A links is the oldest style of golf course, first developed in Scotland. The word “links” comes via the Scots language from the Old English word hlinc: “rising ground, ridge” and refers to an area of coastal sand dunes and sometimes to open parkland.
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 sandy 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.
It can be treated as singular even though it has an “s” at the end and occurs in place names that precede the development of golf, for example Lundin Links, Fife. It also retains this more general meaning in standard Scottish English. Links land is typically characterised by dunes, an undulating surface, and a sandy soil unsuitable for arable farming but which readily supports various indigenous browntop bent and red fescue grasses. Together, the soil and grasses result in the firm turf associated with links courses and the ‘running’ game. The hard surface typical of the links-style course allows balls to “run” out much farther than on softer turf course after a fairway landing. Often players will land the ball well before the green and allow it to run up onto the green rather than landing it on the green in the more targeted-landing style used on softer surfaces.
Although the term links is often used loosely to describe any golf course, few golf courses have all of the design elements of true links courses, including being built on linksland. The presence of a seaside location does not guarantee a links golf course. Many famous courses regarded as links do not, as presently constituted, have all of the necessary characteristics (e.g., Pebble Beach Golf Links, Old Head Golf Links at Kinsale, The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island). On the other hand, some courses located hundreds of miles from a seacoast, such as Whistling Straits, near Kohler, Wisconsin on the Great Lakes, can have all of the characteristics of a seaside links except for proximity to saltwater.