What Is a Links Golf Course?

There are specific criteria for what makes a golf course a true links

An aerial view of the 249 yards par 3, 16th hole 'Barry Burn (lower) and the 433 yds, par 4, 17th hole 'Island' on the Carnoustie links golf course
A view across the Carnoustie Links, one of the golf courses that make up the British Open rota. David Cannon/Getty Images

"Links" and "links course" are terms that refer to a specific style of golf course whose hallmarks include being built on sandy soil on coastline; being buffeted by strong winds that require deep bunkers to prevent the sand from blowing away; and being completely or largely treeless (more links criteria are listed below).

All the first golf courses in our sport's history were links courses in Scotland. Great Britain and Ireland are still home to nearly all the true links, although links-like courses are common in other areas, too.

In many parts of the world—definitely not the UK, but in many other places—it is common to see the terms "links" or "links course" used in one of the following ways:

  • As a marketing term that is applied to any golf course that is relatively treeless.
  • As a general term used as just another name for "golf course," a synonym for "golf course."

It's not a crime to use the term "links" in either of those ways, but it's also not accurate. The term has a specific geographic meaning. Fact is, unless you've played golf in the UK or Ireland, there's a very good chance you've never seen a true links course in person.

Linksland Geography

The British Golf Museum says that "links" are coastal strips of land between the beaches and the inland agricultural areas. This term, in its purest sense, applies specifically to seaside areas in Scotland.

So "links land" is land where seaside transitions into farmland. Links land has sandy soil, making it unsuited for crops. Such land was often, in times past, thought to be worthless because it was not arable for crops.

But back in the mists of Scotland, someone had the bright idea to start knocking a ball around that land, hitting it from point to point. And from those humble beginnings, links golf courses emerged.

Because they were close to the beach, lots of sand bunkers were a natural (the soil was very sandy, after all). But such bunkers had to be deeply recessed to prevent sand from being blown away by the constant wind. Because the soil was of a poor quality and constantly buffeted by the seaside winds, not much would grow on it—mostly just tall, reedy grasses, some scrub bushes, but very few trees.

Hallmarks of True Links Golf Courses

So a true links course is not just any golf course that is treeless. The term "links" historically applies specifically to strips of land in seaside areas that feature sandy soil, dunes and undulating topography, and where the land is not conducive to cultivated vegetation or trees.

Because they were built on narrow strips of land, early links courses often followed an "out and back" or "out and in" routing. The front nine went out from the clubhouse, one hole stringed after another, until reaching the 9th green, which was the point on the golf course farthest from the clubhouse. The golfers then turned around on the 10th tee, with the back nine holes leading straight back to the clubhouse.

In modern terms, a "links course" is more broadly defined as:

  • A golf course built on sandy soil that is buffeted by wind.
  • Has few if any trees, but has a tall, thick rough of native grasses.
  • Features many bunkers, with many of them deep (including pot bunkers) to prevent sand from blowing away.
  • Plays firm and fast with sometimes crusty fairways and greens that feature many knolls and knobs to create odd bounces and angles.
  • Most of its greens are approachable on the ground, allowing run-up shots.

Links golf is, it's often said, "played on the ground" as opposed to being "played in the air," as with parkland-style golf courses. That means that links courses provide lots of roll-out and allow (or even require) golfers to run balls up to their greens, rather than demanding all carry to reach soft greens that hold shots.

Photos of Links Golf Courses? Worth 1,000 Words

Some of the best golf courses on the planet are links golf courses, and one fun way to get a firmer grasp on what constitutes a links is to visit one of those courses. Or, the next best thing: go to the photos.

Photo galleries of courses in the British Open rota, all of them links, are instructive. The Old Course at St. Andrews is the "home of golf" and the most famous links. Others links golf courses in the Open rota featured in photo galleries include Royal St. George's, Royal Birkdale and Royal Troon. Two more links that have been the sites of multiple British Opens are Turnberry and Muirfield. All of these are classics of the type of golf course called a links.

Sources: R&A, USGA, Golf Digest