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Real Golf - The links of the UK compared to Australia

by ausgolf writer Selwyn Berg

It was back in 1998 that I travelled along the Great Ocean Road on Victoria’s South-West coastline with Hacker Editor Garry Kennedy and our mate Paul Daley. Paul was revered by both of us as "the links man", having made three separate pilgrimages to Great Britain and Ireland during his years of painstaking research that would culminate two years later with the publication of "Links Golf – The Inside Story".*

We played Port Fairy and marvelled at Paul’s great knowledge of the fast-running, windswept game. "There are no ‘true’ links in Australia, but those that come closest are thankfully dotted around the coastline of Victoria" says Paul. "Port Fairy… now sections of this course really border on being termed a links. The new holes from the 10th are definitely stamped ‘links’ - the fescue and marram grasses, dunes and rolling sandy undulating terrain, ensure as much".
"Here, take a look at this" demanded Paul, getting down on his hands and knees to admire a few square inches of dense, dwarf turf. Apparently, contrary to what we had come to expect of ‘well-groomed’ fairways, with links golf ‘lushness’ is to be eschewed in favour of hard, bouncy, tight lies. Thus, magnificent as the golfing experiences are on Mornington Peninsula links style courses such as The Dunes, Moonah Links, Flinders and The National, they differ from the genuine article in the purist’s eyes by virtue of the very excellence of their fairways.

the dunesThe Dunes (left) - too perfect for a real links!

At the quaint holiday resort of Peterborough, Paul got even more excited. "This wild and woolly stretch of land is ‘links-like’ par excellence, with barely a tree upon it" he exclaimed. "The lies on the Peterborough fairways are mingy, ‘spiteful’ even, and there’s not a bunker in sight! With delightfully tiny greens in naturally occurring depressions and O.O.B’s snug tight to greens, Peterborough is a ‘sporty’ throw-back to an earlier time. As pretty as Turnberry, the ocean views are most distracting and many of the tees are perched perilously close to fragile cliffs."

We got out of the car to examine some coastal dune land that Paul explained was even closer to the real thing, with small, rolling sand hills covered in thick grass giving that "rare Elie, windswept appeal. (Kingdom of Fife - Scotland)."

And so it was with much eager anticipation that I set off with Leon Wiegard’s Sportgard Tour of July 2002 to Scotland and Ireland.** Two weeks of "the golf of your dreams" and I was finally "doing it, not dreaming it".

Turnberry Ailsa Course

Our very first night was spent in the magnificent Westin Turnberry Resort Hotel. The experience includes being ushered into dinner by a lone bagpiper to feast on a meal that was the equal of anything I’ve tasted anywhere in the world. From the indoor spa, one looks out over the manicured putting greens to the rolling dunes of the course, and beyond to the mighty Ailsa Rock that lends its name to the links now widely recognised amongst Britain’s top three.

But all luxury of the night before can be dispensed with as you tackle the golf. Compared with Australian conditions, Turnberry epitomises what is different about real links golf: The rough is thick, nasty, deep and penal; the fairways are narrow, full of small bumps and mounds that combine with the ever-present wind to usher your ball into the aforementioned rough. Forget about advancing your ball towards the hole from this stuff. If you (or more likely your caddie) are fortunate enough to find it, a sideways swipe with a sand iron back onto the fairway is the only means of escape. Weather is another factor. We enjoyed mid-summer temperatures of around 15 degrees C, but wind chill made it colder. Rain is not unheard of. At other times of the year it is indeed necessary, as Paul had warned, to maintain a brisk pace of play, not merely as demanded by etiquette, but to avoid the blood from icing over.
Turnberry is not short, either. There are several par 4’s of more than 400 yards, and a brutal, uphill par 3 that plays 221 yards from the forward tee – this hole is rated 15, so I didn’t receive a stroke – I thought 4 for 1 Stableford point an excellent score. Satisfaction comes from knowing that you’ve played a true championship layout, survived every challenge of course and nature, and walked in the footsteps of Open winners here that include Norman, Watson and Price. The sense of history is perhaps paramount.

