Most people think of the word “links” as a synonym for golf course, but it’s actually a geological term. Linksland is a specific type of sandy, wind-sculpted coastal terrain—the word comes from the Old English hlinc, “rising ground”—and in its authentic form it exists in only a few places on earth, the most famous of which are in Great Britain and Ireland. Linksland arose at the end of the most recent ice age, when the retreat of the northern glacial sheet, accompanied by changes in sea level, exposed sand deposits and what had once been coastal shelves. Wind pushed the sand into dunes and rippling plains; ocean storms added more sand; and coarse grasses covered everything. Early Britons used linksland mainly for livestock grazing, since the ground closest to the sea was usually too starved and too exposed for growing crops. When significant numbers of Scotsmen became interested in smacking small balls with curved wooden sticks, as they first did in 1400 or so, the links was where they went (or were sent), perhaps because there they were in no one’s way. In some parts of Scotland, linksland is called machair, a Gaelic word. It’s pronounced “mocker,” more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat. (Machair is the root of Machrihanish, a legendary links course on the Kintyre Peninsula, in western Scotland.)
The major design elements of a modern golf course are the synthetic analogues of various existing features of those early Scottish playing fields, and the fact that golf arose so directly from a particular landscape helps explain why, more than any other mainstream sport, it remains a game with a Jerusalem: it was permanently shaped by the ground on which it was invented. Groomed fairways are the descendants of the well-grazed valleys between the old linksland dunes; bunkers began as sandy depressions worn through thin turf by livestock huddling against coastal gales; the first greens and teeing grounds were flattish, elevated areas whose relatively short grass—closely grazed by rabbits and other animals, and stunted by brutal weather—made them the logical places to begin and end holes. (“A rabbit’s jawbone allows it to graze grass lower than a sheep,” the Scottish links consultant Gordon Irvine told me, “and both those animals can graze grass lower than a cow.”)
On the great old courses in the British Isles, the most celebrated holes often owe more to serendipity and to the vicissitudes of animal husbandry than they do to picks and shovels, since in the early years course design was more nearly an act of imagination and discovery than of physical construction. One of Old Tom Morris’s best-known holes, the fifth at Lahinch, in southwestern Ireland, is a short par 3 whose green is concealed behind a tall dune, so that the golfer’s target is invisible from the tee—a feature that almost any modern architect would have eliminated with a bulldozer. The greatest hole on the Old Course is often said to be the seventeenth, a long par 4 called the Road Hole, which violates a long list of modern design rules: the tee shot not only is blind but must be hit over the top of a tall wooden structure that reproduces the silhouette of a cluster of nineteenth-century coal sheds; the green repels approach shots from every direction and is fronted by a vortex-like circular bunker, from which the most prudent escape is often backward; a paved road runs directly alongside the green and is treated as a part of the course, meaning that golfers who play their way onto it must also play their way off.
Over the centuries, every idiosyncratic inch of the Old Course has acquired, for the faithful, an almost numinous aura. Alister MacKenzie once wrote, “I believe the real reason St. Andrews Old Course is infinitely superior to anything else is owing to the fact that it was constructed when no-one knew anything about the subject at all, and since then it has been considered too sacred to be touched.”