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Tips for playing true links golf courses in Ireland and Scotland

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l just returned from two weeks in the UK where I played nine of the greatest links golf courses of the world. This was my third year in a row of exploring links golf, as the two years prior I went to Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links, which are probably the two places in North America that most closely resemble links turf.

The term “links” has been widely used in our country to mean several things, which it really is not, such as “I’m hittin’ the links tomorrow.” In other words, playing golf. But the term has a more precise definition: Links land is land that links the sea to the arable land further on shore. The area where the sea was, has receded and now leaves an expanse of turf which will only support the growth of some reddish brown fescue grasses. So if the color green is what you like on a golf course, stay home.

The growth is very low, the land is very rolling and hilly, firm, and the ground is simply whatever the sea has left on its retreat. While the golf courses on this land are pretty much whatever nature left there, a human being had to come and decide where tees, greens, bunkers etc., should be placed. It is even likely that many of the bunkers on the old courses might have been naturally dug by sheep and other animals seeking shelter from the harsh winds that blow in these area. Folklore? Fact? Who knows. But I do know this, the game that is played on this land is a whole other game than what many of us have come to know. The most we get in North America are “links style” or “links like” courses, usually meaning the absence of trees. These are not links courses. Here are some notable differences in how true links courses play.

First of all, because of the wind and the tight, firm turf, the golf ball flies lower. My advice is do not try to do anything about this, it’s simply a matter of the ballistics of impact. Think about shots you have played here in the U.S. from “hard pan” — they fly lower. You do not have the one inch or so grass under the golf ball as a launching pad, so accept lower flight…on ALL shots from the turf, not just around the green.

Now this works in your favor, because much of the time, we don’t want the golf ball to fly too high with the ever-present winds blowing. Most mistakes are made by players who try to hit high shots off very tight lies. Around the greens, putt whenever you can! When I did chip, I had some success with the ball slightly back, weight forward and hands ahead but… very little wrist set on most shots around the green, regardless of club selection. This keeps the hands in front, but avoids getting too steep into the firm turf. So if you closely observe elite-level players they are hitting de-lofted, low shots with a shallow somewhat shallow attack angle. I think anyone wishing to improve their iron game should learn to play links-land golf courses. There is far more putting and chipping with hybrids and 6-irons from off the green than in the U.S.

The second thing to be aware of is the line of play. It is critical in links golf. Take for example. a bunker guarding a green on one side. If you are forced to play over that bunker for your approach, you are faced with a very difficult shot, which invariably bounces over the green and into some heather or gorse behind the green making for an impossible up and in. My advice is play away from the bunker and short of the green for a much simpler short chip or putt. Here at home we can play over bunkers when forced to (it’s not optimal) because the softer greens mostly hold shots. Not in links golf! So try and check the hole location to know what side of the fairway to play in from. Yes, I know most of you are thinking, “I just wanna hit it solid,” but these observations could help, when you CAN control your tee ball. Try your level best to come into the green from the open, unprotected side.

Another word to the wise: avoid the heather (high rough fescue) and REALLY avoid the gorse bushes (unplayable lies to be sure). These grasses often cross the fairways so, when you play there, be sure to know how far they are from you; treat them like the hazards they are. You’ll need to lay well back of them if you can. I’d advise having 180 in from the fairway over 140 in the fescue. It is that different. Of course we can’t simply control tee shots, I’m referring more to the lay up shots. A bogey is NOT a bad score. Doubles and “others” come from the gorse, deep fairway bunkers and the heavy rough.

Which brings me to my next point, the roll of the golf ball. A shot on a links course is never good until it stops rolling! I hit a few drives 300 yards (I’m 70 years old). I hit what I thought were good draws right down the middle only to find them in the left fescue. If you do have a swing from the light rough (fescue) and the grass is growing toward the green, allow for “flyers” that might run 50 yards after landing. I hit an 8-iron that ended up near 200 yards once!

Avoid the fairway pot bunkers at all costs. If you get in one, take your sand wedge and play back to the fairway. I observed a number of players trying to play at the green. This is a HUGE mistake. Forget your distance to the hole, forget the green and get back on the fairway. It will save you a lot of strokes. Bobby Jones once remarked that the toughest shot in golf is the “pitch back to the fairway.”

In the greenside bunkers, there is less of a problem, but I might offer this advice: You are likely to find wetter, heavier sand than you might in the U.S. These shots require less bounce on the sand wedge or lob wedge, so one might consider that in your club selection. If you play your regular sand wedge, you may want to open it less at address and not “fan it” as much taking it back. This will minimize the bounce, let the leading edge work a little more than we might in fine, loose sand and help you explode better on to the green.

Another distinction…actual yardage means less than it does here at home. The wind, the elevation, the roll of the golf ball, all affect your club selection much more so than the actual yardage. The best advice here is get a good caddy who knows the actual distance, but will give you the real playing yardage.

