Definition of Links Golf Course: Characteristics, Origins, and Notable Courses Explained

Colin McCarthy

definition of links golf course

A links golf course isn’t just any course; it’s a unique terrain shaped by nature’s hand. Located at sea level along sandy dunes, these courses offer firm, fast conditions that demand a diverse array of shots.

Unlike their inland counterparts, true links courses are defined by their sandy soil and proximity to the coast, creating a distinct playing environment.

Playing links golf means embracing the elements. Wind and rain aren’t merely obstacles; they’re integral parts of the game. As the Scots say, “Ney wind, ney rain, ney golf.”

This natural unpredictability requires golfers to adapt their strategies, making each round a unique challenge dictated by nature itself.

A links golf course is a type of golf course typically found in coastal areas, especially in Scotland and Ireland, although they can also be found in other parts of the world.

Links courses are known for their natural, rugged terrain and are usually built on sandy soil near the coastline.

Here are some key characteristics of links golf courses:

Links golf dates back to the 15th century in Scotland, where the sport first took root on the naturally treeless, sandy coastal land.

The word “links” comes from the Old English word “hlinc,” meaning ridge or rising ground. Courses evolved organically, with golfers taking advantage of the natural terrain.

The earliest recorded round of golf was played at St Andrews, one of the most famous links courses, in 1552.

Links golf became synonymous with the game itself, leading to the establishment of golfing societies and the creation of the first standardized rules.

The key characteristics of links golf courses include:

Coastal Location

Links courses are typically found near coastlines, taking advantage of sandy soils and natural dunes shaped by coastal winds.

This proximity to the sea not only provides scenic views but also exposes the course to the challenging elements of coastal weather, including wind and occasional rain.

The coastal location often means that links courses have a unique microclimate, with weather conditions that can change rapidly throughout the day.


The wind is a defining feature of links golf and significantly influences gameplay. Coastal winds can vary in strength and direction, making each round a new challenge.

Golfers must learn to adjust their shots to account for the wind, often opting for lower ball flights to reduce the impact of gusts.

Reading the wind accurately and understanding how it affects ball flight is essential for success on links courses.

Natural Terrain

Unlike parkland or desert courses, links courses feature natural, rugged terrain shaped by centuries of coastal erosion.

The fairways and roughs are often undulating, with natural contours and slopes that add complexity to shot-making.

Instead of manicured landscaping, links courses showcase the raw beauty of the natural landscape, with native grasses, heather, and gorse providing both aesthetic appeal and strategic challenges.

Firm and Fast Conditions

The sandy soil common to links courses creates firm and fast playing conditions. Balls hit onto the fairways and greens often roll out farther than on softer surfaces, rewarding well-executed shots and punishing mis-hits.

Golfers must adapt their playing style to account for the firmness of the turf, adjusting club selection and shot trajectory to maximize distance and accuracy.


Links courses are known for their deep, pot-style bunkers filled with coarse sand. Strategically placed around fairways and greens, these bunkers present a formidable challenge for golfers, requiring precision to avoid or escape.

The design of links bunkers often emphasizes penalizing errant shots, adding an element of risk-reward to course strategy.

Minimal Water Hazards

While water hazards are less prevalent on links courses compared to other types of golf courses, natural features such as dunes, tall grasses, and pot bunkers serve as hazards that require strategic navigation.

Golfers must carefully consider their shot selection and course management to avoid trouble and minimize the impact of errant shots.

Open Layout

Links courses typically have a more open layout compared to other types of courses, with fewer trees and more expansive views of the surrounding landscape.

This open design allows golfers to use creativity and imagination in shot-making, utilizing the natural contours of the terrain and adapting to the challenges posed by the elements.

Challenging Greens

The greens on links courses are often large, undulating, and fast, requiring precise approach shots and careful putting.

Reading the subtle breaks and slopes of the greens is essential for success, as is the ability to judge the speed of putts accurately.

The challenging nature of links greens adds an extra layer of complexity to the game, testing the skills of even the most experienced golfers.

Traditional Design

Links courses often feature traditional design elements that reflect the origins of golf in Scotland and Ireland.

