The purest form of golf
It was on Scottish links land that the game of golf was first played over 600 years ago and, love it or hate it, links golf is widely accepted as the purest form of the game. Atlantic Beach’s Teddy Webber runs through the keys to mastering the vagaries of links golf.
Your brain is the greatest club in the bag when it comes to mastering links golf.
The key to enjoying your round on traditionally difficult courses is to keep the ball in play, even if you have to play holes differently to how you would on parkland courses.
A smart, conservative strategy, where you play within your abilities, will pay dividends because, as a rule, links courses are very unforgiving on mistakes.
If you have played the course before, you will have some idea of which club to hit off each tee.
It’s often better to tee off with an iron, remembering that the hard and bouncy fairways will see the ball roll a lot further than on parkland courses, and with a long-iron creating less spin on the ball, your shots are less likely to balloon off the clubface into the bush.
Consulting the course guide is also important, as you want to avoid the nasty pot bunkers at all costs.
You will need to have a good idea of how far you hit each club to the pitch – not how far they end up after rolling along the turf – so that you can calculate if it is possible to fly the traps. If you are in doubt, it’s best to be conservative and lay-up short of the bunker, remembering that you’ll get more roll on links courses.
It’s also a good idea to note the mowing of the links fairways. At Atlantic Beach, like most links courses, half the fairway is mowed in one direction and the other half in the opposite direction – not like the ‘American’ courses where the mower criss-crosses neatly.
What this does is create a grain and if you are taking an iron off the tee for accuracy, you would do well to remember that the lighter half of the fairway, with the grain of the grass flowing away from you, is likely to induce more roll than the darker half – as much as 15 metres difference.
If you find yourself in trouble on a links course, it’s usually in a deep pot bunker or some nasty long grass, and my advice would be to take your punishment and get yourself back into play. By this I mean don’t try to be a hero – take a wedge and chip back onto the fairway.
You’ve also got to be prepared to accept the rub of the green when it comes to links courses, and this means bad bounces, rotten luck and some bizarre results – all part of the joy of playing on links courses.
Surviving the wind
Wind is such an integral part of links golf, which is generally played on coastal courses, and for many of these layouts, a steady breeze is their main protection from low scores.
So expect to play with some wind and don’t try to fight it like so many players do, as the harder you hit the ball, the more spin you will impart on it – and the wind loves to take control of your spinning ball and play with it.
Playing into the wind can be quite intimidating, but the key is not just to take more club – at about one extra club per 10km/h of wind – but also to swing a lot softer than normal.
Think of it as swinging smoother, with a better tempo, rather than simply slower than your normal swing. By doing this you are taking the spin off the ball and starting it lower, with both practices leading to a more penetrating ball flight.
It’s important to note that you are not trying to hit a ‘punch’ shot here, as this would imply a steeper angle of attack – and by hitting down on the ball you will naturally create more spin.
Instead, you are looking for a much shallower angle of attack, a ‘cleaner’ hit and a smaller divot from a shorter backswing and a low, limited followthrough.
When it comes to crosswinds, the better player might prefer to shape the ball back into the wind, but for the average ammie, it all comes back to course management and, most importantly, keeping the ball in play.
I suggest taking an iron off the tee to minimise the amount of sidespin on the ball and make sure that your next shot is off the short grass.
For downwind shots, many players take off as much club as they would put on for a similar length shot into the wind, but this should not be the case as a strong tail wind will actually knock the ball down quicker.
So whereas you might take three extra clubs straight into the wind, you would probably only take off one club for a similar length shot downwind.
Choosing clubs in the wind is certainly not an exact science, but with enough practise in links conditions, you will soon learn to trust your calculations in club selection and from then on it’s all about staying committed to the shot and not trying to ask for too much.
Part of the fun of playing links golf is that it feels like no two shots are the same. All shots require some thought and imagination.
With the typically mounded fairways creating so many different slopes, you feel like you never have a flat lie to play from.
Even though the slopes can be quite severe, I try to keep the ball positioned pretty centrally for all my shots and I keep my swing the same too. The key is to keep your spine angle perpendicular to the slope and to choose the right club according to your lie.
An uphill lie will add loft to your club so you will need to take an extra club in order to get the ball to the green. Then it is just a case of keeping your spine angle perpendicular to the slope and swinging normally. In the case of a downhill lie, you would need to take less club but the fundamentals stay the same.
