Commentary

It takes time to learn the links

Originally Published: July 14, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- It's different over here, in case you didn't know. The food tastes funny, the steering wheel is on the wrong (right?) side of the car and there is a language barrier that not even common English can overcome.

Golf throws us a curveball, too, especially when it comes to the Open Championship, which is played only on the finest links courses, now narrowed to a rotation of nine venues in Scotland and England.

[+] EnlargeTom Watson
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesEven after he had won two British Opens, Tom Watson didn't exactly like playing links golf. He went on to win five British Opens during his career.

"Links" is often used as a generic term to describe any golf course, but not every golf course is a links course. It has a special definition all to its own, and requires a style of play far different than the one employed in America.

"There's a massive adjustment to links golf," said two-time defending Open champion Padraig Harrington. "I can't explain to people the difference of hitting the golf ball, off links turf, beside the seaside ... the temperature compared to playing golf on a sunny golf course, pristine, the ball sitting up.

"It's incredible just the difference in density of the air, because it's cooler and you're beside the sea. There's a varied amount of shots, but it's just really getting used to chipping off the turf and controlling your distance off a different turf which we don't play that often."

According to Golf Digest, a links course is "a course on ocean side sand dunes that were formed by a receding sea and covered by fertile soil from a river estuary."

Robert Louis Stevenson, writing in 1880 (but not about golf), said that "links is a Scottish name for sand which has ceased drifting and become more or less solidly covered with turf."

The key is that these links courses are always within view or earshot of the water, they drain impeccably -- meaning they are almost never soft -- and Mother Nature plays a significant role in how they play.

At Turnberry, the nearby estuary is the Firth of Clyde, a body of water that hugs the Ailsa course, where the 138th Open Championship begins Thursday.

Making matters more difficult for those unaccustomed to such conditions is the fact that Turnberry has hosted the Open just three times, the last in 1994. Only a handful of players have ever played on the course in competition, and changes made in recent years to strengthen it all but negate any previous experience.

"I fell in love with it right away," Tiger Woods said of links golf. "I played Carnoustie and St. Andrews, my first true links golf, my first two right out of the gate. It doesn't get much better than that.

"And to play at Carnoustie my first year [for the 1995 Scottish Open], I just fell in love with being able to use the ground as a friend, as an ally. We don't get to do that in the States. Everything is up in the air.

"But here it's different. You hit a shot that's from 150 yards, whatever it is, you have so many options of how you could play it. And back home in the States you play pretty much everything up in the air."

Of course, not everybody appreciates this kind of golf. Scott Hoch once famously referred to the Old Course at St. Andrews as "a mess." Woody Austin two years ago declined his invitation to the Open because "I don't know how to play that kind of golf." Last year, Kenny Perry skipped it despite being one of the hottest players in the world.

Even the great Bobby Jones, who won the Open three times, needed some time for the venues to grow on him, including St. Andrews, where he won the 1927 Open and the 1930 British Amateur.

And none other than Tom Watson -- a five-time Open champion -- had a hard time wrapping his arms around links golf in his early years.

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"I won two Open Championships the first three years I played not particularly liking links style golf," Watson said.

Watson won in his first attempt at Carnoustie in 1975 and again here at Turnberry over Jack Nicklaus in 1977, but needed a few more years to appreciate the kind of golf that would make him famous.

"I had a mental turning point in 1979 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes," Watson said of the year he tied for 26th. "I was criticizing the golf course rather than playing the golf course. I didn't like that attitude. It was a lousy attitude to have if you're going to try and win a golf tournament. I finally had a good talk with myself, and I started playing the golf course the way it should be played. I kind of got with it after that. I didn't want to go out with a negative attitude about playing the courses."

Watson went on to win the Open in 1980, 1982 and 1983. Greg Norman, who won the tournament twice, including at Turnberry in 1986, played a lot of links golf in his native Australia, which made the transition easier.

"The ball releases," he said. "The fairway's got a lot of undulation. The ball bounces in different directions."

And then there are the bunkers. In America, bunkers are but an annoyance for the best players of the world. Here, they are holes carved out of the earth.

"Bunkers are like water hazards on a links golf course," Harrington said. "You're chipping out. Avoid at all costs."

Yep, it's different.

"As far as the terrain and the bunkering and the weather and the holes going out and in and all the other stuff, I had never seen anything like that," said 1989 champion Mark Calcavecchia, whose first Open Championship was at Muirfield in 1987. "I loved it. But then I went back the next year to Royal Lytham and was pretty convinced that was the worst course I ever played in my life. Then as soon as I set foot on Royal Troon in '89, I fell in love with the course right off the bat, and that was obviously a great year for me.

"I'm a feel player, and I can get the gist of it. If you've got 150 [yards] to the front, you kind of forget the yardage you want to fly it and guestimate the 40-yard hop. It's something all of us are ingrained with and having the knowledge of how to play that way. You can't hit flop shots because the ground is just too hard. Even chipping requires adjustments.

"And when it's blowing 40 miles an hour. ... well, you just have to figure out a way to get it around."

Therein lies the challenge of the next several days.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com