The Joys of Links Golf Never Get Old

The Joys of Links Golf Never Get Old

Tired of the whole golf crazed thing? The one that turned the men’s professional game into a new toy for Saudi investors? The one that has US senators dragging golf (minus their purse) to work? The one that got PGA Tour star Rory McIlroy saying he feels like a slain lamb in the proposed PGA Tour-LIV Golf partnership?

Rest assured. This week, links golf, the unadorned, windswept form of the game, makes its annual comeback on golf’s main stage. It’s a chance for golf to tell its origin story again. The British Open, the fourth and final of the annual Grand Slam events, is just around the corner.

The host course this time is Royal Liverpool, otherwise known as Hoylake to those who know the course and its bumpy fairways, which are turned a pale khaki green by the summer sun and brackish air.

The British Open is always played, to use a phrase by BBC commentator Peter Alliss, who died in 2020, “by the sight and sound of the sea”. They are played on links courses that are a century old – or much older. Royal Liverpool held its first Open in 1897 and is on Liverpool Bay, although you might think of it as the Irish Sea. The route is a mile from the train station in Hoylake – many fans will get there via the Merseyrail – and around 15 miles from Penny Lane in Liverpool.

Texan Jordan Spieth, winner of the 2017 British Open, prepared for Royal Liverpool by entering last week’s Scottish Open, played at the Renaissance Club links course. One afternoon Spieth snuck out and played in North Berwick, an old and beloved link. His 13th green is guarded by a stone wall because — well, why not? The wall was there first, and the course dates back to 1832.

“In the British Isles,” said American golf course architect Rees Jones recently, “they like quirks.”

Promoting a course through its architect, a powerful marketing tool in American golf, is not a big deal in Britain. Years ago Jones was making a first visit to Western Gailes, a rugged countryside on the west coast of Scotland. The starched club secretary—that is, the porter—told Jones that he could play on the ground if he could name its architect.

Jones offered a number of names.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

“Who designed it then?” Jones asked.

“God!” the secretary yelled.

Spieth’s plan was to play just a few holes at North Berwick, but he found he couldn’t give up. He played the entire course. While at it, he talked about the joys of golf.

“There’s nothing like links golf,” he said. “The lawn is totally different. Shots go shorter or farther than shots go anywhere else, depending on the wind. It’s exciting. It’s fun. You use your imagination. There is never a driving range putt when you are playing golf.

In the background, someone from Spieth’s group said “Nice shot” to another player. But you have to be careful with that phrase, when playing on link lands.

Nobody could have known this better than Tom Watson, winner of five British Opens in the 1970s and 1980s.

“In 1975 I went to Carnoustie to play my first Open,” Watson said in a recent telephone interview. Carnoustie, on the east coast of Scotland, is notoriously rough, desolate and treacherous. Watson arrived on the field on the Sunday before the start of the tournament, but the overlords rejected him. He was too early. Good thing there are 240 traditional links courses across Great Britain.

“So Hubert Green, John Mahaffey and I followed the road to Monifyeth,” said Watson. “I landed my first shot right in the middle. Everyone says, ‘Nice shot’. We went down the fairway. I can’t find my ball. It’s gone. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know anything about this golf course.’”

Watson won the 1975 British Open at Carnoustie. And he may have won in 2009 at Turnberry, but his second shot, with an 8-iron, on the 72nd hole, landed close to the green, took a wicked bounce and ended in soft grass. He needs a pair of closing singles to win. Instead, his bogey meant a playoff, and Watson, 59 and burned out, was doomed. Stewart Cink won.

Watson walked into the press tent and said, “This is not a funeral.” A links golfer learns over time to accept the ups and downs in any golfing life.’

After Tom Doak graduated from Cornell in 1982 with dreams of becoming a golf course architect, he became a summer caddy at the Old Course in St. Louis. Andrews. Doak, now a prominent architect (and Renaissance course designer), has been doing a study of the golf course ever since. In a recent interview, he noted that older golfers generally do well at the British Open. Greg Norman was 53 when he finished third in 2008. Darren Clarke was 42 when he won in 2011, and Phil Mickelson was 43 when he won in 2013.

Links golf, Doak said, is not about crushing the driver with youthful abandon. When Tiger Woods won at Royal Liverpool in 2006, he hit the driver just once in four days. Greens on British Open courses are typically flat and remarkably slow compared to, say, Augusta National greens. There is less stress on putting on and the game within the game which favors young eyes and young nerves. What golf most rewards is the ability to read the wind, the bounce and how to make the ball fly with an iron.

“In links golf, you have to curve the ball both ways, depending on what the wind is doing and where the pin is,” Doak said. “You have to figure out what the ball is going to do after it lands.”

This requires cunning, skill and golf-gained wisdom – all useful whether you’re playing the British Open or casual round with a friend in the long twilight of a British summer twilight. Open fans sometimes end their golf day with dinner for nine (or more) at nearby links along the waterfront. Greater Liverpool has a lot of them. Every British Open venue does.

Playing night golf on these courses, you might also see golf officials, equipment reps, sportswriters and caddies, Jim Mackay among them. Mackay, known as Bones and caddy for Justin Thomas, was Mickelson’s caddy when Mickelson won at Muirfield a decade ago.

Mackay, like millions of other golf fanatics around the world, never tires of the game. That is, the real game, not your politics, not your business opportunities. Mackay knows, as a golfer and caddy, that success at golf requires a certain kind of golf magic, the ability to make the ball work the way you want it to.

Playing golf, he said recently, “is like standing 50 meters in front of a hotel and having to decide which window on which floor you want your ball to go through.”

The caddy as a poet. A golfer with options.

Links golf, John Updike once wrote, represents “freedom, of a wild and windy kind.” On some level, the Royal Liverpool winner will understand this. The winners of all dinnertime matches as well. Yes, the Open champion will receive $3 million this year. But he will also have one-year custody of the winner’s trophy, the claret decanter, with his name engraved forever.

Do you know how much Woods earned for winning Hoylake in the summer of 2006? It is unlikely.

But many of us remember Woods crying in his caddy’s arms. We remember Woods cradling the pitcher in victory. We remember the clouds of brown earth that heralded his shots, his ball flying high, his club head spinning.

“Hit it, wind,” Woods would occasionally say to his ball in the air, as if the wind could hear him, and maybe it could.

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