Links courses deliver golf in its intended original and purest form.
George Peper and Malcolm Campbell in their book True Links describe links as “the game distilled to its core virtues – to experience golf not only as it was hundreds of years ago but arguably as it should be today – a simple, beguiling game in no need of embellishment.” As someone that grew up playing links golf from a young age, I certainly share this sentiment.
As of the year-end in 2018, the R&A stated that there were 38,864 golf courses in 209 of the world’s 249 countries. Yet, in 2010 with the release of their book, George Peper and Malcolm Campbell found that there are only 246 courses that can be considered ‘True Links’
The definition of what constitutes a link golf course has changed multiple times since its first use in the 1700s. Once simply referring to any golf course, a meaning that also still remains in use, it now refers more specifically to the type of land on which a golf course is built.
The British Golf Museum, at the home of golf in St. Andrew’s, defines a links as “land near the coast characterised by undulating terrain, often associated with dunes, infertile sandy soil and indigenous grasses such as marram, sea lyme, and the fescues and bents which, when properly managed, produce the fine textured turf for which links are famed.”
Links-style courses have had something of a renaissance in recent years. Newer seaside courses, whilst not necessarily traditional links, have been appearing and designers have clearly used links golf as their inspiration. West Cliffs in Portugal, opening in 2017, is one example I can think of that uses its natural sand dune terrain.
Economical and ecologically friendly, links golf may not just be golfing history but also still a large part of its future. Links courses are built to fit within the land, rather than thrusting itself upon it. Okay, not everywhere in the world has the coastline and rolling dunes, however, the principles of links golf are likely to guide modern course architecture for many years to come.
Links golf is often a labour of love for golfers that do not grow up playing links courses.
Legendary golfer Tom Watson has spoken openly about his original dislike for links golf during his first few experiences. However, he has since written about how he grew to love links golf and that some of his favourite golfing experiences were on traditional links courses. This is a story shared by many golfers.
Links golf is a growing acceptance and understanding that you cannot begrudge the course for a bad bounce or strong gust of wind. Good bounces will come too.
You must remain patient and strategically plot your way through all 18 holes. Wind is the crucial factor that makes links golf courses so challenging, despite the often shorter yardages. It is not the target golf so commonly seen on the PGA Tour. Keeping the ball lower and using the course’s natural contours to your advantage is rewarded. Higher ball flights and lofted pitches allow the unpredictable wind to play an unwanted role in the outcome of your shots.
A list of the best links courses in Great Britain and Ireland (GB&I) is always going to be divisive. Links golf evokes passionate responses from locals with special connections to their home or favourite course. Such passion is rarely seen regarding other golf courses around the world. So, it is worth noting the following list is purely my opinion.
I am going to select five links courses. However, this is not an exclusive list of what I consider the best courses. I have given a specific reason for each course being chosen.
To be honest, there are so many remarkable and stunning links courses in GB&I that it is just impossible to narrow it down to so few. A list of the top 100 would still exclude many exceptional courses.
Experience History at The Home of Golf
What else can you say to describe the Old Course at St. Andrews? Almost everything has been said and it is practically impossible not to slip into a cliche when describing this course. Known by most golf aficionados as The Home of Golf, it is the place where golf began and has been considered the pinnacle of golf ever since.
The Old Course is probably not the best links golf course in GB&I, nor does it have the best views. It does have some exceptional holes, such as the infamous Road Hole, and it requires you to strategically plot your way around the course. Yet, beyond this, it represents something far greater than any other course can offer. The history of St. Andrews is forever embedded into the game of golf and playing the Old Course is something every true golf fan wants to experience at least once in their lifetime.
The Best Golf Course in the World?
Royal County Down is a links golf course that has found itself on the top of many peoples list of the greatest golf courses in the world. The Championship course combines every element you want from a links course. The layout is just how mother nature intended it, weaving its way through dunes, heather and gorse. There are numerous blind shots, heather-edged bunkers and natural undulations that defend this golf course beyond the usual windy conditions.
Then there is the setting, located with beautiful views of the nearby Mountains of Mourne and Bay of Dundrum. The 4th and 9th holes can both be considered among the most photographed in golf, such is the natural beauty of Royal County Down. This course is a definite bucket list course for many golfers.
Underrated and Exceptional Value
Bear with me here, as I appreciate many of you may not have heard of Silloth-on-Solway and it seems an odd choice on this list. But, as I mentioned earlier, I am not claiming these are the five best links courses. However, Silloth is not a course to be sniffed at and is, in my opinion, incredibly underrated. It encapsulates everything that links golfers love. There is good use of the natural sand dune terrain, plenty of blind shots, penal gorse and heather throughout and an unrelenting wind.
There are an excellent variety of holes throughout and I think Silloth deserves its place among the best links courses in GB&I. Equally, the other reason it is on my list is the green fees. Perhaps this is largely due to the remote location, but with green fees ranging from £35-75, this course perhaps represents the best value for money of any courses considered ranked within the Top 100 in the UK.
Links Golf at its Challenging and Quirky Best
Host of The Open in 2021, Royal St. George’s is a course constantly featured in the argument for England’s best links golf course. It is usually a toss-up between three ‘Royal’ courses, including Birkdale and Lytham. I am going to sit on the fence and say they are all incredibly good courses in different ways and you should try to play them all at some point.
My reasoning for choosing Royal St. George’s on this list could easily be the same as the negatives given to it by its detractors. But, it is inarguably a links course in all its eccentric glory. It features blind tee shots, bounding typography, massive greens and huge bunkers cut into the dunes. You might get the odd bad bounce or occasionally choose the wrong line, but in my opinion that is what adds to the complexity of links golf. Almost every hole is memorable at Royal St. George’s for a different reason. It is a course you could play your entire life and still find new ways to be fascinated by it.
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