Tim Liddy is a Yorktown, Indiana-based course designer who has collaborated extensively with Pete Dye for two decades. Among his many solo projects are The Trophy Club in Lebanon, Indiana and a renovation of The Duke’s in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Centuries-old links golf has much to teach us about the game. But I am afraid we are not listening or learning.

Although many of us – and by us I mean Americans – profess a huge love for links golf, the simple truth is that very few of us actually understand what it is or how to fully appreciate it.

This has become very 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 to the game on a wider front.

For most Americans, links golf is a much-looked-forward-to trip to Scotland or Ireland that involves a manic chase around a few of the iconic coastal courses; a trip digitally recorded for posterity and for bragging rights back home. Inevitably, it will have been hugely enjoyable, but the truth is that at best it is largely a superficial experience. A few rounds on great links courses will set the golfing juices flowing, but they cannot begin to impart an understanding of what this form of golf is really all about.

There isn’t enough time on a first visit truly to appreciate that links golf is one of nature’s great gifts to us: seaside dunes tumbling down to the shoreline, the tawny coloring of fescue, the dark green gorse and purple heather against the rumpled green and brown fairways. It is one thing to feel the firm turf underfoot; quite another to experience a well-executed iron shot as the feeling travels up from the fingertips, through the hands and arms and directly into the soul.

What I had not realized until I became immersed in the best of Scottish golf is just how vital the lessons of links golf and links golf course architecture are to the future of golf in America and elsewhere. Links golf courses, with their sandy soil, firm turf, and natural features, can teach us as much today as when they originated over five hundred years ago. Scottish golf writer Malcolm Campbell so elegantly states in The Scottish Golf Book, “With few exceptions, golf in Scotland has remained true to the traditional principles of the game handed down over the generations. There are, thankfully, few examples of the tricked-up wares of self-styled architects – mostly it has to be said, American – who arrogantly proclaim their creations as ”‘Scottish-style” championship links, when in fact they are as often as not nothing more than vaguely planned dumpings of dirt that turn honest countryside into fields of upturned egg-boxes to boost the sales of real estate.”

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

We routinely irrigate over a million gallons of water a day on many of our golf courses. We judge the maintenance of our courses on something akin to a “scale of green”–usually against the most artificial golf course ever built, Augusta National. We have reached the point, in my view, where many searching questions now have to be asked. Among them:

  • Is this high maintenance, artificial form of the game sustainable?
  • Is American golf now too expensive as a result?
  • Are we making it harder for future generations to enjoy this great game?

Being green in golf is not the same as being green in other aspects of the environment. In America, dormant Bermuda grass is closer playing condition to links turf than any other grass in the southern United States, and yet while we continually profess to want to emulate Scottish or Irish links golf, we consistently over-seed to achieve soft, green conditions for the winter golfer. It’s an expensive and grotesquely wasteful use of resources.

Sustainability should be the new buzzword for golf in the United States, and for that, we need to look to the origins of the game. Links golf 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. Golf would not be the national pastime it is in Scotland 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 courses, our maintenance cost would be hugely reduced, our development of golf courses would cost less, and our green fees would go down – 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 over many centuries. There is no Poa trivialis on a links golf course (Poa being symptomatic of too much irrigation and fertilization). Poa trivialis, an annual bluegrass, is prominent in over-watered golf courses in America. It invades when superintendents, fearful for their jobs, over-water their golf courses in an attempt 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 over-watering to keep alive what is essentially a weed.

With Poa endemic on your golf course, it is time seriously to look at maintenance practices. It will take time, maybe years, to be rid of it, but less water and fertilizer reduces disease growth, allows the bent grasses to return, and provides a firm turf, an ideal base for golf and essential for sustainable golf.

Links fairways in Scotland for the most part are not green in the summer but turn a golden tan color in dry conditions with only a hint of green here and there. And yet they remain not only remain alive and healthy but provide a wonderful surface to play from. Minimal watering of putting surfaces, applied only in the driest conditions, ensures that greens remain firm and fast.