The layout of the course is typically routed to take advantage of the natural features of the landscape, with holes that follow the natural contours of the terrain.

Unlike modern courses that may incorporate artificial features, links courses prioritize the preservation of the natural landscape, maintaining the authenticity and character of the original design.

Scenic Beauty

With their coastal locations and stunning views of the sea, links courses offer unparalleled scenic beauty.

The rugged coastline, sandy beaches, and rolling dunes create a picturesque backdrop for golfers, enhancing the overall golfing experience.

Playing on a links course is as much about immersing oneself in the natural beauty of the surroundings as it is about the game itself, making it a truly memorable and rewarding experience.

Links golf courses differ from other types of golf courses in several key ways:

Comparison With Parkland and Heathland Courses

Links golf courses, parkland courses, and heathland courses each offer distinct experiences.

Primarily located along coastlines, links courses feature sandy soil, natural dunes, and minimal tree coverage. Winds play a significant role, impacting gameplay and strategy. The terrain is rugged and irregular, requiring players to adjust their tactics accordingly.

Parkland Courses

Found inland and often surrounded by trees, parkland courses have lush, manicured fairways and well-defined boundaries.

The terrain is typically more predictable and sheltered from strong winds. Water hazards and bunkers are common features, offering a different set of challenges.

Heathland Courses

Mostly situated in Britain, these courses exist on open, uncultivated land with heather, gorse, and coarse grasses.

With fewer trees than parkland courses, they’re somewhat intermediate in terms of wind exposure. The ground is often firmer than parkland but not as sandy as links.

Maintenance Requirements

Links golf course maintenance differs significantly from parkland and heathland courses.

Minimal Irrigation

Due to their sandy soil, links courses require minimal irrigation. This results in fast fairways and firm putting surfaces, adding to the challenge.

Natural Hazards

Links courses incorporate natural hazards like bunkers and dunes. These features often need manual maintenance to preserve their natural beauty and ensure playability.

Naturalization Efforts

Links courses, often in ecologically sensitive coastal areas, underscore naturalization efforts. This can involve planting native vegetation and removing invasive species, fostering an environment that stays in harmony with nature.

Course Design and Layout

The design and layout of links courses stand apart from parkland and heathland courses.

Feature a minimalist design with natural landforms shaping the course. The layout often follows the contours of the environment, creating irregular and unpredictable playing conditions.

Parkland Courses

Aim for aesthetic appeal with manicured lawns, planned tree placements, and artificial hazards. The layout is more controlled, offering a consistent and uniform experience.

Heathland Courses

Combine natural elements with man-made features, utilizing the natural vegetation and undulating terrain. The design balances rustic charm with strategic layout planning.

Playing on a links golf course offers a unique and challenging experience due to its distinctive characteristics.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when playing on a links course:

Challenges and Strategies

Links golf courses present unique challenges that demand adaptive strategies. The rugged terrain includes deep bunkers, tall grasses, narrow fairways, and towering sand dunes.

These natural elements make ball control crucial. For instance, hitting the ball low (known as a punch shot) helps to minimize wind impact.

Golfers often need to use the ground more than the air to navigate the course. Bump-and-run shots, where the ball rolls more than it flies, are common.

This technique utilizes the hard ground conditions typical of links courses. Players must also develop a keen eye for reading the course’s undulating landscape, as uneven lies and unpredictable bounces are routine.

Effect of Natural Elements on Play

Natural elements, particularly wind and coastal weather conditions, play a significant role in links golf. Wind can change direction and velocity quickly, requiring constant adjustments.

For example, a strong headwind necessitates hitting the ball lower to reduce its flight time. Conversely, a tailwind can carry the ball further, altering club selection and shot planning.

The sandy soil and minimal tree cover typical of links courses also impact play. Sand-based turf drains quickly, resulting in firm playing conditions that can make greens fast and fairways firm.

This affects shot selection, making control and accuracy even more vital. Players often need to adapt their stance and swing to manage these elements effectively.

Several famous links-style golf courses around the world are renowned for their challenging layouts and stunning coastal settings.

