Learning to appreciate true links gems

The par-5 third hole at Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club.

The par-5 third hole at Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club.

DEAL, England – If you want to find out more about the origins of the game, go and play a links course in the winter. Go down to Deal and Sandwich on England’s South Coast and experience Prince’s and Royal Cinque Ports, maybe even Royal St. George’s, in the depth of a British winter.

You’ll soon realize why golf was first played by the seaside.

While most inland courses all over the British Isles are struggling to keep play going with winter tees and temporary greens, true links like Prince’s and Royal Cinque Ports carry on as normal. Only snow can close these great championship courses.

It struck me while playing these two wonderful links on a recent three-day trip that our forebears knew what they were about. We’re the ones that have mucked things up ever since.

Two greenskeepers at Royal Cinque Ports showed me and my playing companions why we can play these great links all year long while the rest of the British Isles struggle. The two greenskeepers were working on a fairway bunker on the par-5 15th hole. They had dug down deep into the bunker, into pure sandy soil.

“How far down can you dig and still hit sand?” one of my playing companions asked.

“As far as you want,” the greenskeeper replied.

If ever you wanted a reason why rain doesn’t last on these courses, then this was it. No sooner does the rain fall than it drains away down deep into the sand. No clay to fight with on these courses.

Over at Prince’s, they are hard at work getting the course ready for this year’s Open Championship. Prince’s and Royal Cinque Ports will act as qualifying venues for the British Open, to be held at Royal St. George’s in July.

Prince’s has embarked on a mission to upgrade most of its bunkers. Some 65 are in the process of reconstruction – and the result is magnificent.

Visit Prince’s if you want to see how to create a true links bunker. Every bunker has been carefully riveted – sod stacked on sod, giving the bunker faces a ribbed look – in classic links style. The land short of every bunker is being shaped to gather errant shots. “Suction bunkers,” I once heard Paul Azinger say.

The work, even in mid-construction, gives the course much more definition. Whereas in the past you might have stood on the fairway and wondered if there was a bunker in front of you, now they stand out. The two fronting the green at the par-4 fourth hole on the Dunes course are etched in my memory. They should strike terror into any golfer with an approach shot to a front pin.

Back at Royal Cinque Ports, the course is far into a reconditioning program under the tutelage of Master Greenkeeper Gordon Irvine. Not too long ago this links had suffered from over-watering and a subsequent infusion of foreign grasses. Not now. This is as pure a links as you can find.

So is Prince’s and nearby Royal St George’s. The beauty is all three are within walking distance of each other, touching distance in the case of Prince’s and St. George’s.  

In fact, I’d argue there are not three courses of such championship quality so close to each other. This trio has staged 16 British Opens.

It’s only in the dead of winter that you fully appreciate them – and learn why links golf is so integral to this great game.

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