Playability for all levels of golfers is an important characteristic of a links course. Because of the way golf developed, particularly with the arrival of the Haskell rubber-core golf ball around 1902, 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, while offering more options for the better player. It also encourages an improvement in skill levels.

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.-led version of the game.

For example, the Old Course at St Andrews, set up for the dry conditions of the 2000 Open, included fairways that in some cases rolled faster than the greens. These conditions defended the golf 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.

Tiger Woods, the eventual winner, displayed wonderful strategic skills throughout the event with a classic example–his tee shot at the twelfth hole, named “Heathery.” A moonscape of bunkers infests the fairway on this short par-four hole, where finding a safe placement for the drive is critical. Woods, with his tremendous power, opted to defend against the hazards not by laying up short, which would have left a difficult and unpredictable second to a severely contoured green. Instead, he elected to launch a driver over the green, and beyond all the fairway and approach hazards. This left him a relatively easy chip back into the green from beyond the golf hole, thereby taking out the fairway hazards and the pot bunker and severe tier at the front of the green.

It was the stroke of a master who had absorbed the essence of the game of golf as it is played under links conditions – the original and purest form of the game.

In his book, “The Spirit of St Andrews,” Alister MacKenzie illustrated the playability of the Old Course with his diagram of the fourteenth hole, called “Long,” showing four alternative routes to play the hole. The paths vary depending on a golfer’s ability, the hole location on the green, and the prevailing breeze. Strategy is paramount and decisions that will have major impact on success or potentially embarrassing failure have to be made on this hole before any shot is played. Circumstances and decisions change quickly. The art of playing links golf is to appreciate the first and be able to respond with the second.

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 play only one way. We fly the ball to the green, making golf a one-dimensional game.

Clearly it is not possible to have links golf courses everywhere. There has to be compromise and adaptation to natural ground conditions. But the guiding principals of the traditional form of the game in terms of sustainability and year-round playability are just as relevant today to every golf course.

A minimum of water and fertilization is paramount. Many inland golf courses on heavy soils would benefit from this sound agronomic principle. American golfers need to understand certain lessons carried over from links: the importance of top dressing heavy soils with sand; that Poa is the hallmark of too much water and fertilizer; that green is not always the preferred color on a golf course.

Many golf courses throughout the world, including the heathland golf courses of England, such as Sunningdale and Swinley Forest, embody these virtues. That is why they are great golf courses and why they continue to stand the test of time.

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, range finders, 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 today’s society, not a reflection of it. Links golf courses provide the natural, sustainable model for a healthy outdoor exercise that, in the words of David R. Forgan, son of the St. Andrews club maker, affords the opportunity to play the man and act the gentlemen.” Or as Malcolm Campbell states, “It opens up the joys of the great outdoors, the chance to pit one’s skill against nature, an opponent and most importantly, one’s self.”

Golf, links-inspired golf, is the principal of working with nature, not against it. It’s become increasingly vital to the future of golf in America that we understand the underlying message and act upon it before it is too late.

Because of its unique characteristics, the classic redan hole is one of my favorite designs. It combines a requirement for careful strategic thinking with precise shot making that sets it apart from the run-of-the-mill par-three. The angle and slant of the green away from the player present a choice of options, with the right-to-left shot to run the ball into the green over the slope, or the high, soft cut aimed at checking the ball against the slope.

The redan hole at Charles Blair Macdonald’s National Golf Links in Southampton, New York, was my inspiration for this important hole in our remodel of Princess Anne Country Club. The tee was raised to make the surface of the green visible and create a prominent view of Linkhorn Bay, an important feature of the golf course and surrounding area. The slight elevation restored an iconic view that the golf course had lost during previous remodels. This design is a refinement of the original redan hole at North Berwick, Scotland, which is semi-blind from the tee. I also added a foreshortening bunker on the right, which blinds the approach and deceives the eye, making the golf hole look closer to the golfer than its yardage.