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The Lure of the Links

by Paul Daley

There are no true links in Australia, but those that come closest are thankfully dotted around the coastline of Victoria.

Flinders Golf Course has long been a favourite of many due to its 'links-like' appearance in sections, and the wind, which seldom relents. The Mornington Peninsula has an abundance of ideal golfing countryside, and we look forward to the two new 'links-like' courses at The National Golf Club with great anticipation.

The Dunes Golf Links at Rye has some features reminiscent of the great British links. Played through imposing dunes and rolling terrain, the artesian bore has bestowed magnificent playing conditions. Its architect, Tony Cashmore, has laid out a fine examination, which is made all the more exacting by the ever-lurking wind. The course takes good advantage of nature's gifts: humps, bumps, hillocks, braes, exciting drives through saddles towards distant valleys and traditional links ‘blind’ shots. These and other features make The Dunes well worth the golfing experience.

the dunes golf links
The Dunes Golf Links - pic by David Scaletti

Several holes vie for the tag of 'signature' hole - my favourite is the 13th hole; an isolated, medium length par three that culminates in a plateaud green within a sheltered enclave. It is picture perfect. By way of convenience, playing The Dunes is considerably cheaper than boarding a plane to the UK. To present a balanced view, it should be stated that the fairway lies are of the enticing couch variety, whereas authentic links have tight, bare lies made up of the poverty fescue and bent grass species.

Port Fairy Golf Club is four and a half hours west of Melbourne, and is a must see destination. Being laid out upon two levels, the back nine is 'links-like' and best showcased by the 10th, 11th, 12th with its arresting ocean views, 13th, 14th and 15th holes. The presence of marram covered dunes, and rolling sandy undulating terrain, makes the lover of British style golf feel right at home. The front nine, being distant from the beach, lower in elevation and strewn with mixed grasses, is good quality golf, but more akin to the inland variety.

peterborough golf club
Peterborough Golf Club - pic by David Scaletti

At the quaint holiday resort of Peterborough, how the numbers swell during the breaks. This wild and woolly stretch of land is ‘links-like’ golf par excellence with barely a tree upon it. Here, the golf is not difficult but has the windswept appeal of Elie (Kingdom of Fife - Scotland). 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, plus several OOB’s tight to greens, Peterborough is a ‘sporty’ throw-back to an earlier time.
The ocean views are most distracting and many of the tees are perched perilously close to fragile cliffs. The rough appears for a couple of stints, but in general, fairways are plenty wide enough.
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For many golfers, the grand prize is a game at Barwon Heads Golf Club. The 'Heads', is a club that oozes class, where a certain decorum - not unlike Muirfield - must be maintained. I’ll never forget during one ‘chatty’ lunch... a waiter's cough, followed by, "Excuse me young man, you may find your shirt needs tucking in!" In an embarrassed tone I thanked him for his interest and complied. Barwon Heads is famous in Australian golfing circles and, erroneously, is often referred to as a links.

barwon heads golf club
Barwon Heads - pic by David Scaletti

Starved of true links, we tend to lazily assign the tag to anything that remotely looks like one. Any course by the beach, of undulating sandy loam gets praised as such. The 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th are authentically ‘links-like', but afterwards the tight coastal ti-tree changes the feel of the course. Architecturally, the non-links section is highly appealing but totally unconnected to the holes mentioned. Interestingly, the links flavour returns strongly with the long 12th hole and for one of Australia's finest par threes, the glorious 13th hole. Afterwards, the course wends back through wooded terrain. However, the constant undulation, which really is nature's gift to golf, is present throughout the entire layout.

Just what is a links? The commonly held belief that a links is ‘seaside golf’ is not unreasonable, but leaves too much unsaid. After all, if sprinkled liberally with rows of Furs, Norfolk Pines, Ti-tree or Palm trees, as some seaside courses are - they are not true links. Others may say that a links…‘links land and sea.’ This is closer to the mark and at a pinch, will do. However, to fully embrace this concept is to deliver a tremendous slight to Royal Lytham & St Anne's, which lies a few kilometres from the sea and is surrounded by suburbia on all sides. And yet it belongs to the Open rota, and The Open Championship can only be played upon links. A definitive answer is difficult, but greater accuracy can be found with an old Oxford Dictionary definition: "Level or undulating sandy ground near a seashore, with turf and coarse grass". It refers to links as ‘rising ground’ and gives the Old English derivation of ‘hlinc’. Expanding further, hlinc means ‘lean’, and it’s this very element of leanness that set links apart. Repelling, in the sense of offering little hope for agricultural prosperity, linksland has that unmistakable lean, hungry appearance throughout the terrain. Thinking in terms of a barren links scape is apt. St Andrews was just one of the many links centres whose attempts at cultivation failed. Essentially, any layout purporting to be a links should look like one, but more importantly, it must play like one. Frequently, these two elements remain unmatched.

My three separate links pilgrimages to Great Britain & Ireland have been highly educational. Contrary to popular belief that "they afford easier golf due to the lack of trees", I would suggest that links are distinctly harder because of the fact. Upon returning home to our heavily wooded inland courses, one acknowledges the terrific insulation that trees provide. Generalisations are dangerous, however. The average width of links fairways is appreciably narrow in comparison to its inland counterpart.

