True Links

‘True Links’  full review by Lorne Smith 2013.


Check Amazon’s price for:   True Links: An Illustrated Guide to the Glories of the World’s 246 Links Courses

I was given recently a copy of a significant, coffee-table style book that was first published in 2010 and is described as a guide to the glories of the world’s links courses.

Could this book, I wondered, come close to Donald Steel’s fantabulous “Classic golf links of GB&I” (1992), undoubtedly the best guide on GB&I links courses, in which he elucidates the essence of each of the 75 courses reviewed, alongside the quite brilliant photography of Brian Morgan who captures the brown firmness of the land?

true links review, george peper. malcolm campbell, iain lowe, finest gold coursesThis 308 page, 11” by 11” glossy, is written by two of golf’s most highly respected journalists, George Peper (ex-editor of American Golf Magazine) and Malcolm Campbell (ex-editor of Britain’s Golf Monthly). Both have won multiple awards and successes across the golf market and after researching in depth and combining all their enormous knowledge of golf, have created their definitive list of 246 of what they call ‘true links courses’ across the world. (210 in GB&I)

The first chapter goes into elaborate argument as to why one course is or is not a ‘true links’ in their view. Their problem is that they ignore the ‘elephant in the room’ in that what they are actually trying to describe is their love for the ‘running game’ rather than something that is called ‘links golf’.

I shrink in horror that I have the audacity to find any fault with this magnificent work, though my confidence is improved when, having been introduced to George recently, I receive an email from which I know he will not mind me quoting:

“Many thanks for the introduction to FineGolf —a very clever concept, enabling you to finesse the whole question of what’s a links course and whether to include/exclude good fast-running courses that are not classic links. That was a real quandary when Malcolm Campbell and I were putting together our book True Links.” 

I return to this quandary later but first let me say a little about why you should read this great book.

tom doak, george peper, malcolm campbell, iain lowe,

Tom Doak at Bandon

The second chapter ‘The Creators’ is an absorbing history of the leading golf course designers from Old Tom Morris right up to Tom Doak/Ben Crenshawe. All the historic changes are captured, driven by the ball (500 years of featheries, 50 years of gutta percha, 100 years of Haskell) through the golden ‘running’ era up to the 1960s, the gradual ‘Americanisation’ of UK inland golf (and some seaside!) in the 1970s, 80s and 90s when TV target-style ‘conurbation’ courses caught our imagination. Finally, the chapter recognises that in the last ten years there has been in the building of British golf courses, the move towards natural minimalism combined with fine turf, giving us again a trend to the ‘firm, running’ game, the most enjoyable game for all levels of golfer throughout the year.

The third chapter ‘The Crucible’ is all about the Old Course at St Andrews and remembering that both authors have houses in Fife, this is close to their hearts.

The next chapters ‘The Icons’, ‘The Classics’, ‘The exotics’, ‘The moderns’, ‘The future’, tabulate the leading GB&I links in interesting, differing categories, though one has to say, as I have already raised the comparison, they fail to excite as much in their course reviews, as Donald Steel does. Being a champion golfer himself, with a wonderful turn of phrase, he describes the  ‘running game’  of the linksland with subtlety.

We then have a fascinating chapter on what the authors nominate as those links courses lying outside GB&I, around the world. This is an important addition to our knowledge of worldwide ‘running’ courses. 

We are made aware of the fine courses along the north of continental Europe and in places like Bandon in Oregon or Barnbougle in Tasmania, as well as eight in New Zealand, all courses where cool-climate bent and fescue grasses grow, giving the firmness and true roll of the ball for which they are looking in order to decide whether a course enters their list. They recognise other grasses do not provide the necessary results all the year round.

It is noted that Pete Dye’s Kiawah Island, in the Carolinas, is located in a warm climate area and uses salt-resistant Paspulum grass on its greens which does provide a firm, true surface in the summer but the grass goes dormant in the winter while the ‘bump-and-run’ shot gets stuck in the Bermuda grass fairways. They mention four other warm season courses that use paspulum grass throughout but overseeding with ryegrass to keep the fairways looking prettily green in the winter, forfeits their running character.

ben crenshawe, bill coore, george peper, malcolm campbell,

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshawe

The authors wax lyrical about the Coore/Crenshaw designed, fast-running Sands Hills course in Nebraska but omit it because it’s not near the sea.

One can repeatedly agree with the attitude, philosophy and descriptions of what is, in their words, ‘the crème de la crème of golf’, and their attempts to get to grips with what ‘the running game’ is all about and what makes it so much the most enjoyable form of golf to play. 

As an aside, the photography of Iain Lowe is certainly pretty and as a generality he prefers to catch images based on angles that emphasise the beauty of the scene and the landscape rather than the structure of the golf hole as a golfer has to approach it when devising his/her strategy.

So let us return to the central conundrum.

They use the concept of ‘links’ as the back-drop to explaining their whole philosophy around golf’s running game and undoubtedly the wind, the open spaces, the beautiful views are all part of that ‘joy to be alive’ feeling we look for in golf.

