When you start learning more about golf, one of the most exciting things is discovering the different terms used in the sport. Knowing them can make you feel like a true insider. But if you erroneously use them in the wrong place, you might come off as a pretender. One of the most common mistakes novices make is calling all golf courses ‘links.’
So, what is links golf? Golf courses are called links when they adhere to the links-style, which entails a sandy base, shorter grass, and an obstacle-style course arrangement featuring slopes. The term ‘links’ comes from ‘hlincs,’ which was used to describe the Scottish courses with similar characteristics.
In this article, you will learn more about the origins of the term as well as other relevant facts, including different types of courses, where links golf stands in the difficulty hierarchy, and which category of courses is the most prestigious. But first, let’s look further at links golf.
Each type of environment poses a different challenge while still using the same rules. In golf, knowing these differences will make you a smarter, better golfer. It’s similar to the idea of playing the same game of chess on two different boards. Do you play on the flat, normal chess board or the 3-D chess board?
Here’s what you need to know about playing a links course in golf.
Golf Courses and Links: Why is Golf Called “Links”?
Most know that golf came from Scotland a long time ago—in the late 1400s. It’s an old sport, isn’t it? The links, or link, is from the Scottish word hlinc. It’s their name for the grassy, uneven land between the sea and the valuable, farmable land. Understanding the history and terminology of golf can help you avoid accidentally using rude golf expressions that might offend your fellow golfers.
This land wasn’t used for much of anything until golf was invented. And for golf it was perfect.
The soil of the link is sandy, but not like the sand of a beach. It is compacted yet drains well after a rainfall. The ground stays firm.
As you can see, a links is the original type of golf course. In keeping the rich history of golf tradition, it is proper to call the links a golf links. Use golf course for all other types of golfing venues.
You’ll find golf courses, even in landlocked states, calling themselves links or links-style. But all golf courses are not links, and the terms are not interchangeable at all times.
Golf courses are the meta category that covers every course where golf is played. Links are usually more sand-rich courses along the coastline and are the truest courses to old golf.
The term is erroneously associated with multiple holes being ‘linked’ to each other in gameplay, but that’s not why golf courses are called links. “Links” is actually a derivative of “hlinc”, which is an old English term for rising ground.
You should know about this so you don’t end up using the word “links” in the wrong setting, as it can attract negative judgment. Oxford Languages backs the etymology of links, but how precisely are golf links courses tied to ‘hlinc’ or rising grounds? Apparently, not a lot.
The word ‘hlinc’ was used to describe the earliest golf courses that were on the rising ground but also happened to be along the coastline, on sandy soil, sand-rich grass, and drier turf.
Nowadays, golf courses with heath-rich turfs can also have hills but aren’t called links. The term remains tied to courses that are closer to the conditions in which the game originated and became popular.
Is Links Golf the Same as a Links-Style Course?
The difference between a links course and a links-style course is that the latter doesn’t have an organic coast or shoreline nearby.
All links golf played in landlocked states is links-style as it emulates the sandy conditions of the average links course. However, they are not situated along a beach or coast.
There are mainly three types of golf courses, but they can be further divided into 6 specific categories. Generally, parkland courses, links courses, and dessert courses are the most widely accepted ones.
What sets a links course apart is that balanced greenery with sandiness, creating a healthy midway course between the desert and the parkland extremes.
The cheapest course to maintain is the desert course, followed by a links course. That’s why courses with lush turfs are considered more prestigious.
Links courses rely on the natural lay of the land, and while grass can be intentionally grown and trimmed, the links turf is not manicured to make golfing convenient. It is in the challenge that links golfers find their thrill.
You might think that a prestigious course would also be elite in the extent to which it challenges the players. However, links courses remain the toughest ones because of the layout of the course that requires taking the ball along several slopes.
Which Is the Best Course to Train On?
While some aspects of golfing are transferrable across different courses, it is assumed that the golfers who play links courses are far better than those who play resort-style prestigious courses.
But even when links golfers try playing on a parkland course, they find it a little difficult to adjust. Regardless of wherever you train, you’re likely going to have an adjustment period when playing on a different course.
The best golf course to train on is the one you will be playing the most often. All other courses are secondary. Golf is a bespoke game where everything from your clubs to your glove can be custom-fitted to get you the best performance.
Even people with naturally high scores can register a higher handicap to get the playing field evened out for their specific situation. In such a game, focusing on a links course if you intend to play parkland (and vice-versa) makes no sense.
How Can You Master a Links Course?
You can use slopes to your advantage on a links course if you get used to playing under the wind. For this, you need to drive the ball straight and low while minimizing its spin. The straighter your shot on a links course, the better chances you have of maintaining a low score.
Low flight mastery is essential because if your ball goes high enough, the shot is shaped by the wind and not entirely by your swing.
The less control you have over its trajectory, the more likely you are to shoot mid-way of the slope and find the ball rolling back.