A round on the links is not for the faint hearted. Nicklaus himself said, "If I had to play six straight weeks in Scotland I’d lose my swing completely". Links golf is invigorating and for its loyal band of supporters, the ‘Real McCoy’. You must walk briskly on the links, not only to avoid 'slow play' but as a requirement to prevent your blood from icing over. When the coastal squalls start to kick in links are no place to dawdle. Put any notions about booking an electric cart right out of your mind. They, like many other golfing modernisms are scoffed at and considered out of place. Be warned about your pace, for strategically placed signs on first tees suggest in no uncertain terms how long your journey should take. North Berwick’s starter's hut notice is very blunt - "A round of golf should be no longer than three hours".

Some of the inland golfing venues in Melbourne are simply stunning. The visually myopic, fixated with these images as the ‘correct’ image of beauty, will fail to see the beauty of a rugged links, or appreciate its hardy qualities. As a teenager I noted the effects of coastal salt and its rust producing qualities on cars. The wonder of golfing linksland is how turf can not only survive the constant salt spray, but positively thrive on its assault.

And the wind! Golfers who lean towards links as the ideal genre learn to accept that the odd unplayable gale is part of the attraction; it may affect their score, but you won’t hear any complaints from these diehards. Should it be calm, one intuitively senses an anti-climax amongst group members. Unlike inland golf, where your morning tee time can shield you, gale force conditions on links are non-discriminatory and can greet you at first light. Consequently, links players are heard to bemoan windless days as 'impostors'.

A Lahinch member informed me about one freezing day when the wind wrenched the flagstick clear out of the cup on the exposed first green. As he graphically described it..."The pin was racing back down the first fairway hill" - his pride was hard to mistake. Another day he saw the flag stick ‘posing’ almost horizontal, before a late afternoon wind change was its saviour.

Golfers without links experience fail to fully appreciate the effects of wind - on body, mind and soul. Horror stories are commonplace, but until you’ve struggled to put the tee in the ground, you haven’t played in wind. Whereas ‘target’ golf is demanded of the archetypal inland course, and best played ‘through the air’ (in the relatively windless conditions), a good deal of links golf is best played as near to the ground as possible to escape the airborne hazard of wind.

The wind factor, when coupled with traditional hard, bare fairway lies, makes it vital to adhere to the policy of open entrances to greens. For Americans, the unusual sight of a bunkerless entrance often produces a chortle. They, of course, are well used to the aerial bombardment style of approaching.

When golfing, it is only human nature to hope for ‘fairness’, but even Jack Nicklaus has lapsed into the misguided belief of expecting it. By the time the 1968 Open Championship at Carnoustie rolled around his links experience was extensive, and, one assumes, he would have come to grips with the vagaries of links golf. During this event he was particularly annoyed at a small mound down the 9th fairway - some 250 yards away. Repeatedly it halted his rifled one-iron’s progress from the tee. Being reared along American principles, he suggested to the Links Management Committee that it was unfair and needed levelling. He got his wish. Upon returning to Carnoustie for the 1975 Open Championship, he discovered it was completely shaved off; so much so, the groundsmen, in a fit of enthusiasm, converted it into a deep bunker. Nicklaus was not impressed.

Judgment is everything whilst playing the links. With judgment comes feel, and with feel comes improvisation. Among golfers, who could improvise and bump the ball around better than five time Open Champion, Peter Thomson? It has been no coincidence that this brilliant manipulator of the small 1.62 inch British Ball reigned supreme on the links. If it was fast running and especially dry, all the better were his chances. And what about yardage markers? He didn’t need them, didn’t use them, rarely had them at his disposal. He employed great caddies who knew their stuff, but regardless, Thomson walked over his rivals with his skilful ‘eyes’ and advanced judgment.

Golfers who prefer to play inland golf find it hard to reconcile why yardage markers are not part of the links scene. Administrators argue that they are repugnant to the tradition of true seaside links golf, and besides, they are practically useless in the advent of a strong wind. This built-in protectionism, by the way, preserves the local caddie industry; an industry that is inexorably associated with links traditions and much of the surrounding folk lore.

The art of escaping from rough is a taboo topic and one which golfers seldom practice. Newcomers to links golf are often shocked and embarrassed at the difficulty of this task. From gorse, broom, bracken and sandhills even skilled golfers can fail to move the ball a bare metre. Don’t worry about accusations of being a snag when taking an ‘unplayable' lie option - the one stroke penalty will save you plenty of angst.

Links golf showcases what the ancient sport was initially designed to be - a battle between man and the elements. Any flaws in your mental capacity to handle adversity will sadly and quickly become public knowledge. It’s just you, your clubs and the elements. Having a caddie of repute will even the odds, although a whisky stained one will swing them back again. But seriously, to ignore the accumulated knowledge of your caddie is madness. A good one is ‘on his game’ right from the start, and if experienced, will pick your club and distance capability within two or three hits. Assuming the role of leader, he may just thrust the iron in your hands, gargle a little Scottish tongue and say…"Over the steeple"! You will reach ‘blind’ holes and whatever the command, comply. For those new to this experience, taking aim over a rock perched on cliff-top or a distant hillock takes faith. Your caddie will help.

*Paul Daley is a Melbourne golf addict, golf historian, collector of golf literature and writer.


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