Here are a few of the most notable ones:

St. Andrews Links in Scotland is considered the birthplace of golf. Home to the oldest golf course in the world, the links consist of seven courses, including the famed Old Course, played since the 15th century.

Known for hosting the Open Championship multiple times, it stands as one of the most challenging and historical courses globally.

Links golf courses are typically characterized by sandy soil, natural dunes, and coastal landscapes, providing a unique challenge due to unpredictable weather and wind conditions.

These elements combine to create a distinct and demanding golfing experience that tests even the most skilled players.

2. Royal County Down Golf Club, Northern Ireland

Royal County Down Golf Club, located in Northern Ireland, is known for its stunning views of the Mourne Mountains.

The course, established in 1889, is often regarded as one of the most beautiful and challenging in the world. The narrow fairways, deep bunkers, and natural dunes offer a true test of a golfer’s skill.

Links golf courses like Royal County Down are typically situated on coastal terrain with sandy soil, allowing for firm and fast playing conditions. The unpredictable weather and winds add an extra layer of difficulty.

3. Royal Birkdale Golf Club, England

Royal Birkdale Golf Club in England is another prestigious links course with a rich history in hosting major championships, including the Open Championship.

The course is known for its flat fairways, undulating dunes, and strategic bunkering, making it a favorite among professional golfers.

The unpredictable weather conditions and coastal winds add an extra layer of challenge, emphasizing the need for precision and adaptability. Royal Birkdale exemplifies the classic links golf experience.

Although not a traditional links course, Pebble Beach Golf Links in California incorporates many links-style elements. The seaside location, exposed to strong winds and rugged coastline, provides a challenging playing experience.

The course has hosted multiple major tournaments, including the U.S. Open. Its design mimics the natural, undulating terrain found in true links courses, enhancing both the aesthetic and the difficulty.

As one of the most iconic golf courses in the world, it demonstrates how the principles of links golf can be adapted to various landscapes.

5. Royal Portrush Golf Club, Northern Ireland

Royal Portrush Golf Club, also in Northern Ireland, is globally acclaimed for its design and difficulty.

The Dunluce Links course features dramatic coastal views, tough bunkers, and natural undulations, making it a frequent host for the Open Championship. The conditions demand strategic play and adaptability.

The wind-swept terrain and deep pot bunkers showcase the true essence of links golf, requiring precision and creativity from golfers. Such characteristics highlight why links courses remain a revered part of golfing heritage.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines a links golf course?

A links golf course is typically located in coastal areas and characterized by natural terrain shaped by wind and sea. It features sandy soil, minimal irrigation, and natural hazards like dunes and coastal winds.

What are the key characteristics of a links golf course?

Links courses often have sandy soil, coastal winds, and natural hazards such as dunes. They require minimal irrigation and typically feature few trees, promoting a natural and challenging golfing experience.

Why is St. Andrews Links significant in the golfing world?

St. Andrews Links is considered the “Home of Golf” and is one of the oldest courses in the world. It is known for its historical significance and challenging layout.

Are there true links golf courses in the United States?

Yes, the United States has a few true links courses. Notably, Bandon Dunes on the southwest coast of Oregon offers links-style courses that showcase the natural elements of traditional links golf.


Links golf courses stand out for their unique blend of natural beauty and demanding play. Their coastal locations sandy soil and unpredictable winds create an environment where strategy and adaptability are key.

Unlike parkland and heathland courses links courses require golfers to navigate natural hazards and embrace the elements.

Renowned links courses like St. Andrews and Royal County Down offer a historical backdrop and challenging layouts that continue to captivate golfers worldwide.

These courses exemplify the essence of links golf where every round is a new adventure testing both skill and resilience.

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Colin McCarthy

Golf is about mastering your misses and learning from them. I seek answers on the how and why of the golf swing, gaining experience even when answers elude me. With over 11,000 hours of teaching and a hunger for learning, I welcome any questions. My goal is to introduce golf to as many as possible, simplifying the game for all to enjoy. Passionate, eager, and ambitious, I'm here to teach, listen, and learn. LinkedIn

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