The other day I was paired up for a round of golf with a fellow who I had never played with before. As often happens, our conversation got around to comparisons between golf courses. I asked him what he thought of one of the newer courses in our loop called Glencairn, just outside of Milton, Ontario, Canada.
That's not a North American style course" he said somewhat derisively. Right at that point we were interrupted, so I didn't have the opportunity to ask him what he meant by the comment. But having had this discussion with quite a few fellow golfers, I had a pretty good idea.
When it was opened, Glencairn was promoted as a links golf style course, and playing there was supposed to make you slap yourself and say, "Hey, did I just get transplanted to Scotland." But the truth is, for most of us, our preconceived notions about links golf are based on nothing more than this sort of advertising hype.
There is some debate about just what a "links style" course is supposed to be. Things that come to mind are the absence of trees, firm sandy turf, large gently undulating greens, and areas around the greens where the ball can be run up or even putted.
In North America fabricated links golf courses like Glencairn also include other features intended to "make you think you are in Scotland" -- deep bunkers that sometimes even try to be "sod-walled", the occasional "burn" meandering through or across several fairways, high uncut grass that is referred to as "fescue", lots of pictures in the club house of St. Andrews, Muirfield and other famous Scottish courses, tartan carpets, and of course lots of Scottish sounding names for the restaurant, lounge, and so on.
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Judging from the conversations I have had with fellow golfers, what they do not like about these links golf style courses is mostly an aesthetic thing. They don't have enough trees and they are not green enough.
First of all there is the lack of trees. In large parts of North America the soil and climate are ideal for trees. Generally speaking, the most heavily populated areas -- the areas that have the most golf courses -- also have the most temperate climate, and therefore the most trees. So the original North American courses were often cut out of forested land. Even if it was not the intent of the original course designer, the trees became an important part of the "look and feel" of the course. Tree lined fairways are what many North American golfers came to expect.
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The matter was quite different with the original links golf courses of Scotland, England and Ireland. In these places "links land" referred to the area along the sea coast between the sand dunes and the more useful land further inland. This was considered ideal for golf courses because, generally speaking, it was not useful for much else, vegetation was relatively sparse so maintenance could be kept to a minimum, and it was often viewed as quasi-public land -- much like beaches still are in many places, and so was ideal for recreational purposes such as golf.
Trees were absent from these courses because they could not grow in this seaside environment. The soil was generally too sandy and not mineral-rich enough to support the kind of trees we are used to in North American forests.
The other thing most North American golfers like is lots of green. Green grass, green trees, green greens. If their golf course is not lush and green they think something is wrong.
This "need for green" also has its origins in our climate, vegetation and soil conditions. The same soil and rain conditions that support towering maples, oaks and pines, are also ideal for the thick, lush varieties of grass we use in most of our fairways and greens.
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It also explains the lack of green in traditional seaside links golf courses like St. Andrews, Royal Dornoch, Ballybunion, and all the others. The kind of lush green grass we are used to in North America simply cannot grow in the relatively harsh, wind swept sandy areas where seaside links are generally built.
But the fact is brown fairways and the lack of trees are just superficial differences between different styles of golf courses. At one level these differences give rise to different types of golf games requiring somewhat different skills -- for example, the ability to play in the wind and rain, and to run the ball up rather than simply plunking it on the green.
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But at a deeper level the links experience is about a different type of interaction with our environment. An authentic links course is much less subdued and controlled than your average North American park land course. It is somewhat less the product of golf course design, and more the result of a long series of accidents of nature.
Rather than being a submissive, manufactured creation built simply for the enjoyment of our mastery over it, the course has a character of its own which we cannot control. It stands apart from us, and remains always changing, always challenging, always worthy of our respect.
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Rick Hendershot is an avid golfer and publisher | Golf Swing Tips - Swing like a Pro | Cancun Mexico - the most beautiful beaches in Mexico.
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