Mastering the Links

How to sharpen the skills you need to excel on these tough-to-play courses

BY TOM MACKIN — Summer 2017

olf course architect David McLay Kidd likens playing a classic links golf course to entering the fourth dimension. “It’s a whole ’nother thing,” he says. That means dealing with deep pot bunkers, massive greens, and ground more rumpled than an unmade bed. You’ll see all that and more this July at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England, when it hosts the Open Championship for the 10th time since 1954. We’ve enlisted five experts, including two winners of Open Championships played at Royal Birkdale, to walk you through some common links-course obstacles and prepare you for the next time you enter that singular dimension.

Johnny Miller

Escaping From the Fescue

Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1998, Miller is a two-time major championship winner, including the 1976 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, where he won by six strokes.

“On links courses, you have to keep the ball in play and out of the tall fescue grass. If you get in there and aren’t sure what to do, you can make huge numbers. The fescue grabs the shaft of the club and turns the face over, often leading to a pulled duck hook if you don’t know what you are doing. The best way to deal with that shot is to take a club with a lot of loft, such as a 9-iron or wedge, have the clubface open slightly, and play it just inside your right foot — which means on your backswing you have to pick up the club real sharply and come down right on top of the ball. It’s sort of an up-and-down swing.”

Links Lesson: “Hold on to the club with a tight grip to keep the clubface from turning over. You want to be very geared up for impact so the fescue doesn’t flip the face over. Punch the ball back into play and go from there.”

Grant Rogers

Getting Out of a Deep Bunker

Rogers, a PGA master professional, has been the director of instruction at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, Ore., since 2000.

“You’ll never be a really good bunker player unless you hit into a lot of bunkers. So be optimistic, look at it as an adventure, and believe something good is going to happen. Use at least a 58-degree wedge, play the ball more forward in your stance (toward the inside of your front heel), make a steeper backswing, and accelerate through the sand with your hands finishing — for right-handers — over your left shoulder and roughly even with your left ear. Also, use a lighter-than-normal grip pressure; your body can’t be tense. You don’t have to swing hard, but you do need to swing big. Think of making more of a rhythmic swing, like Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, or Lydia Ko.”

Links Lesson: “Be realistic about your shot options, especially if your ball ends right up against the face of a pot bunker. Consider using your putter just to advance the ball into the center of the bunker to create more room for your next shot. Or, rather than floundering around endlessly in the sand, invoke Rule 28, which covers an unplayable ball situation and provides three options that come with a one-stroke penalty, including returning the ball to where you hit the shot that got you in the bunker.”

Mo Martin

Playing in the Wind

Martin, on the LPGA Tour since 2012, earned four top-10 finishes in 2016. She won the 2014 Ricoh Women’s British Open at Royal Birkdale, the only player to finish under par at the championship that year.

“If you don’t know how to manage the wind on a links course, it will beat you up. If you play a fade and there’s a right-to-left wind, use that to your advantage. Aim directly at your target, instead of to the left, because the ball flight and wind will balance each other out. If it’s a left-to-right wind, accept it and aim significantly more left. If you understand where your game is, then you can enjoy playing in the wind. If you’re lucky enough to have the ability to play both draws and fades, it’s a lot of fun. But if you fight the wind, you will lose every time. It’s not a battle you want to take on. Respect it and go with it.”

Links Lesson: “A lot of amateurs may assume, ‘Oh, it’s a two-club wind, and that will be consistent throughout the whole bag.’ It’s definitely not. Playing into the wind will affect your pitching wedge, 9-iron, and 8-iron quite a bit. But your 7-iron, 6-iron, and 5-iron will penetrate through the wind a bit more. Knowing how the wind affects the distances of each club will help you play better and more consistently.”

David McLay Kidd

Navigating the Course

Kidd has designed golf courses worldwide, including the first course at Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Machrihanish Dunes in his native Scotland. He is working with Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser on a new course at Sand Valley Golf Resort in Nekoosa, Wis.

“Outside of the weather, it’s usually the contours of a links course that offer the primary line of defense. There are friendly contours and unfriendly contours, and you need to quickly adjudicate which are which. When my team and I design links courses, we talk about that the most. In my current mode of trying to make golf a little more fun, I’m trying to balance out the contours so that more than 50 percent are in favor of the golfer. That means contours that are receptive to shots rather than rejecting them. We build ones that help make something good happen, such as pushing the ball forward or back into play, generally when a player has executed a moderately good shot. Completely rank shots, however, will find those unfriendly contours — that’s where things start to go a little sideways.”

Links Lesson: “If there’s a clear path between you and the hole — even if you are 100 yards out — think about putting. Whether you use a putter, a rescue club, or even a 5-iron, use a putting stroke. If there is no bunker or hazard in the way and you can roll the ball along the ground, consider doing just that. Use the contours to your advantage.”

Mike Bender

Finding Your Speed

Bender is master instructor at the Mike Bender Golf Academy in Lake Mary, Fla. He was named the 2009 PGA of America National Teacher of the Year and has coached two-time major winner Zach Johnson since 1999.

“Because links courses often experience windy conditions, they have bigger and slower greens to improve playability. Because of that larger size, you often face a lot of long putts; and generally when greens speeds are slower, the ball tends to break a bit less. When you force the acceleration with your wrists or arms, your distance control usually is not good. Use a lighter grip pressure, take the putter back longer, and let it flow. Zach Johnson [winner of the 2015 Open Championship at St. Andrews] has told me: ‘Putting in the wind is much harder than ball striking. You can hit approaches to 40 feet from the hole all day long, but two-putting from 40 feet in the wind is not that easy.’”

Links Lesson: To get ready for putting on links courses, practice the longest uphill putts you can find and try to get the ball just past the hole consistently. Using that uphill slope decreases the natural speed of the green and helps lengthen your putting stroke. Doing so helps you build a feel for hitting putts harder, which is what you will likely have to do on the slower greens found on links courses.”

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