For many golfers, a round at a links course is a sacred journey back to the very roots of the game – the truest, most exhilarating challenge there is. As the game has grown, it has inevitably moved its playing areas inland, and true links courses now represent only around 1% of the worlds courses.
Links golf is the game distilled to its very core values. A sea breeze and firm sandy turf. A simple game which can be played largely along the ground on a course that needs no embellishment with challenges unchanged for hundreds of years.
The links courses of Scotland and Ireland are well celebrated but in this blog, I will focus my attention on the links of England – where they are, what they are like and also take a look into the future.
In 2010, George Peper and Malcolm Campbell set out to identify and catalogue every links course in the world, published in their wonderful book, True Links. For inclusion on the list, a course needed to have sea views, sandy dune like terrain and fast running fairways buffeted by ever-changing maritime winds.
Here is their list of every links course in England:
Berwick – upon Tweed (Northumberland)
Bude and North Cornwall (Cornwall)
Burnham and Berrow (Somerset)
Castletown (Isle of Man)
Felixstowe Ferry (Felixstowe)
Great Yarmouth & Caister (Norfolk)
La Moye (Jersey)
Minehead & West Somerset (Somerset)
Royal Birkdale (Merseyside)
Royal Cinque Ports (Kent)
Royal Guernsey (Guernsey)
Royal Jersey (Jersey)
Royal Liverpool (Merseyside)
Royal Lytham & St Annes (Lancashire)
Royal North Devon (Devon)
Royal St Georges (Kent)
Royal West Norfolk (Norfolk)
Rye (East Sussex)
St Annes Old Links (Lancashire)
St Enodoc (Cornwall)
Seaton Carew (Durham)
Silloth on Solway (Cumbria)
Southport & Ainsdale (Merseyside)
Southport Municipal (Merseyside)
West Cornwall (Cornwall)
West Lancs (Merseyside)
The list is spearheaded by the Open Championship venues of Royal Birkdale, Royal St Georges, Royal Lytham and Royal Liverpool.
Following closely behind with courses rated in the English top 30 are the quirky classics of Royal West Norfolk and St Enodoc, the brutal examinations of Rye, Hunstanton and Littlestone, the almost good enough for an Open venue if the roads were better courses at Burnham and Berrow and Saunton and the brilliantly conditioned pine forest/links hybrid at Formby.
The bulk of the rest of the list are century old traditional members clubs that offer unbelievable value for full membership. Many also offer Country Membership for those that live out of town.
For golfers that wish to tick a number of these courses off their bucket lists in a single trip, Southport offers the perfect base from which to explore the rich combination of courses along the English North-West coast.
With the possible exceptions of Rye and Royal West Norfolk, all of the links courses in England are easily accessed by visitors. Green Fees range from £30 to £300 and all are good value in their own way. It is perhaps a shame that there is only a single course at Southport Municipal that is truly open to all levels of player. What an incredible thing it would be if every County in England could provide a true links on which to learn the game.
The list is not without its controversies. The slightly open to interpretation definition of links gives rise to those that could well of made the list but did not, such as Frinton Golf Club in Essex, which offers sea views and gently undulation links style turf, to those courses that made the list but do not call themselves links, such as the clifftop Sheringham Golf Club in Norfolk.
An interesting aspect of the list is the complete lack of any new entries. The most recent addition was the 9 hole Channel Course at Burnham and Berrow but in terms of the main course at a venue, you have to go back to 1925 and the creation of Trevose Golf Club. Indeed, since True Links was published in 2010, the English list has shrunk by one with the demise of Sandilands Golf Club in Lincolnshire due to the fall in membership numbers and the closure of the local hotel.
The complete lack of a modern links designed by one of today’s pre-eminent course designers is a shame for English golfers. In Scotland, for example, it is possible to enjoy the classic Royal Aberdeen with the modern Trump International Links as part of a short tour. The reasons for this almost century long lack of links designs in England are fairly clear. Lack of available land is the top issue, shortly followed by cost and environmental concerns. Maybe one day this may change – it would potentially be a fantastic addition to English golf.
Whilst, therefore, England is better known for its heathland classics, its Links offerings are diverse, accessible, high quality and often clustered to offer enticing golfing tours. If you wish to sample some of the most traditional venues in the game, add some English Links to your must-play list.