Your aim should be to use the slopes so that whenever the ball can roll forward, away from you, and towards the fairway, you can take full advantage of the opportunity.
How to Explain a Links Golf Course to a Novice
Now that you have sufficient background knowledge regarding links courses, it is time to master explaining the term to others. It can be boring to give the complete rundown.
Instead, it is best to explain links golf courses as follows:
“Links is derived from an old English word, ‘hlincs,’ that was used to refer to the initial courses on which golf was originally played. To this day, links courses remain mostly unmaintained and governed far more by natural elements.”
3 Main Challenges of Golf Links
There are three main categories of golf links challenges:
1. The Fairways
Some golf courses look like carpet was laid out on the fairway. So smooth and even you could take a nap on it.
The links are far from that.
Their fairways are so uneven you might think you are at an old miniature golf course with warped carpets posing as miniature fairways, but on a grander scale.
Today’s links, thanks to earth movers, can be more even. I’m thinking Pebble Beach Golf Links. It is a links, but the fairways are mostly even.
In the early days of golf there were no big earth movers to even-out the fairways. No golf course architects back then. Those are the people who design golf courses.
They plan the digging, moving of dirt, and the planting of trees and grass—lots of grass. In the early days of golf there may have been more to it, but for the most part they used the land as they found it.
Neither were there any power mowers. They relied on sheep to keep the growing grasses in check, if at all. I’ll bet they didn’t worry about replacing divots.
Another challenge is a type of sand bunker.
At the links they are called pot bunkers, and they look like potholes on city streets but bigger and deeper.
These are so deep that the strategy of everyone (except the pros) is to play it safe. Better to just get it out of the pot. Don’t try for distance. Aim high or the ball might not make it out of the bunker at all.
Don’t expect water hazards at links. They might have them, but because the soil drains so quickly, why bother?
3. The Weather
Strong sea breezes are a factor at true links.
If you watch PGA championships on TV, the crowds marvel at the high arc of the ball as the pros tee off.
I do too.
At a links those high shots are easily blown by the winds. Better to make low shots that are not blown too far off the desired direction of the ball.
Many times a links has nine holes going in one direction away from the clubhouse and nine holes for the return to the clubhouse. This is so golfers can play the wind in both directions. Perhaps one of the two directions will feel good.
In spite of all these links challenges the one good thing is the soil is so firm that you can get a good bounce from your ball. In many cases it also runs nicely—that’s golf talk for rolls nicely.
Two Strategies When Playing Links
1. Specialized Golf Balls
There are golf balls made to be played on a links instead of courses. Bridgestone, Titleist, and Top Flight, all great golf ball manufacturers, make their versions of these specialized balls.
And in case you are wondering, “What makes a ball play straighter in the wind?” The non-technical, user-friendly answer is the dimple, the core, and the cover.
The dimples are not as pronounced. The core is harder. And the cover is firmer.
One other factor is the spin of the ball as it is hit, but that’s on you and your swing. So if you are a serious golfer, you will need to try all three, maybe other brands to see what works best for you at the links.
2. How You Practice
Do you practice at the driving range when the weather is good?
If you intend to play a links, it’s a good idea to head to the driving range when weather is inclement.
Remember, weather is typically windy at the links. It’s a good idea to know how to play when it’s blustery. And really, isn’t it a good idea to practice in all types of weather so you always know how to manage your game?
Most golfers practice their putting and driving. If you are not used to playing a links you should consider practicing your three iron and four wood on a windy day. These clubs keep your shot close to the ground with less drag from the wind.
All Other Golf Venues Are Golf Courses
The links are a product of their environment. It is the same for parkland and desert courses.
Unlike links and desert courses, parkland courses are in forested areas, like a big park. They have lots of trees. An abundance of water makes for creative water hazards. They normally get greater rainfall which slows the ball as it bounces and runs.
These courses take advantage of their climate. Deserts are a popular destination for golfers especially in warm winters. As with links courses there are not many trees and fewer, smaller water hazards.
Other Categories of Golf Courses
Many will tell you there are other categories of courses. What they are proposing are just variations on the basic three. But here they are:
- Stadium courses – Built for spectators. These host tournaments with large crowds.
- Championship courses – Long and tough.
- Heathland courses – Contain heath and course grasses. Keep it in the fairway or you’ll lose a ball.
Short courses, sometimes called Par Three courses. – These are great for beginners and those who want to get a quick game in. These are frequently just nine holes.
Some courses in forests and deserts are created to mimic the challenges of the links. Their owners call them golf links, but they are not true links.
Nobody, however, seems to complain. And if someone dares to call any golf course a links course or golf links, golfers rarely bother to correct them. Maybe they don’t know.
Conclusion: What is a Links Course in Golf?
A links course is a type of golf course. Same golf, different golf challenge. There are two types of golf venues: golf courses and golf links. What makes them different is three types of terrain suitable for golf: links, parkland, and desert.
Now you are a better, smarter golfer!