Links To A Simpler, Better Game
Paul Casey walks down the 18th hole during the final round of the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart Golf Links.
We are in the midst of an especially rich segment of the year in golf, a full month in which four classic links take their place on the game's main stage.
The trend arguably started at the end of June with shimmering Sebonack GC hosting the U.S. Women's Open. The course is not a pure links (by the strictest definition, with about 250 such courses in the entire world, few in America truly qualify) but has the kind of bunkering and windswept grasses and coastal setting that makes it one of our country's closest approximations. The Nicklaus/Doak Long Island collaboration was a success, and it served as a serviceable appetizer for four consecutive weeks of championship golf on ancestral turf: last week's Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, Muirfield for the British Open, Royal Birkdale for the Senior British Open and the Old Course at St. Andrews for the Women's British Open.
Such a sustained sequence of the original game is new to world golf. It wasn't long ago that the only time Americans would see links golf was during the telecast of the British Open. The first one I remember watching was the final round in 1968 at Carnoustie. The winds were brutal, allowing only Jack Nicklaus to reach the par-3 16th on the fly, and only with a full driver. The transatlantic images were in black and white, but I remember having the feeling that even if I'd been standing next to the Barry Burn, everything would have looked gray. At the same time there was something extra fierce and noble in the way Gary Player endured, as if he had played a slightly higher form of the game.
Now HD television makes the links courses, for my money, golf's most vivid canvases. Somehow, the minimalism of the land and the muted shades of green and brown lend more complexity and interest. This is the quality of the landscape's elegant restraint that Harry Rountree captured in his famous paintings of links holes. It's why there is no article of clothing that looks more striking than a colorful cashmere against the backdrop of a links.
The mystery adds to the allure. The architect Robert Hunter put it beautifully when he wrote in 1926 that "in its uneven diversity, its tumbling irregularity, its unrivaled originality, links land bears no resemblance to any other territory." Which to me -- admittedly someone who got swept up in Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom at the impressionable age of 18 and hasn't quite gotten the search for Zen out of his system -- makes the links the game's chosen land.
Linksland is rich with paradox. Although its courses generally lack elaborate hazards or many trees, the relative plainness somehow creates more, not fewer, shot options, more demand for control and more of the randomness that tests resolve and self-control. It fosters a brand of golf that is more interesting to both play and watch. The excitement lies in the most basic properties -- maneuvering the ball through the invisible air currents off the subtle ground, avoiding the gathering bunkers and judging the roll to the green.
"The thrill of squeezing a ball against the firm turf, trying to keep it low into a buffeting wind," the five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson once wrote, "is something that lingers in the mind forever." With that uncharacteristic burst of passion, the austere Australian revealed the love that made him one of the all-time masters of links golf.
But all these are aesthetic judgments. There are practical, and indeed urgent, reasons to keep the links ethos front of mind.
To have the images of links golf fixed on screens for a month will help America's recreational players examine the excess in our game at a time, because of golf's changing position in the culture, it has never carried so much non-essential baggage.
The links ethos cherishes minimalist design, wider playing areas and lower maintenance. It prizes less irrigation and fertilizers, which produce firmer (albeit less manicured) turf that allows the ball to both run and be so satisfyingly squeezed; more walking; faster play; and lower costs. All these are what American golf needs. Almost as a rule, anything that golf can do to become simpler will be an improvement in the current climate.
By the time the Old Course plays host to Inbee Park's appointment with history, the effect should have been salubrious. So let's take it all in like sea air and let the oldest form of the game renew us. Golf in America has never needed it more.