Guest column: Tim Liddy

Centuries-old links golf has much to teach us. But I am afraid we are not listening; nor are we readily capable of learning.

Although many Americans profess a huge love for traditional links golf that the Scots gave to the world more than half a millennium ago, the truth is that few of us understand what it is, how to fully appreciate it or how important it is.

This has become clear to me in recent years while working in Scotland on a renovation.

An increased exposure to the “real” game has enabled me to see the relevance of links golf on a wider front.

For most Americans, links golf is a much-anticipated trip to Scotland or Ireland involving an organized but usually manic chase around a few iconic coastal courses.

There isn’t enough time on a first hurried visit to appreciate that links golf is one of nature’s great gifts: seaside dunes tumbling down to the shoreline; the tawny color of fescue; the dark green gorse and purple heather against the rumpled green (and often brown) fairways.

It’s one thing to feel the firm turf under foot; it’s quite another to experience a well-executed iron shot as the feeling travels from the fingertips through the hands and arms and directly into the soul.

On ecological grounds, links golf has much to teach us. In terms of sustainable maintenance at an affordable level that’s playable for all golfers, America, I am sorry to say, is lagging far behind.

We still routinely irrigate more than 1 million gallons per day on many courses. We judge golf maintenance on a “scale of green” (i.e. Augusta National). We have reached the point, in my view, where many searching questions have to be asked: Is this high-maintenance, artificial form of the game sustainable? Is American golf too expensive as a result?

Ironically, being “green” in golf is not the same as being “green” ecologically. In America, dormant Bermudagrass in the South is the closest playing condition to links turf. Yet while we continually profess to want to emulate Scottish or Irish links golf, we consistently overseed dormant Bermuda to achieve soft, green conditions for the winter golfers. It’s an expensive and grotesquely wasteful use of resources.

“Sustainability” should be the new buzzword for golf in the U.S. Links courses have been sustainable for centuries, requiring little or no water, low fertilization and low maintenance costs. This explains why Scotland still enjoys inexpensive golf – it would not be the national pastime if it were expensive.

Which begs another question: How much is a round of golf actually worth? $50? $100? $200? If we followed the example of links golf, our maintenance costs would shrink dramatically. Development of courses would cost less. Green fees would drop significantly. The benefits to the environment would be considerable.

The agronomics of links turf are pretty impressive: dry, lean and firm. The ecology demonstrates proper maintenance practices developed through many centuries. There is no Poa trivialis on a links course. (Poa being symptomatic of too much irrigation and fertilization.) Poa trivialis, an annual bluegrass, is prominent in overwatered courses in America. It invades when superintendents, fearful for their jobs, overwater to keep their courses “Augusta” green and their members living an egotistical and unsustainable dream. Such a defensive maintenance regime allows Poa to overtake the drought-tolerant bents originally planted. Once the Poa is established, the superintendent is stuck with overwatering to keep alive what essentially is a weed.

Playability for all levels of golfers is an important characteristic of a links course. Golf on the ground was an integral part of the design strategy of the early links layouts. The ability to play golf “more on the ground” and “less in the air” adds greatly to the enjoyment of the game for the average player. It also offers more options for the better player.

Yardage means nothing as the variable wind and firm conditions provide a test that differs every day. Five sets of tees are not needed because yardage differences are not as important without the forced carries and target golf so prevalent in the modern U.S. version of the game.

For example, the Old Course at St. Andrews, set up for the dry conditions of the 2000 Open Championship, included fairways that in some cases rolled faster than the greens. These conditions defended the course against the power hitters. Tee shots traveled to the edges of the fairways, where serious hazards awaited and approach shots to firm greens had to be played from the right place. Course management was crucial.

At its best, golf is a chess game with different pieces and a different board every day. It requires as much – and perhaps more – skill and strategy than power. In America, by contrast, we fly the ball to the green, making golf one-dimensional.

To remain relevant, golf in America must take on its competition. Golf can offer solitude and natural elegance against the crass modern society, a private experience instead of mass media. But we need to stop building artificial golf courses with cart paths, rangefinders and yardage markers. If we drive our golf cart and play to yardages all day, why not just play to targets on a range? What is the difference?

To compete in today’s society, golf needs to offer the antithesis of that culture, not a reflection of it. Links golf courses provide the natural, sustainable model for a healthy outdoor exercise.

Links-inspired golf is the principle of working with nature, not against it. It has become increasingly vital to the future of golf in America that we understand the underlying message and act upon it.

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Tim Liddy, ASGCA, is a Yorktown, Ind.-based course designer who has collaborated extensively with Pete Dye for two decades. Among his many solo projects are The Trophy Club in Lebanon, Ind. (No. 8 on Golfweek’s Best public-access list for Indiana) and a renovation of The Duke’s in St. Andrews, Scotland.

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