Even more difficult than playing off an up- or down-slope is when the ball is above or below your feet. When you’ve got the ball above your feet, the ball will want to turn from right to left as the angle of the slope means that you are swinging further inside the line than you would normally and the lie angle of the clubhead is more upright.
In order to reduce your swing arc – and thereby limit the inside swing path – I suggest choking down the grip of the club, although you would then need to add an extra club in order to make sure you got the ball all the way to the hole. The extra club would also have the effect of reducing the lie-angle problems that the slope produces.
A ball below your feet would promote a left-to-right ball flight and for this shot you need to set up with your weight on your heels and your knees bent so that you are lower to the ball. You probably need to grip the club firmer to ensure that the hosel does not dig into the ground and shut the clubface – but from here on in, it comes back to swinging smoothly and keeping yourself out of trouble.
An integral part of links golf is being able to execute the bump-and-run shot from around the edge of the green. Links courses don’t have USGA-spec greens, simply because they tend to be built on whatever land was there, and being hard and fast, they don’t have the stopping capabilities of your bent grass variety.
So while the pros will impressively hit a sandwedge low and hard so that it spins to a stop next to the hole, this is not exactly a low-risk shot for most ammies. It’s far better to take a 7-iron and play the shot like a putt, with your hands slightly ahead of the ball, your weight forward and turning the shoulders while keeping the rest of the body still as you try to get the ball rolling as quickly as possible.
It’s important to avoid taking your club back too far inside the line (as demonstrated above). Rather concentrate on taking it straight back and making clean contact with the ball.
You need to pick your landing spot on the green – or occasionally in front of the green – and then choose the club that will best get you there, whether it be anything from a 7-iron to a pitching-wedge.
The bump-and-run is such a useful shot, but perfecting it really does require lots of practise in order to develop a feel for distance control.
With large, hard and fast greens, putting on links courses can be tough, especially if the wind gets up. Another factor to consider is the ‘nap’ or grain of the green, as this will affect the speed and break of your putt – as a general rule the lighter the colour of the grass, the faster the ball will travel, as it is with the grain.
You also need to take the wind direction into account, as this will affect your putt, either in terms of speed or turn, although speed tends to be more important than line on links courses and lag putts are very important.
For shorter putts, from two to three feet, don’t look for too much break, but be confident and knock it into the back of the cup.
With trouble on both sides of the fairway, teeing off on a links golf course can be a terrifying experience for many high-handicappers, but you need to remember that most links courses have fairways that are very wide, even if they don’t look like it from the tee. Some courses even have blind tee shots, with nothing more than an aiming beacon to hit at – like the 4th hole at Atlantic Beach.
A pre-shot routine is very important as it will help settle the nerves and help you to remain focused on the task at hand – getting the ball onto the fairway.
I was taught this little routine by a sports psychologist during my time on tour.
First I look around and identify all of the trouble facing me off the tee, such as deep bush on the left or out-of-bounds on the right and then I make a point of thanking myself for noticing where the trouble is.
I do the same for bunkers, remembering to thank myself after spotting them and finally I look at where I want the ball to go and focus on what I need to do in order to get the ball to go there. In this way I block out all of the negatives and focus only of the positive of hitting the ball where I want it to go.
It may sound silly, but it’s all about being confident and trusting your swing, ignoring where it may all go wrong. That, and a bit of luck!
You will also need to be able to accept the inconsistent bounces and bad results that come your way even after what you thought were good shots.
The purest form of the game may demand respect, but it is extremely rewarding to come through a testing round unscathed – mentally and physically.
There is no such word as ‘if’ when it comes to links golf. The secret is not to gamble with any of your shots as the risk generally outweighs the reward.
In most cases position is more important than length and in typical links weather – wind, rain or both – you may need to rethink your strategy.
Forget about par when it gets tough out there and play conservative golf, keeping the ball in play at all costs. And, above all else, remember to enjoy it!
Teddy Webber is a two-time SA Amateur champion and former Sunshine Tour and European Tour professional. He played in three British Open championships and is now the PGA golf professional at Atlantic Beach in Melkbosstrand, just north of Cape Town. He was recognised as the PGA of SA’s Teacher of the Year in 2005.