Date: Sun 29 Oct 2017

The Nature of The Links: Back To The Future

By Mike Wood, EIGCA Associate Member

As golf faces increasing pressure to re-invent itself in the modern idiom – harmonising with a more authentic, stripped-back, and ultimately more sustainable outlook – Mike, a member of EIGCA’s Sustainability Committee, tries to pin down the essence and spirit of classic linksland landscapes and re-emphasises their importance as a fundamental source of inspiration.

“the links - those sacred bits of God’s earth - where men have battled for generations, like the sailor or the mountaineer, with what nature has placed before them.”

Robert Hunter “The Links” 1926

Robert Hunter’s words capture I believe the essence of what makes golf on the linksland unique. It seems that for him it was as much about the primeval contest with the elements as the more sophisticated skills of the game. The position of the links at the beginning of golf’s evolution remains beyond question - they define the archetype of a golf course. Not only did they provide both the canvas and the palette for the first designers to work with, but even more fundamentally, virtually all of golf’s key concepts and principles can be traced back to their distinctive characteristics.

Marram dunes with mobile exposed sand - Portmarnock, Co Dublin

Marram dunes with mobile exposed sand - Portmarnock, Co Dublin

In the beginning, golf’s connection with the landscape was intimate, immediate, and pure. Landscape was instrumental in the invention of the game - a coming together of a set of natural conditions with a basic human instinct to play, to test one’s skill against an opponent. I like to think that Mark Twain’s often-quoted insult, turned on its head, may be one of the simplest explanations for how it may have begun - it was a way of adding interest to, rather than spoiling, a good walk. The shape of the land, and the nature of the vegetation and soil, were together conducive to hitting a small ball from point to point with just the right amount of challenge. It was difficult, but not unfeasibly so, and we can conjecture that the thrill of safely “navigating” a small projectile through the humps and hollows of the dunes was no less satisfying to the earliest players than it is today.

The most venerable sites where the game was played, which include the links at Bruntsfield and Leith in Edinburgh, are now either too urbanised, or otherwise too modified, to allow a visitor to experience anything more than a shadow of their original character in its purest sense. Happily, however, the authentic links experience in landscape terms can still be found, although paradoxically, this is at least partly due to the reluctance of planning authorities to allow their development for golf.

The modern challenge? Castle Stuart, Inverness

The modern challenge? Castle Stuart, Inverness

A golfer visiting one of these pristine sites, exemplified perhaps by places such as St Cyrus in Aberdeenshire or Inch in County Kerry, immediately feels a sense of recognition, but at the same time he will be aware that in comparison with most golf courses, this is fundamentally a more natural landscape, one which is more directly a product of natural materials and processes. For all students of the game, a trip to one of these sites is an essential complement to any golfing pilgrimage. Even on a rare quiet day, when the sea is calm and sand grains are not bouncing along the beach, signs of dynamic change are everywhere: not only in the large areas of bare sand visible in dunes and blow-outs, but also in the diversity of the shapes of landforms, the differing steepness of the slopes, and the complex ecological patterns of tall grasses and lower-growing lichens and mosses.

In common with all landscapes, the essential character of the links is derived from two fundamental building blocks; the underlying physical structure or landform, and the vegetation which provides the surface cover for that structure, the land cover. Sand is the all-important material which provides the connection between them: its shaping, primarily by the wind, determines landform; its chemical and physical characteristics define distinctive growing conditions for the vegetation.

An early 12-hole layout: Shiskine Golf Club, Isle of Arran

An early 12-hole layout: Shiskine Golf Club, Isle of Arran

Links landforms are a fundamental component of our understanding of what constitutes a golf course - indeed the game of golf may in part have been a direct response to the shape of the land. The influence has endured - the sand-dune remains the prototype for the many variants of man-made landform - mounding, featuring, and shaping - which form the basis of earthworks design. Perhaps the most significant topographic characteristic of the links in relation to golf is their predominantly low relief in combination with very frequent small-scale undulations. This distinctive blend not only provides great diversity of playing interest at the human scale, determining variables such as clear or obstructed visibility of the target; uphill, downhill and sidehill lies; the direction and speed of movement of the rolling ball; but also at the same time avoids strenuous uphill or downhill walking. A basic understanding of the processes which shape these landforms is essential to place the links in their wider historical and landscape context.

Although the occurrence of significant areas of bare sand is an essential component of the overall equilibrium of a dune system, it is the presence of vegetation, the land cover, which is the overriding pre-requisite of the formation of a golf links within this environment. Vegetation not only causes the initial deposition of sand on the seaward dune, but also over time prevents landward movement, ultimately causing fossilisation of the older dunes and the formation of the typical undulating linksland plain. This process is a classic example of ecological succession - the species and communities are themselves responsible for the changing environmental conditions. The specific vegetation communities present on a given site or golf course are related to the stage of the succession process which has been reached - whether dynamically and naturally, as may be the case for some undisturbed out-of-play areas, or more commonly, by a combination of natural succession and some degree of management intervention.

Contours on the Himalayas putting green, St Andrews (Credit: drawing by Jonathan Davison)

Contours on the Himalayas putting green, St Andrews (Credit: drawing by Jonathan Davison)

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from an examination of the nature of the original links environment is that all of its constituent components - landform and land cover, beach and dunes, terrestrial and marine ecosystems - are intimately connected. They are constituent parts of a whole, rather than discrete entities. If the connections between them are broken the entire system will begin to deteriorate. We can’t simply focus on one part, where the golf course happens to be situated. In order to design a truly sustainable landscape, we must first understand how it works, at all scales from individual plants and soil particles to ecological and geomorphological processes, and over the long-term as well as the short. It follows that our solutions must be in harmony with these processes, requiring a flexible approach, where the dynamic equilibrium of the overall system is recognised and incorporated, and where randomness and the willingness to adapt to it are embraced.

“(the) essence (of a round of golf) is moving across a terrain on foot, connecting to it with senses and mind alert; evaluating, deciding, accepting outcomes…”

Andrew Greig, “Preferred Lies” 2006

The words of the Scottish poet, Andrew Greig, written almost a century later, closely echo those of Robert Hunter, and re-validate them for the modern age. A round of golf should be a journey, a contest with the elements, ending with a return to the haven of the clubhouse, having navigated your way successfully through natural hazards, having “golfed your ball” safely home. I believe if we can return to this core spirit, and embrace it as fundamental, no matter how we re-imagine them, future forms of the game will remain as authentic, exhilarating and appealing as the original.

Click here to read more about Mike.

Click here to read the Resource Centre's Spotlight on Links Golf.

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