The greens are large, quite undulating amd MUCH less defined. They also roll slower than out golf courses, because they are so exposed. A green speed over 10 is unlikely. The biggest difference we encounter is the effect of the wind on putts. If you get an experienced caddie, he/she is likely to remind you FIRST of the wind factor on the putts. For those of us who play in the states, wind is not the first thought we have on the putting surface. But it needs to be on the seaside fine fescue links greens. If those greens were at the speed of some creeping bent grasses, rounds might take in excess of six hours!

If you love of the game, and it is at all possible, go play golf in Scotland and or Ireland. There is something mystical about crossing the Swilcan Bridge, or playing out of the road hole bunker that no other place in golf offers. Walking the ancient fairways of Ballybunion or St. Andrews, where it is likely that every great player who has ever lived has played, (Augusta by comparison has been played by every great since 1934; Old Tom Morris was long gone by then) is a truly memorable experience.

These countries gave us our game game as we know it, and it is their national pasttime. I do not mean to discredit Cypress Point or Pine Valley, Merion or Oakmont one bit. They are wonderful fields of play (and much more difficult in my opinion) but they go back 100 years, not perhaps 500 years or more. The hallowed grounds that comprise the old links courses have been there since time began, and the idea of hitting a ball in a hole with a stick started there, and these things are palpable when you play there. But be prepared, it is a different game to be sure. And be sure to pack for every weather situation you can imagine. Even in the same day! I asked my caddie at the Old Course what the weather forecast was. He replied, “I can give you a 3-hole forecast at best.” And right he was. There were at least six weather changes that day. Anyway, I hope these tips help you if you ever get across the pond.

PS: Be prepared for five-plus hour rounds. Most of these courses are “bucket list” destinations and tourists take their time!

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors. Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Bob P

    Dec 19, 2018 at 10:40 am

    Dennis,

    What were the 9 courses you played

  2. RFP

    Dec 19, 2018 at 9:27 am

    Dennis, which 9 course did you play?

  3. Debtor

    Sep 9, 2018 at 10:19 pm

    Lost all credibility with the photo of Old Head to lead the story off…

  4. Tartan Golf Travel

    Sep 9, 2018 at 10:56 am

    I own a Golf Travel company and we specialize in trips to Scotland and Ireland. A couple of tips. 1. Forget your umbrella and just have great waterproofs. 2. Find some hidden gems which will offset the costs of playing some of the high $ must play courses. 3. Take caddie. A lot of tee shots are blind.

    I just sent a group over last week. 7 days all in St. Andrews. (Kingsbarns, Old Course, New , Jubilee, Castle, Carnoustie, North Berwick. £2000

  5. SV

    Sep 9, 2018 at 10:27 am

    First, I have only once encountered a round close to five hours, even playing Carnousie, St. Andrews Old and others. Second, lower your score expectations. A low handicap golfer will generally shoot from 5-10 strokes above their normal score. Higher handicaps will generally be even more above their norm.
    As opposed to the US you can easily play private clubs, although some require proof of handicap. Most of all it is a great experience.

  6. T

    Sep 9, 2018 at 8:39 am

    Ireland is not the UK.
    And why do you Yanks always have to add extra bits like “true” before the actual subject and embellish it? It’s a links course. That’s it. That’s all it is. No need for true. So much hyperbolic language in the US and you fool each other thinking there are fake things in the world to trick you or something. Weird culture you got.

    • Dennis clark

      Sep 9, 2018 at 11:01 am

      True that. I mistakenly referred to Ireland in UK which in fact iinckudes Northern Ireland. True is an adjective to distinguish Links from faux links and to identify the turf on which it lies. That is hardly an embellishment or hyperbole. Regarding to the culture here as “weird” seems uniquely hyperbolic however.

      • Johnny Penso

        Sep 9, 2018 at 8:03 pm

        I believe his point is that the adjective is not necessary. A course is either a links or it is not. So one only need say, “these are the features of a links type of golf course” and if you want to juxtapose that with what we North Americans would commonly call a “links style” course you would simply say it isn’t a links course because it doesn’t have the aforementioned features of a links course. Or you could say it’s no more a links course than a copy of the Mona Lisa is a “Mona Lisa style” painting. I live in Canada and it is weird to me. I especially love the double adjective.

        “How was the course today”
        “It wasn’t hard hard but it was still pretty hard”

        Drives me a little batty when I hear people talking like that and it happens all the time…lol.

  7. James

    Sep 8, 2018 at 5:47 pm

    … and always remember to bring along a flask of a good single-malt scotch.

  8. Dennis clark

    Sep 8, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    I didn’t go there. Or I would have written about them.