Nicklaus himself said, "If I had to play six straight weeks in Scotland I’d lose my swing completely."

We had a little respite next day, playing the Kings Course at Gleneagles, designed by the legendary James Braid, the first golfer to win the Open five times. This is a lush, parkland style course, beautifully manicured, and with wide, but hilly fairways.

The weekend was spent at Muirfield, witnessing from the huge grand stand on the eighteenth green the thrilling playoff that saw Els triumph over Aussies Appleby and Elkington. Anyone who witnessed the awesome rough and foul Saturday weather from the comfort of his or her TV room may have some appreciation of our links experience.

Then it was on to Carnoustie, dubbed "Car-Nasty" after it was toughened up for the 1999 Open. Proudly touted as "The most challenging course in the world" we found it perhaps not all that tough. The rough has been dramatically cleared; the fairways are generous in width and relatively flat, as are the huge greens. Craig Parry played Carnoustie the week before The Open at Muirfield, and proclaimed it "six shots easier" than it had been at the 1999 Open.

The course is undoubtedly long, even with the tees forward, at over 6600 yards Par 70. The 16th is claimed as the hardest par 3 in golf – 245 yards from the championship tees to an elevated green ringed by bunkers. In two Open appearances, Tom Watson is yet to record a single par. Most of our group, however, managed to negotiate the Barry Burn on the 18th in fewer than the 7 strokes it took Jean Van De Velde.

Our four days at St Andrews were magic, and steeped in tradition. We stayed at the famous old Scores Hotel adjacent to the first tee of the Old Course, where our names were entered in the daily ballot, returning games for everyone by day two. Finally I understand why Peter Thomson rates his favourite three courses as "The Old, The Old and The Old"; why American writer James Finegan says "It is a law unto itself – its subtleties beyond calculation". I also understand the question first posed by a US professional arriving at St Andrews "where is the golf course?"

The course simply cannot be compared with anything else I’ve played. There are mysterious routes from tee to green that your caddie will explain, such as the second shot on the 14th hole that is played left onto the 5th fairway in order to avoid Hell Bunker that lurks beyond the crest of the hill.

Whilst the fairways would not be tolerated on a Melbourne Public course, there are bunkers everywhere, many of them deep, sod-revetted pots demanding sideways or backwards escape, thrilling blind tee shots over hills of gorse, and large, well-maintained putting greens, often elevated for additional difficulty.

Whilst Paul Daley’s biggest golfing thrill is touring the Old Course in 70 strokes, mine was that drive over the Hotel on the Road Hole (17th). Yes, the tee was forward, and I managed to hit an 8-iron into the green.

Just six miles South of St Andrews lies Kingsbarns Golf Links, opened in 2000 on a site where links golf has been played since 1793. The entire course affords stunning North Sea vistas from a huge rolling, dune-dotted windswept and treeless landscape. The greens are large with tricky undulations. Fine fescues form both the fairways and the roughs. Once again, magnificent lies seem to be in vogue for today’s players.

And then on to Ireland. Nowhere in the world are there more truly great golf courses all bundled together, and nowhere in the world will golfers find a warmer welcome – Ireland’s motto is "Cead Mile Failte" – a hundred thousand welcomes, or loosely translated "have another Guinness". The singing pubs and the great seafood restaurants of Kinsale conspired to keep us out till the wee hours, so that I can understand why the late Payne Stewart claimed "The great thing about Ireland is that it’s always daylight!"

Our first taste of Irish Golf was at the cliff top course of Old Head at Kinsale. Opened in 1997 after 10 years of toil and tribulation, the course sits atop a promontory jutting out into the Atlantic. It is indeed spectacular beyond belief. Hundreds of feet below, white surf pounds onto the rocks. Some say the course is already better than Pebble Beach – much to the chagrin of the Pebble Beach folk who passed on the opportunity to acquire the land for a song, claiming that golf would never be played there. Again, well groomed playing surfaces, fringed by very penal rough.

