VOL. 24: Linked

written by Tom Coyne | photograph by Patrick O'Brien

The Ocean Course at Kiawah & the Links of Doonbeg

Links: noun pl 'lin(k)s
1. Scottish: sand hills abutting a sea or ocean
2. golf course; a golf course situated upon linksland
3. one of the most misused monikers in golf

We say some silly stuff out there. Like most golfers, I don’t really consider the meaning of my words when I employ the golf lexicon, tossing out clichés in an attempt to sound like I really belong in your Sunday foursome.

Some examples:

Good ball. So how is the ball itself inherently good? Good, as in well-behaved like my golden retriever?

That’s good. Tell me which is the good part—that I left the last putt three inches short, or that I’m about to cheat by picking it up?

Draino. How did that lovely roll recall toxic sludge?

Golf shot. In case you thought for a second that you were playing basketball.

And then there’s links, an ancient and historic golf expression that has been misapplied to countless courses, from Pebble Beach to the Pirate Island putt-putt.

When Irishman Rory McIlroy made shepherd’s pie of Pete Dye’s minefield on Kiawah Island, this links abuse became the stuff of headlines and interviews. Rory, did growing up on links courses give you an advantage on this one? It’s a fair question, but it would have been a better one if the course he conquered was actually a links.

You could golf all the world’s coastlines and not find as stunning a seaside challenge as the Ocean Course at Kiawah, but the hosts of the 2012 PGA Championship and 1991 Ryder Cup don’t call it a links for a reason. It has the drama and the surprises and the wide water backdrops that conjure a day on a links, but aside from the wind and stone’s throw beach,

The Ocean Course has less in common with a classic links than you might expect. This isn’t to say that the spectators at the PGA weren’t looking at a true links course as they gazed out over the Atlantic. They were. But that links happened to be on the other side of that ocean, in Ireland, some 3,700 miles away.

In one of the more interesting twists in modern course development, it was Kiawah and its Ocean Course that helped pave the way for golf in a small fishing town in faraway County Clare. Opened in 2002, the Doonbeg links and resort were quickly crowned one of the premier golf destinations in the world. Greg Norman designed a rollercoaster through the ancient dunes just outside the village of Doonbeg, and in doing so South Carolina brought a genuine Irish links home to Ireland.

But what is a links? And who really cares? The second question is easier to answer—golf-heads, golf geeks, golf purists, and scribblers like me who labor, often unsuccessfully, for the right word. As for the definition of a links, we guess that if we see water, a landscape void of trees, and fairway moguls reminiscent of July mornings spent watching the British Open, then it must be a links. But many of those golf-heads mentioned above would surely differ.

Paul Daley’s Links Golf carefully details the origins and characteristics of a genuine links. The origin of the label links is often explained as golf played upon linksland—land that literally links the sea with the turf, in-between land, if you will, or dunes. I prefer Daley’s etymology for the expression. He traces links to the Old English word hlinc, meaning lean. Links terrain is lean and wild, better suited for sport than farming, and its contours have not been shaped by bulldozers but by millennia of wind, storms, and receding tides.

As oceans retreated from land over thousands of years, they left behind sandy terrain split by channels and rivulets, creating the undulating dunescape that we links lovers see in our sleep. According to early twentieth-century journalist and course designer Sir Guy Campbell, seabirds fertilized and seeded these sandy sanctuaries, giving life to uniquely hearty dune grasses that seem to feed on wayward golf balls. With grass came rabbits, foxes, and eventually shepherds and their flocks. And since the land was useless to farmers, it was left to hunters and sportsmen who would, at some unknown point in history, start whacking and chasing pellets around the sandy hills of Scotland.

Where the flocks had tread between dunes became golf’s first fairways, where rabbits nibbled the grass tight became greens, and where sheep tucked themselves into the hillsides for shelter against the weather became worn and sandy pockets—golf’s original bunkers. (Those rabbits and shepherds aren’t around to confirm any of this, but it’s as good a theory as any.)

Doonbeg’s designers didn’t leave all the work to weather and livestock. The course is man-made and manicured, yet it remains wild and surprising in a way that makes you ponder Mother Nature’s blueprints more than Mr. Norman’s. As you stare out at the first green tucked into a turret of sand hills as tall as an office building, or as you pick your target on the par three 14th, the green like a tiny saucer stuck into the side of a cliff, you get that links kind of feeling, that understanding that you are playing a landscape, not a layout. And that wind slapping your face reminds you that you are there not so much to battle a golf course but to venture out and find your own, lash by lash by lash.

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island whips you with that same Atlantic wind, but rather than spinning through the dunes, the breeze blasts across South Carolina lowcountry, terrain flat as the alligators watching from the reeds. The sand isn’t mounded into dunes; rather, it hugs every fairway and green with bunkers the size of long ocean strands (with so much sand, you understand why your caddy says it’s okay to ground your club). It is a golf course reclaimed from a marshland more than a links carved out of the dunes, and while a links course suggests you play the game along the ground, The Ocean Course forces you to face your fear and fight the wind. Dye’s design asks you to go high and spin it, carrying water and false fronts and the signature railroad ties, then check it up shy of the runaway collection areas. When the wind blows at Kiawah, your bump-and-run and knock-down shots won’t save you. There’s no hiding from the ocean on The Ocean Course.

One course says go high in the wind; one says try low. Links golf is more like bowling, while the seaside golf at Kiawah is closer to darts—both a blast, both a battle, and when viewed from the clubhouse grill, both tracks nearly identical (the vista from the 19th hole at Kiawah and Doonbeg are uncanny mirrors of one another—eighteenth green a few paces from the door, ocean in the background, pint glass in the foreground). Sister courses, separated by an ocean, set upon the sea, and born of the same golf imaginations, but like most siblings, happy to show off what sets them apart.

And that’s good. — T.C.

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