Nevertheless, some quick examples can be offered of the quandary they had in setting out to give a complete compendium of what they call “True links”. Thus, by defining a ‘true links’ as having to have “Seaviews and sandy, dune-like terrain, with fast-running fairways, buffeted by ever-changing maritime winds”, Peper and Campbell leave out Scotscraig because of its fir trees but include Formby with its fir trees. Cliff-top Sheringham is in but Powfoot and Golspie are out; Kingsbarns is in, while St Andrews Castle is out; Aldeburgh is excluded and Royal Lytham St Anne’s in.

There is no sea view at Lytham and nor is there at Ganton. Both are firm, running courses of the highest standards. It is artificial to separate the quality and enjoyment of the golf they give as this book does. Indeed, on a normal day the Ganton grasses are, comparatively speaking, often of a superior quality and firmness.

The word to describe this is ‘confusion’. 

However, golf is complex and it deserves people trying to scientifically analyse and developing definition criteria.

Robert Price’s book “Scotland’s Golf Courses” published in 1989 is another useful attempt from a geologist/geographer perspective to categorise courses, though it also creates some confusion with the category of ‘heathland’ not being used.

It is much to their credit that Peper and Campbell do not fall into the lazy trap of so many golf journalists who find it easier to write about the profession of golf architecture than the profession of greenkeeping and agronomy. Those journalists just seem to find it more comfortable to criticise or praise the aspect of the design of a course and ignore its agronomy. Why is that so?

As Ray Day, the well experienced head greenkeeper at Saunton, North Devon, said to me recently,

“it is the fine, firm turf that brings the course design alive”. 

One sensible answer is that to keep up to date with the particular health (turf-wise ) of each course is very difficult. Any turf can be wrecked within a short period of mismanagement.

Perhaps one of the problems is that some fine golf clubs like to talk up the amount of bent/fescue turf they have, without admitting the true extent of the weed, annual meadow grass (Poa annua) in their greens. Greater transparency and better measurement of ‘reliability and trueness’ of turf, would help raise standards.

Golf is a sport and it will live or die based on enjoyment, not some artificial geographical or design construct. The ‘firm, running game’ of golf is so much more fun and challenging for all levels of golfer, all the year round, and to deliver this, the authors recognise, depends on a subtle amalgam of natural greenkeeping and indigenous bents and fescue grasses.

A reflection of the importance of this book is the fact that Tom Watson, so many golfers’ hero, has written the forward to ‘True links’ where he explains, like Bobby Jones and so many Americans before him, that he had a links ‘epiphany’.

His first exposure to links was in 1975 at Monifieth but it was not until 1979 that the realisation came to him. In the intervening years he won The Open Championship at Carnoustie in 1975 and at Turnberry in 1977.

He says that he was not playing particularly well at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s in 1979 and on the first day the seventh hole into the wind needed a driver, 3-wood and a five-iron to reach the green. The next day, downwind on the same hole his drive went 340 yards and he hit a running nine-iron to the middle of the green for an ‘easy’ birdie. That was the moment he fell in love with links golf. “Don’t fight it, I told myself. Enjoy it. Solve the puzzle.”

He goes on “I’ve had fun ever since. Calculating the wind, allowing for the firm terrain, trusting your judgement and feel – that’s the joy of playing a links. You need almost a sixth sense, an ability to adjust to all the conditions and somehow get your ball to travel the proper distance – whether through the air or along the ground.”

The grasses and conditions at Carnoustie and Turnberry in the 1970s were actually high in annual meadow grass (Poa annua) and receptive to Watson’s American high ‘thru the air’ game. If he had not changed his attitude and technique before Muirfield in 1980 he would not have won The Open there, having, as it did a high proportion of indigenous, browntop bents and red fescues to provide the firm, tight conditions for the running game.

So in summary, this book gives an excellent commentary on the golf we love most, which gives us that ‘joy to be alive’ feeling. While there is both goodwill and confusion at the heart of this book, it is well written, packed with useful information and should be on every golfers reading list.



Reader Comments

On February 7th, 2013 Vincent carney said:

Seems like a good contribution to the debate. However , how are we as regular links golfers able to determine if our own courses are protected as genuine links courses for the next generation ?

Dear Vincent, A practical thing you can do is to read Nick Park’s article and Alistair Begg’s report recently published under ‘what is FineGolf?’ and then ask the management of your club when are they going to put in place an appropriate valuation of your putting surfaces as a prelude to supporting your greenkeeper to pursue a long-term policy of fine grasses development. The other is read the brilliantly written ‘Practical Greenkeeping’ by Jim Arthur it will give you the right advice.
Best wishes, Lorne

On March 17th, 2019 Bill Branch said:

I felt the same on the inclusion of Kingsbarns but not St Andrews Castle, and also a course like Sheringham. However, defining a links isn’t an exact science, so I guess they can be forgiven. It’s a great read and a worthy companion to the Donald Steel book. Perhaps we also need someone to write a comprehensive book that includes the likes of Ganton and Sand Hills too in encapsulating the best of “Running Golf”?!

Many of us may already agree that Links Golf is the most fun and authentic version of the game, but one of my biggest takeaways from this book was how this type of minimalist golf really stands our game in good stead for a sustainable future – lower costs, fewer artificial inputs, more harmonious design and land management etc. Just one more reason to support running golf courses!

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