If you’ve ever written down your bucket list of golf courses to play before you die, it’s likely that somewhere near the top are the hallowed old links courses of Scotland or Ireland. If you’ve never teed up with a sea view, the smell of salt in the air and gulls wheeling overhead, then this guide will help you understand how to play links golf.
It’s no surprise that the greatest concentration of famous old links courses in the world are on two windswept islands, Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Ireland (Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland). The world’s first golf course, The Old Course at St Andrews, sits on a flat swathe of the North East coast of Scotland and was shaped by Mother Nature not mankind or machinery.
Sheep huddled in hollows sheltering from bracing sea winds and the first bunkers were born. The earliest mowers were livestock, grazing on tough grasses and what emerged were hard running greens and fairways.
To this day, playing links golf at one of the prestigious venues for the Open Championship, is the dream golf tour. Many golfers travel from all over the world on a pilgrimage to the world’s best links golf courses.
If you’ve never battled strong sea breezes, or aimed down a fairway lined by gorse bushes you’ll probably feel you are playing a different game.
Global Golfer founder Matthew Moore plays off scratch and lived in St Andrews for four years on golf scholarship from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. He captained the St Andrews University Men’s Golf Team and has played seaside golf the length and breadth of the British Isles.
Hit low knuckle ball drives
Fairways at links courses can be narrow and lined by gorse (a hard dense prickly shrub), pot bunkers and thick tall rough fescue grasses.
When the wind blows hard, it’s difficult to keep the ball in play and out of trouble, especially if you are used to driving the ball high through the air with a lot of spin and shape.
To play links courses well you need to drive the ball low and straight, under the wind, with less spin so that it lands and runs down the fairways.
You can do this by hitting the “knuckle ball” with your driver. This shot creates a low top spinning flight that releases and runs on landing.
- Tee the ball low, quite tight to the turf
- Choke right down on the grip
- Address the ball out of the middle of your stance
- Stack 60% of your weight on your left side
- Swing with a three quarter length at a smooth tempo, resisting the temptation to hit the ball hard and focusing on hitting the ball higher up the face with a slightly upward path through the strike
Remember, as with all full shots in the wind, the harder you hit the ball the more spin you create and the higher you will hit it, exposing it to the wind.
The knuckle ball drive will be shorter than your usual drives, but will make up for it by running on the hard links fairways. Best of all, it’s accurate and great for beating the wind and keeping the ball on short grass rather than in the gorse – which almost certainly equals a penalty drop.
How to play the punch shot
It’s not unusual to find yourself facing a shot of 125 yards into a tiny raised up green with a gale force wind blowing into your face. This is when you have to leave your ego behind, forget you hit gap wedge 130 yards if you swing full out, and play smart by choosing a much longer club and punching it to keep the flight down and reduce spin.
To play links golf well, you have to accept you will sometimes hit a 4-iron from 140 yards or an 8-iron when you only have 85 yards left. You do this by playing the punch shot – the links golfer’s best friend.
To punch the shot means to play with a shorter backswing, de-lofting the club for a lower flight and using your forearms and body together to shorten your follow through and punch aggressively through the ball at impact.
Top tips for punch shots:
- Grip down the shaft
- Position the ball further back in your stance towards your right foot
- Move your hands slightly further ahead of the ball
- Shift 65% of your weight onto your left side
- Swing ¾ length and punch through the shot with a shortened follow through below shoulder height
The lower the flight the less likely it is to be affected by the wind.
Make adjustments for the ball flying in lower and aim to land it short of the flagstick and allow it to run out towards the hole.
Putting from off the green
If you usually play on inland golf courses or at golf resorts, you probably use your lob wedge and your sand wedge most when chipping around the green, throwing the ball high and landing it soft.
At a links courses the strong winds can buffet the ball from the shortest of distances and make accurate chipping difficult. Also, it’s rare to find thick rough around a links green, the most common hazards are bunkers, run offs, bank sides and hollows, which makes it possible to put the wedge away and use the putter from off the green.
