William Shakespeare preferred flat terrain, apparently. Not as well-known as a golfer from Stratford-Upon-Avon Golf Club as perhaps he should have been, Shakespeare, got it wrong when he wrote: “Uneven is the course; I like it not”. (Romeo & Juliet, IV i).
Golf courses were badly-maintained in the Bard’s time. The grass wasn’t closely cut, tight lies were non-existent and frisky, fun-loving balls enjoying the freedom to run over rumples, ridges and slopes were unheard of.
There are 53 ‘rumply’ links golf courses in Ireland. That’s approximately one third of the total of 152 in the entire world. A classic links always sits beside the sea, a shoreline or river estuary and features dunes and sandy, waste ground recovered from the ebbing tide, usually by an evolutionary process over centuries.
In the early days, golf was always played on this type of common, waste ground whose natural characteristics made it unsuitable for agriculture. The sandy soil and short, stubby, relatively thin bent grasses were ideal because of the minimal upkeep. The flattish ground amongst rolling sand dunes was easily adaptable to the challenges of the game. Rabbits, sheep and goats did most of the work in keeping the grass short and free from weeds as well as fertilizing it in the process.
On links, the ball must be kept close to the ground rather than hit high in the air. On inland courses you can loft the ball up in the air with a less than perfect contact from lush, grassy lies but on a links, the tight turf makes it impossible to get the ball up without striking it accurately. Ability to judge how the ball will bounce and run is key.
Instead of the hazard of trees and bushes, there are awkward, side hill lies and taller and wispier grass in the roughs that devour golf balls. Most links have the additional hazard of deeper bunkers, while the exposed nature and undulations of the greens present severe tests of putting skill. But the greatest test of all is how to cope with the ever-present wind. Wind plays havoc with spin. Playing in wind means fewer greens are hit in regulation; a greater variety of recovery shots is needed. Hitting hard puts extra spin on the ball and control is lost. So, the golfer must take a stronger club, grip lightly down the handle and swing easy.
Forget about specific target areas into which to ‘drop’ your golf ball but think instead of flying the ball low under the ‘turbulence’ and figuring out how to keep straight and make the ball stop in the right place.
Links golf also tests temperament. One doesn’t always get what one deserves – both ways – good and bad. ‘Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, Willie from Warwickshire called them. Punch shots with a restricted swing and ‘using’ the wind rather than ‘fighting’ it, pays the best dividends
Strong winds also effect putting. When putting into the wind you have to give the ball an extra rap. When putting with the wind behind, strike with the toe of the putter, the ball will come off the clubface ‘dead’ and it won’t roll too far. Putting in a crosswind is very tricky and requires strong-minded guesswork.
The first principle of playing from links rough is to get back into play as efficiently as possible. Don’t go from trouble to trouble. If buried deep in the grass, take plenty of loft, grip tight and beat down on the ball. If the ball is lying on top of the grass – grip lightly, flatten the arc of the swing and swing easy.
Bunkers on links tend to be smaller and deeper, so that the sand will not be blown out of by the seaside winds. That’s why they are called ‘pot bunkers.’ The best approach when ‘trapped’ in a ‘pot’ is to take your medicine. Being greedy won’t pay.
Whether the wind is behind or against whenever there is an open approach to a green, be aware of the contours and employ the essential bump and run shot by playing the ball along the ground in between the hazards rather than playing over them. Choke down on the handle, play the ball off your back foot and allow the clubface to release by letting the toe of the club turnover. In the rare occasion arises when you have to loft the ball, grip ‘lightly and long,’ cut across and underneath the ball while holding the clubface open towards the sky but it’s probably best not to try stopping the ball downwind. Instead, think ahead and work on your angle of approach. Play into the ‘fat of the green’ and look out for a kindly contour that might direct the ball towards the target. Playing links golf is highly strategic and you have to figure out when to attack and defend; it’s the ultimate golfing challenge.