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The Links Effect

How playing a links course is so different for Pro Golfers

Posted Jul 10, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

links course

Even downwind it’s difficult to comprehend - a 572-yard par-five being reduced to a five-wood off the tee and a five-wood second shot, followed by a three-foot putt for an eagle three.  But this is the sort of thing that can happen on links terrain, as Padraig Harrington proved on the long 17th at Royal Birkdale when retaining the Open Championship in 2008.

And it explains why the Dubliner is playing the Scottish Open this week at Castle Stuart as part of his preparation for the Open at Royal Lytham from July 19th to 22nd.  Links terrain looks, smells and feels different from parkland.  It also demands different shots, especially into the green, as American aspirants have discovered over the years.

Jack Nicklaus, a three-time winner of the Open title, played the event for the first time as a professional in 1962, when he went to Royal Troon as the US Open champion.  Though he finished a lowly tied 34th, he had known what to expect from team and individual experiences as an amateur in this part of the world.

“For my part, I didn't grow up in wind and I had to learn how to play it in,” he recalled.  “And I know I learned a lot from watching Joe Carr (the legendary Irish amateur) play links golf.  I saw him play an awful lot of two, three or four irons off the tee and I came to realise that this was a pretty good way to play those courses.  It was the only way you could be certain of avoiding the bunkers."

The Bear went on:  “The Walker Cup at Muirfield in 1959 remains one of the most interesting and exciting events I've ever played, because it was my first trip to Scotland and my first trip to Britain, period.  It was also the first time I had seen a links and I really enjoyed it.  I had fun with it.  That was where I met Joe for the first time and though we didn't play against each other at that stage, we became good friends.  Even with an age difference of 18 years between us, I certainly enjoyed his company and I would like to think that he enjoyed mine.  

"Later, on the few occasions each year that we would get together to play practice rounds or compete, as we did in the Masters in 1967, it was always fun, kidding each other and having a bit of a needle.  And we would have dinner occasionally.  When I think of Joe I picture a fun-loving guy who could play golf really well.  He had a swing that looked as if it had been developed over time, and it worked for him.  He knew exactly how to hit that fade and keep the ball under control, and he used those big hands of his very, very well.  He was also very effective around the greens.”

As time would prove, Nicklaus was a superb student.  Almost every time he teed it up in the Open Championship he became the player to beat, and victories at Muirfield (1966) and at St Andrews in 1970 and 1978, was the very least he deserved from the event.

Harrington, who was tied 14th behind Luke Donald at Castle Stuart 12 months ago, is happy to acknowledge the wisdom of the master. “You cannot compare how far the ball goes on a soft parkland course to how it goes off links turf,” he said, at a time when these islands are being lashed by the most hostile of weather.  “And if there’s wind, it affects the golf-ball totally differently on a links golf course.

“Look, links golf is just not the same thing as what we normally play.  So, familiarity with the terrain is undoubtedly a help.  And having the bonus of  being competitive and making mistakes with clubbing and getting used to hitting wedges off tight lies and chip-shots and the way the ball runs and things like that, is priceless. Sure, you can practise it, but it's only with a card in your hand that you really pick up what the difference is.”

He went on:  “Going to Castle Stuart after being in a challenging position recently for the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, offers the possibility of eight competitive rounds, apart from the pro-ams.  Without even thinking about it, I know that the Scottish Open will take care of a lot of details about changing to links golf that I would have to address if I did my preparation differently. And as a bonus, it’s big enough of a title that you’d want to win it in its own right.”

And who knows, some very helpful feelings may be revived for him of special moments at Carnoustie in 2007 and Birkdale the following year.  Feelings he could take onto the short first at Lytham on the 19th.      

- Dermot Gilleece

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