The Definition of a Links Golf Course

By Nick Heidelberger

Royal St. Georges in Sandwich, England is a true links golf course

In the ancestry of golf courses, the links golf course rests immovably at the top. 

Links Golf Course Definition

A links golf course is a seaside course built on the sandy, undulating coastal ground that features few if any trees, fescue grass, no defense to coastal winds, and quick-draining sandy soil that produces firm conditions.

Other features typical of links golf courses include few if any water features; deep pot bunkers; and routing that goes out to the farthest point of the golf course, then back towards the clubhouse.

Map of St Andrews' Old Course routing

Check out the routing of perhaps the most famous links course in the world, the Old Course at St Andrews, from this overhead look ahead of the 1939 Open Championship. The first seven holes all play in the same direction, holes 8-10 horseshoe around the perimeter of the layout, and holes 12-18 beeline back to the clubhouse.

RELATED: How to Play St Andrews Old Course

Criteria of Links Golf Courses

Here’s how each element of a links golf course impacts the way you play.




Sandy soil, constant wind

Sandy soil

Firm turf, fast conditions, lots of roll

Few to no trees

No defense from ocean wind

Deep bunkers

Forces strategy and accuracy

Undulating ground

Allows accurate players to take advantage of roll while punishing errors

Out-and-Back routing

Minimal changes in wind direction (relative to golfer) during rounds

Modern Links Golf

Because of the seaside requirement, most new golf courses aren’t links courses. Parkland courses, which are inland, and incorporate trees and more water hazards into the layout, are typically the default style of modern course build, as that’s what most available land accommodates.

Bandon Dunes designed by David McLay-Kidd
Bandon Dunes (Oregon) is a rare modern-built true links golf course

However, links golf courses still pop up occasionally. Most famously, Scottish golf course architect David McLay Kidd built Bandon Dunes on the Oregon coast in the 1990s, one of the rare modern American links golf courses. Today, Bandon Dunes includes six links courses and is among the most popular golf destinations in the world.

RELATED: David McLay Kidd & The Courses That Exude His Philosophy

Links-Style Golf Courses

Links golf courses are often imitated, and arguably, sometimes duplicated.

Take Whistling Straits for example. Of course, Kohler, Wisconsin, doesn’t border any ocean, but it’s arguably situated along the sea, nestled up against Lake Michigan. Other than its geography, the 1998 Pete Dye design resembles a links course, making it the poster child for the links-style genre of golf courses. These courses, which meet several links course criteria with a compromise or two, still give golfers a taste of links golf, much closer to the way the game was invented than the typical parkland course.

RELATED: Pete Dye's Golf Courses and Daring Design Traits

In addition to Whistling Straits, popular American links-style courses include Chambers Bay (WA), Arcadia Bluffs (MI), and Ferry Point (NY).

History of Links Golf

Way back in the 1400s, Scottish farmers found no use for the sandy ground next to the ocean. While the soil was unusable for crops, it was ideal for golf. The term links describes the rising ground found along the coast, which is where links golf courses were built. 

Because early golf course architects didn’t have the luxury of earth-movers, links golf courses were built on top of the land in its natural state. The architect’s job was to select teeing areas, green sites, and shape fairways by removing vegetation.

Aerial of Royal Portrush in Portrush, Northern Ireland
Royal Portrush in Portrush, Northern Ireland is a textbook links golf course

The Meaning of Links

It’s common to hear people refer to ”the links” in reference to any golf course, but before you throw around that expression, you should understand that it’s technically not correct unless you’re referring to a true links course. 

While most people either understand the casual reference, or don’t know the distinction, it’s only a matter of time before you get corrected by a savvy golfer educated in the game’s architecture.

Of course, now that you’re educated on links golf, you can enlighten your golf buddies the next time they mistakenly toss out the expression.

About the Author

Nick Heidelberger is the Editor of GolfLink and an active member of the Golf Writers Association of America (GWAA). He covers all things golf, from the professional tours to rules, equipment, style, and golf history. In the years prior to joining GolfLink, he worked for the New England Section of the PGA of America. Nick has a degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and has been an avid golfer for more than 10 years.