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SCOTLAND’S MOST TYPICAL LINKS

Scotlands most typical links

Image by Mark Alexander, permission from Western Gailes GC.
To view some of Mark’s work [CLICK]

At Faraway Fairways we thought we’d set ourselves that task of trying to identify Scotland’s most typical links course. Naturally this provoked plenty of questions regarding just what a links course is, what it should look like, and what features we might consider ‘typical’ to one? We set about trying to frame an archetypal links by salient features and eliminating candidates as they failed, before working down to a core. Separating these however proved difficult, but in the end we came up with a slightly surprising winner for the crown of Scotland’s most typical links course.

It’s difficult to imagine that any golfer can really be unaware that links land is the strip of shoreline riparian that connects the coast with the more fertile land behind it. One non-negotiable criteria therefore in our pursuit of the most typical links course, was to insist we were using genuine links land. This meant that cliff-top courses and reclaimed farmland couldn’t really be considered. The St Andrews Castle course, Eyemouth and Kingsbarns failed to meet this filter. There’s also a disqualifying question mark over places like Turnberry and Castle Stuart too, for although they might satisfy us in places, they probably aren’t consistently links all of their eighteen holes

Kingsbarns is on a raised beach. The purist will tell you that it isn’t strictly links land
– Image by Kevin Murray

Developing this theme, we really needed to insist that the course is ‘linksy’ throughout its duration too. Some links courses do wander inland a bit and begin to resemble parkland tracks such as Dunbar or Monifieth. We could tolerate a few trees here and there, but if they become too plentiful they begin to break-up the links character. Perhaps Nairn becomes a casualty on this criteria too? Clearly a strong wind was another glaring essential requirement, but this is Scotland, and this is the coast, everything qualifies! We aren’t going to be “throwing out” many claimants to the title on this one! What about bunkering? The links staple is the revett faced pot bunker. These penal creations are both notorious and synonymous with links golf and preferred over ‘sand traps’ or ‘waste bunkers’. We didn’t really eliminate many here, but the likes of Craigielaw and Castle Stuart are struggling a bit

These disqualifying eliminations were relatively straight-forward to perform, but We’re really trying to dissect the DNA of a links course, and that means examining its crucial characteristics. We are after all in pursuit of the archetypal links, and that means drilling deeper. Even though we accept the merits (even the superiority) of modern design paradigms, we decided to weigh in favour of the traditional links configuration of an out and back nine. Muirfield broke new ground in 1892 with their revolutionary layout that pitched golfer’s into changing wind directions on each hole, but we’re looking for the quintessential links here. For that reason therefore, Muirfield joined the likes of Carnoustie, Dundonald, Gullane, Prestwick, and the Trump International links as not really conforming with the geometric requirement.

And what about the sea itself? This opened up a few grey areas too. The Open Championship is played at Royal Lytham, a course where golfers don’t actually have a view of the waves. We invented an arbitrary rule that required that you be both able to see the sea, and hit a drive into it if you felt so inclined to do so. This meant that Glasgow Gailes, and the otherwise well qualified Panmure fell at this hurdle. We also encountered a somewhat unresolved issue about when the sea becomes a river estuary too, especially regarding parts of the St Andrews Old Course. Ultimately we ruled in their favour, given that the early holes held sway over those around the turn

So having omitted some from our long-list on grounds of disqualifying criteria, we then continued our search by exploring ever ever more subjective areas as we sought to draw-up our short-list.

Plants and shrubs were our next consideration. Gorse is the links most feared vegetative defender and we required a decent amount of it. This yellow-flowering, thick prickly-bush, delights in consuming golf balls. “Whins and broom, brought to you in association with Titleist”. Heather is another perennial, be it purple or white. At least heather offers you a chance of finding a ball. Long marram rough is another thing we required to see snarling away at the careless, albeit this is normally a case of growing policy rather than anything that’s intrinsic to the course. To a large extent a combination of local climate and exposure determines what flourishes where. The bleaker links of Machrihanish, Askernish, and Brora have a wild charisma, but they aren’t necessarily over blessed with undergrowth and consequently lost a few points in the pursuit of our grail

Scotlands most typical links

Askernish is wild and windswept, even gorse struggles to establish itself on an exposed links