  9. Luke

    Sep 8, 2018 at 1:17 pm

    Why exclude England and Wales. There are plenty of great links course in those countries.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Is your driver the first “scoring club”?

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I was traveling Sunday and didn’t get to watch the end of the PGA Championship, so imagine my shock Monday morning when I read what had happened on that back nine. Like most everyone, I figured Brooks Koepka had his game and his emotions completely under control and Sunday’s finish would be pretty boring and anti-climactic. Man, were we wrong!!?

As I read the shot-by-shot, disaster-by-disaster account of what happened on those few holes, I have to admit my somewhat cynical self became engaged. I realize the conditions were tough, but it still boils down to the fact that Koepka nearly lost this PGA Championship because he couldn’t execute what I call “basic golf” – hitting fairways and greens – when it counted. And Dustin Johnson lost his ability to do the same just as he got within striking distance.

I’ve long been a critic of the way the game has come to be played at the highest levels; what we used to call “bomb and gouge” has become the norm at the professional tour level. These guys are big strong athletes, and they go at it harder than anyone ever did in “the old days”. Watch closely and you’ll see so many of them are on their toes or even off the ground at impact, especially with the driver. Call me old-fashioned, but I just don’t see how that can be the path to consistent shotmaking.

So, my curiosity then drove me to the year-to-date statistics on the PGA Tour website to dive into this a bit deeper. What I found was quite interesting, and I believe can be helpful to all of you readers as you think about how to lower your handicap this season. Follow me here, as I think there are some very helpful numbers from the PGA Tour.
I’ve long contended that golf is a game of ball control . . . let’s call it shotmaking. Your personal strength profile will determine whether you are a long hitter or not, and there’s probably not a lot you can do (or will do) to change that dramatically. But PGA Tour statistics indicate that accuracy, not distance, is the key to better scoring.

The Tour leader in driving accuracy is Jim Furyk, the only guy who is hitting more than 75% of the fairways. The Tour average is under 62%, or not even 2 out of 3. That means the typical round has the tour professional playing at least 4-5 approach shots from the rough. I’m going to come back to that in just a moment and explore the “cost” of those missed fairways.

The Tour leader in greens-in-regulation is Tiger Woods at 74%, almost 3-out-of-4 . . . but the Tour average is less than 66%, or just under 2-out-of-3. I believe enlightenment comes by breaking that GIR statistic down even further.
From the fairway, the Tour leader in GIR is Justin Thomas at 85% and the worst guy at 65%, three points better than the tour average for GIR overall. Hmmmmm. From the rough, however, the best guy on Tour is Taylor Gooch at 63.4%, which is not as good as the very last guy from the fairway.

But let’s dive even a bit deeper to better understand the importance of driving accuracy. Is it true these guys are so good from the rough that hitting fairways doesn’t matter? Not according to the numbers.

From the rough in the range of 125-150 yards – a wedge for most of these guys – the tour’s best hit it 25-27 feet from the hole and only 30 tour pros are averaging inside 30 feet from that distance. But from the fairway, 25 yards further back – 150-175 yards – the tour’s best hit it inside 21-23 feet, and 160 guys are getting closer than 30 feet on average. Even from 175-200 in the fairway, the best on tour hit it closer than the best on tour from the rough 50 yards closer.

So, what do you do with this information? I encourage any serious golfer to really analyze your own rounds to see the difference in your scoring on holes where you find the fairway versus those where you don’t. I feel certain you’ll find throttling back a bit with your driver and focusing more on finding the fairway, rather than trying to squeeze a few more yards of the tee will help you shoot lower scores.

If you have the inclination to see what more fairways can do to your own scores, here’s a little experiment for you. Get a buddy or two for a “research round” and play this game: When you miss a fairway, walk the ball straight over to the fairway, and then 15 yards back. So, you’ll hit every approach from the fairway, albeit somewhat further back – see what you shoot.

Next week I’m going to follow up this “enlightenment” with some tips and techniques that I feel certain will help you hit more fairways so you can take this to the bank this season.

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Opinion & Analysis

Hot & Cold: Where strokes were won and lost at the PGA Championship

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In “Hot & Cold,” we’ll be focusing each week on what specific areas of the game players excelled and disappointed in throughout the previous tournament. On Sunday, Brooks Koepka made it four wins from his last eight appearances at major championships, and here’s a look at where some of the most notable players gained and lost strokes over the four days of action at Bethpage Black.

Hot

While Brooks Koepka’s play off the tee was excellent at last week’s PGA Championship, the American utterly dominated the field with his deadly approach play. The 29-year-old led the field in New York for his approach play gaining 9.5 strokes over his competitors. In case you were wondering, this represents Koepka’s career-best performance with his irons. Check out the clubs Koepka did the damage with at Bethpage Black in our WITB piece here.