We played the lovely, old, natural links at Dooks. The course is as natural as any you could find, the locals like it that way. A mix of apparently friendly and tougher holes set in beautiful sand hills with magnificent views of the Ring of Kerry. It has been said of Dooks "There’s only one way to describe it – and that’s that it is indescribable in every direction". Again, narrow fairways, very thick rough and the occasional hill provided the difficulty. Perhaps typical of our Irish golf, players having a relatively ‘good’ day scored 40 points, others, just a little ‘off’ their game struggled in the 20’s.

Waterville was described by Henry Cotton as "the most consistent succession of really strong and beautiful holes". Fairly wide and gently undulating in most parts, the lush rye rough and the wind again provide the principal challenges. There are seven par 4’s over 400 yards.

Ballybunion OldBallybunion (Old) was perhaps the highlight of the experience for me. The layout is an awesome and never-ending succession of rolling dunes that pitch in every direction. To picture Ballybunion, imagine The Dunes with many more frequent and smaller bumps. Then with far narrower fairways, flanked by very long and thick rough from which there is almost no escape. The greens are equally contoured and tricky. Precise shot-making from varied lies is demanded. The sea is visible from several holes, and there is no escape from the wind. Our youthful caddies were hard-pressed to recall a windier day. I was most proud of my 26 points.

It was not difficult to understand why so many American golfers have followed in Tom Watson’s footsteps to play at Ballybunion since the 1980’s. Payne Stewart, Phil Mickelson, Mark O’Meara, David Duval and Tiger Woods all came here for real links experience, to prepare for the Open Tournament.

Almost any course in the world might have been an anticlimax after Ballybunion, but Tralee, designed by Arnold Palmer, is hardly ‘any course’. Set on the Barrow Peninsula, the views are stunning, and comparable with Old Head, Pebble or Cypress Point. The fairways on this stretch of linksland are as fine and lush as you would find on any resort layout, and their width is generous, in the main, particularly on the front nine. There are some extremely tough and visually spectacular challenges on the back nine, with very tight landing zones and narrow entrances to the greens. The 12th hole requires a strong drive, followed by a precise wood from a downhill lie that must carry all the way to the green to avoid a huge deep gully filled with tiger rough. The 17th runs along the beach where Ryan’s Daughter was filmed.

Then all that was left was "the craic" – the 19th hole, and the exchange of tall tales and true, celebration and commiseration to the accompaniment of several jars. The late Peter Dobereiner, author of many a guide to golf in the region, blamed the craic for more late arrivals than all of Europe’s air traffic controllers combined.

No doubt links golf in Ireland can be brutally tough. Coming home to wide lush fairways fringed by light rough and a distinct absence of wind is heaven indeed. There’s also the small matter of cost of green fees. We paid up to $300 and more per round in Scotland and Ireland, once more confirming Australia’s golf courses as the best value for money in the world.

I did tackle Paul Daley on the subject of ‘lean, mean and spiteful’ links fairways, and was wistfully advised that he had indeed noticed ’deterioration’ and increasing greenness during his more recent visits. It seems that catering to the almighty tourist dollar has encouraged the use of sprinklers, and even fertiliser, as a necessary evil to protect the links from widespread scarring. Paul did say that ‘true links turf’ does exist but is found at the low-budget links off the tourist track. If you’re planning a trip to play ‘real golf’, better hurry before they cut down the rough and turn off the wind too.

E-mail your thoughts to Selwyn Berg at sb@ausgolf.com

*Published in 2000, Paul Daley’s first title Links Golf: The Inside Story was short-listed by the USGA for their International Book of the Year award. It was the first title by an Australian author to be so honoured. Click here for further details about the book

For information about golf in Ireland or for details on our golf packages, please email travel@ausgolf.com.au