If we’ve disqualified sand-traps in favour of pot bunkers, then ‘water hazards’ had to be given the same treatment in favour of ‘burns’. Allow us to expand. Lakes and ponds are not really linksy, streams that cunningly wend their way across Scotland’s fairways and out into the sea beyond however, most definitely are. In Scotland the word for such water snakes is ‘burn’. Most of the top links have a burn, so we bent the rule a bit to require it to be in play rather than just being decorative. No amount of gorse could save Royal Dornoch from being penalised for the absence of a burn. We we weren’t totally convinced that the ninth hole at Royal Aberdeen was enough to protect the Balgownie links from losing a point either. Even the Old Course at St Andrews was only really reprieved because the Swilcan Burn is in play on the first hole even though its more famously associated with the eighteenth where it isn’t really a factor on the tee-shot

By now we’d started to generate a useable short-list as we close in on the search for Scotland’s most typical links, but equally we’e having to delve ever deeper for more spurious criteria to filter out our runners and riders. A railway line, or perhaps a nod to Victorian era industry or tourism might be considered a plus point? Does the Marine hotel at North Berwick (1888) keep the west Lothian links firmly in the frame, or do they lose a bit of ground? We decided that the absence of a railway line slightly compromised the chances of Royal Aberdeen and Cruden Bay, albeit both regained some lost ground by virtue of having enough quirky blind shots to compensate. A stonewall or some other weird out-of-bounds is worth half a point perhaps? On balance, we concluded that subtle undulations and gentle sand dunes are more typical than hilly topography and giant dunes. We were struggling to assess things by now, and none more so than on our final eliminator. Do we require a clubhouse of character to be built in local stone? Or does that discriminate in favour of more wealthy clubs?

Along with Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay was a strong challenger. Think of them as having made the Olympic final, but missing out on the medals
– Image by Kevin Murray

We ended up with five candidates. The St Andrews Old Course, Royal Aberdeen, Western Gailes, North Berwick and Royal Troon. All of them had strengths and a few minor weaknesses

In the quest for Scotland’s most typical links, Western Gailes actually ticked all the boxes. it might be questionable as to whether it has a true out and back nine since its clubhouse is in the middle of the course and the holes needn’t therefore number perfectly. It’s more like four out, nine back, and five back out again, although we aren’t convinced that it really detracts from the integrity of the experience. Royal Troon is another to tick all the boxes, but has a burn less than Western Gailes, and the perfection of its out and back nine is broken up a little bit around the turn. North Berwick can probably survive the absence of a railway line, but needn’t be flush with vegetation, it might otherwise be in the gold medal position. Royal Aberdeen can call on the support of gorse a plenty to off-set the railway line issue, but the absence of a significant burn is probably the graver offence and can’t be easily overlooked. St Andrews has a lot going for it, but there is a sense that its cheated a little bit since the perceptions of the archetypal links course is framed very much in their image and becomes a self-fulfilling expectation.

So, in a tight race we’ve awarded the medals as follows

  • Gold = WESTERN GAILES
  • Silver = ROYAL TROON
  • Bronze = NORTH BERWICK

One final thought occurred to us. What might be the Scotland’s most typical links hole in Scottish golf? In the name of consistency we had to use a similar sort of process, but perhaps things could be relaxed a bit in some areas now and the net cast wider. Our conclusion however, was still mildly shocking.

As you stand on the tee, you can see the sea to your left (tick) whilst an out-of-bounds railway line (tick) runs down the right for the duration of the hole. Your tee-shot requires you to play over a bed of gorse (tick) to a gently undulating fairway (tick). You have to navigate a narrow line and land between two sets of pot bunkers (tick) placed left and right. Your second shot requires you to clear a burn (tick) that defends the front of a green that slopes towards it. Hit it too hard however and you run the risk of carrying through the back into some uncompromising think rough (tick)

So where is this hole? It’s the sixteenth at Western Gailes. You could probably have given us 100 guesses and we still wouldn’t have identified it. On the plus side however, whenever we at Faraway Fairways draw up one of these 18 holes type of lists so beloved by golf journalists, the sixteen is the hole number that probably causes us the greatest angst of them all. We might have identified a solution

Scotlands most typical links

The 16th tee at Western Gailes, our somewhat surprising nomination of links golf in a single hole
– Image with thanks to Western Gailes Golf Club

We should perhaps acknowledge that there has to be a very strong likelihood that there are couple of less well-known courses perfectly qualified for the title of Scotland’s most typical links that we’ve completely overlooked. Well in truth we’ve pretty-well restricted the field to those that feature in Faraway Fairways tours. We’d be happy to give a shout out to anyone who thinks they match up to our medallists however

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