bump And Run
Growing up playing golf in Australia, one of the most important shots you need to master is the “bump and run.” Links-style courses are typically hard and fast, unlike the resort-style greens most American golfers are used to, which are soft and perfect for spinning the ball.
The “bump and run” lands short of the green, and as the name suggests, the ball generally takes one bump into the fairway just short of the green and “runs” out towards the pin. Wind, undulations, and hard-compacted greens make the bump and run necessary for conquering links-style golf.
Links-style greens are massive, and as such, the bump and run is the perfect shot because once the ball hits the green, it starts to act exactly as a putt would. If you find plenty of green between you and the hole, the bump and run should be your “go-to” shot. On a resort-style course, your better option would be to take a lob wedge and spin the ball back towards the hole.
How to Play The Bump And Run
- Place the ball back in your stance as close to your right foot as possible
- You can use any club you feel confident with; everything from a 3-iron to a 9-iron
- As with the stinger, approximately 70% of your body weight should be on your left side
- Make sure your hands are slightly in front of the ball
- Use a putting style stroke and hit “down” on the ball
- Ensure you’ve picked a target of where you want to land the ball before it starts running to the pin.
Don’t be afraid of the bump and run shot; as with the stinger, it’s a shot that needs to be practiced, but again, any time you can add new shots to your game, it’s only going to improve your golf in the long run.
Reading The Lie Of The Land
Ask any experienced caddy at any of the links courses in Scotland, and they’ll tell you that it takes years and years to read the different lies of the land found on links-style golf courses. Understanding the lie of the land is a considerable advantage and can help you steer clear of any trouble you may not have foreseen.
There are often little “nooks” and “crannies” that can funnel your ball to the pin or give you an extra 30 to 40 yards on your drive. Your best option is to purchase a yardage book from the pro shop. Yardage books have details on the contours and undulations of the greens and fairways, details on wind conditions, locations of hazards, and much more.
Knowing the undulations of the green comes in handy because often, on links greens, you won’t be able to attack the pin directly; rather, you’ll need to use the contours of the green to get the ball close to the pin.
Hybrids Can Help
Now I know earlier on I said you’re better off swapping out your hybrids for long irons, but there are some circumstances where using hybrid clubs can come in handy.
For example, fairways on a links-style golf courses are cut tight, and having a club with a shallow face can help you “sweep” the ball cleanly, rather than taking a divot the size of Alaska. Contrary to popular belief, hybrid clubs can help you to keep the ball low; however, you’ll need to play a “stinger” type shot to achieve a low-penetrating ball flight.
The last thing you want on a links course is to have your ball flight “balloon” and get caught up in the wind; this could lead to your shot either coming up too short or long over the back of the green. If you’re a low-handicapper, I would still highly recommend using your long-irons; however, it’s probably easier for high-handicappers to use your hybrid club with a “stinger-type” follow-through.
Embrace The Wind: Don’t Fight It
There’s nothing worse than heading out for a round of golf on a beautiful sunny day only to arrive at the course to be greeted by 40mph winds.
But as with most things in life, perception is everything; you can either fight against the wind, which never ends well, or use the wind to your advantage. Hint: the latter is the smarter option, especially if you want to score low.
For example, if the wind is howling from right to left, don’t try to stripe a 3-iron through the wind; instead, take a 5-iron and aim further right, allowing your golf ball to “ride” the breeze. The same rings true on the tee box; rather than trying to “cut” a driver back into the wind, you’re better off aiming further to the right and letting the ball ride the breeze.
Generally speaking, hitting with the wind, the ball flies further, and playing against the wind, your ball travels a much shorter distance. Understanding when to use the wind to your benefit can be a real advantage over the rest of the playing group.
Don’t Be A Hero In The Bunkers
My final but arguably most crucial tip for playing your best golf on links courses, is to take your medicine when you land in the deep and diabolical bunkers.
Now the easiest way to mitigate this problem is by avoiding the bunkers altogether, but anyone who has played on links courses knows that is not a viable option. Bunkers on link-style courses are littered everywhere. You’ll find them lining the fairways, around the greens, and even smack-bang-in-the-middle of some fairways, hidden behind a little mound or dune.
Most of the time, you’ll be forced to play out backward, but that’s the easiest play and exactly what I mean by “taking your medicine.” Don’t try to be a hero and bomb a long iron out the bunker because, more than likely, you’ll end up hitting the lip, which could result in your ball getting “plugged.”
The 18th Hole
So before we wrap this up, let’s recap the most critical parts of playing links golf:
- Understand the lie of the land
- Use long irons to keep the ball low
- Take the appropriate equipment with you
- Putt, instead of chipping the ball around the greens
- Don’t be a hero in the bunkers
- Embrace the environmental conditions like the wind and rain
- Learn to play shots like the “bump and run” and the “stinger”
Remember, links-style golf courses are stunningly beautiful and at the end of the day, enjoying nature is far more important than shooting a good score.