Jordan Spieth finished T3 at last week’s event, and the Texan was streets ahead of anyone for the four days with the flat-stick in hand. Spieth gained a mammoth 10.6 strokes over the field on the greens of Bethpage Black, which is over three strokes more than anyone else achieved. It was the best-putting display of the 25-year-old’s career thus far, and Spieth now heads to Colonial CC ranked first in this week’s field for strokes gained: putting over his last 12 rounds.

Dustin Johnson came agonizingly close to capturing his second major title last week, and encouragingly for DJ is that he gained strokes in all of the significant strokes gained categories. Johnson also led the field for strokes gained: off the tee, gaining 7.2 strokes over the field – his best performance in this area this year.

Cold

Bubba Watson endured a wretched two days on the greens at Bethpage Black. In just 36 holes, Watson lost 6.8 strokes to the field with the flat-stick. Even more frustrating for Watson is that he gained 6.5 strokes for the two day’s tee to green. A tale of what could have been for the two-time Masters champion.

Phil Mickelson faded badly at last week’s championship, and it was a poor display with his irons that did the damage. Lefty lost 6.3 strokes to the field for his approach play in New York, which is his worst display in this area for 2019.

It was a quick exit for Tiger Woods at Bethpage Black, and though the 15-time major champion was far from his best off the tee (losing half a stroke), it was Woods’ putting that was his undoing. Woods lost almost a stroke and a half on the greens at Bethpage – his worst display with the putter since last August.

 

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Courses

Brough Creek National: The backyard course you wish you’d built

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted a golf course in your backyard.

Of course you have.

Now leave your hand raised if you actually rolled up your sleeves and made it happen.

Among the very few people left with their hands in the air are Ben Hotaling, Zach Brough, Evan Bissell, and Mark Robinson, the driving force behind Brough Creek National. That’s right. These guys are building a golf course in their backyard. From scratch.

The true beginnings of golf aren’t well-documented, but one thing’s for sure: people were playing golf at least 400 years before the first working internal combustion engine. Long before golf course architecture was a multi-million dollar investment before the first dime of revenue trickled in, courses were laid down largely by hand using the natural movement of the land. In that same spirit, Ben happened to notice that there was one particular shot in their backyard that reminded him of the Road Hole at St. Andrews, as it plays over their barn and to a green situated right in front of the road to the property.

Ben ultimately convinced his roommate Zach, whose family has owned the land for some time, that they should clear some trees and put in a makeshift green for their Road Hole. That was in 2015 and, while that’s technically the genesis of Brough Creek National, it was in 2018 when they started sharing their ideas in No Laying Up’s online forum section that things escalated rather quickly. Bouncing ideas off their fellow compatriots revealed great natural setups for a Biarritz/punch bowl combination, a Redan, and more. Before they knew it, they had a 630-yard, 7-hole golf course criss-crossing through the three-acre property in Kansas City, KS.

Road Hole green at Brough Creek National

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Brough Creek National is that it has operated solely off of donations, which started with a weed eater here and a can of herbicide there and has since grown to a recent GoFundMe campaign of $15,000. These donations have allowed them to purchase grass seed and other vital equipment to see the project through. The community aspect of Brough Creek National is so important to what they’re trying to achieve that anyone who provides their name and address on the website is sent a free new membership packet (I happen to be member #209). Included are some stickers, a ballmark, and a welcome letter that states (among other things),

“We are proud to have you as a lifetime national member at our exclusive, member-owned (and maintained) club…The vision of Brough Creek National is to have a place for community golf modeled around fun for members and guests from all golfing backgrounds…Your dues will be assessed at the rate of $0.00 annually.”

Ben further emphasizes the importance of the community aspect by saying:

“I think Brough Creek stands for community. It’s like-minded individuals coming together and supporting something they’re proud of. It’s a smart, intriguing golf course, but it’s ultimately about making friends and that’s what matters. The quality of the golf course is almost inconsequential because the real purpose is to assemble this brotherhood of people who are passionate about the game of golf. We think it’s done in a way that sheds the elitist stigma that golf has often struggled with and we’re almost mocking that in a playful way.”

“I’m not going to tell anyone they have to experience the game a certain way, but we try to go above and beyond to be approachable and welcoming because we think that’s more important than status. Golf’s not a money-making business. It’s just not. So, why don’t we just take that out of it, come together as a community, and create something we can all be proud of?”

If we’re all having an honest moment, not even Ben and Zach know exactly how this project is going to evolve, but one thing’s for sure: an emphasis on maximizing fun for the highest number of the golfing community is never a bad place to start. Those who believe par and total yardage are irrelevant in determining the amount of fun available to them should be in for a treat. To watch the project unfold, check out www.someguysbackyard.com and follow @someguysbackyrd on Twitter and @someguysbackyard on Instagram.

Below is an overview of the course, narrated by Ben Hotaling

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