At The Open Championship you will have seen top professionals putting from 25 yards off the green with great results. This is because putting from off the green is one of the best short game choices you can make on a links. The fairways are usually extremely tight making nipping the ball off the hard turf a precise skill – and it’s easy to thin, blade or skull the shot.
Your worst putt will always be better than your worse chip, so look at the slope and undulation of the land, be practical and use your putter to get the ball up and down.
How to play the Bump and Run
You will have heard about the Scottish bump and run or seen it played. This low flying shot lands short of the green or just on the green and rolls out towards the hole like a putt.
If you have nothing between yourself and the flag then the bump and run is a brilliant option because once it lands it starts to behave like a putt and can track towards the hole. Links greens can be undulating and sloping and so landing a high chip or pitch onto a hard downslope can cause inconsistent bounces and erratic results.
How to bump and run:
- Address the ball off the right foot
- Use anything from a five iron to a 9-iron
- Weight 70% on the left side
- Sternum ahead of the ball
- Heads ahead of the ball, club sitting upright
- Make a putting stroke and hit crisply down into the back off the ball
- Pick a spot just on the green to land it and let it run towards the hole
Lie of the land
A caddie at The Old Course at St Andrews, Turnberry or Troon would tell you that it takes time to get to know the subtleties and nuances of links land and learn the bounce of the ball. Often slopes and natural features can funnel the ball towards the hole, squeeze extra yards from a drive or prevent a ball from going in a hazard.
Buying a yardage chart and studying the contours and slopes of each hole is a good idea but you can’t beat being alert and observant when you are playing the course. Watch how partners balls bounce, look at sloping fairways and anticipate if you need to play to the right for a kick to the left.
Sometimes on a links the last place you will aim is the flag, because you might need to hit it 30 yards right to catch a shoot that funnels the ball left to the hole.
The worst thing you can do when playing links golf in a wind is hit hard onto the back of the ball with a steep swing squeezing the ball up into the air and applying backspin to it. The shot will balloon and the wind will exaggerate the spin forcing it into trouble.
A good way to get around this is to have a number of hybrid clubs or utility clubs to pick from. By using a hybrid with a shallower flatter swing you can pick the ball off the top of the grass and sweep it towards the target.
It’s easier to hit lower shots that have less spin and are more accurate by hitting hybrids rather than trying to drive down hard on long irons.
Use the wind for better golf shots
The chances are that it will be windy on your links golf tour. It’s vital you make the wind your friend not your foe. The easiest way is to play with the wind rather than against it. Instead of trying to cut a three iron into a right to left wind, take a 5-iron and aim further right allowing the ball to ride the wind. It’s the same with a driver, cutting a ball into a right to left wind can take fully 80-yards off your tee shot, but, set up for a right to left draw and aim further right can result in big drives and simpler second shots.
Use the wind to your advantage and remember the harder you hit, the higher it flies and the stronger the effect on the ball and its spin.
Take your medicine in Bunkers
Our final tip for playing links golf is to be able to take your medicine and play safe when you find yourself in bunkers. Have you heard of the “Sands of Nakijima”?, more commonly called the “Road Hole” bunker at the 17th on The Old Course at St Andrews.
It’s typical of the deep pot bunkers with riveted faces common on the links courses of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. I mention it here because it’s a classic example of how a round can come unstuck when a golfer tries to execute a miracle recovery from a deep bunker. If you aren’t at least 90% certain you can clear the lip don’t risk duffing it into a riveted face and having it drop straight down into an even worse spot.
It’s no shame to play out sideways or even backwards from a links pot bunker if it means you can save a bogey or even better stop yourself making a quad or scoring in double figures.
Opt for the conservative shot that will guarantee you have at least a chance of a reasonable score – if you don’t you might find a bunker named after you.
Global Golfer’s top-tips for how to play Links Golf:
- Knuckle ball your drives
- Play with punch not ego
- Be practical putt from off the green
- Bump and run to make the game fun
- Learn the lie of the land
- Hybrids are heavenly on the links
- Make the wind your friend
- Take your medicine in the bunkers
If this guide to playing links golf has whet your appetite read about golf vacations at some of the world’s best links courses: