Watching the best players in the world post some big numbers at Royal Birkdale this week reminds me of my first experience with links-style golf.
It was 1986, when I played the European Tour, and my roommate and I were attempting to qualify for the 1986 British Open at Turnberry. I don't recall the qualifying course’s name, but I call it the School of Hard Knocks, and I sure got an education! Lesson No. 1: The Ball Doesn’t Stop Rolling The first hole was benign, a short and straightaway par 4, only 360 yards. I went with a long iron from the tee to avoid some scary-looking fairway bunkers. I struck it well and ended up in the light rough about 70 yards from the pin. I knew the fairways and greens were hard, so I played my shot to land near the front edge of the green. I took a sand wedge and struck it fine, though I landed it a bit shorter than desired, some 10 yards short of the front edge. The ball took a huge hop and bounded toward the hole, taking only a short look at the pin as it continued toward the back edge of the green. Then it disappeared, exiting the green like it had somewhere better to be, and only stopped when it lost the battle with the gorse bush about 20 yards over the back edge. Lesson No. 2: Go low On an American-style course, if I have a good yardage for a scoring club, let's say an 8-iron or less, I expect a good outcome no matter what the conditions. A well-struck 9-iron is going to finish near the hole for a good birdie opportunity nearly every time. On a links course, you can land a 9-iron close to where you want and still end up 80 feet from the hole, with seven buried elephants in the way, in a bunker that you didn't even know was there.
That’s the reason you'll see so many players bring the ball in “flat,” or extra low with what seems like way too much club. They want to make sure the ball is going to run so they can better plan the outcome. If you don’t know when the ball is going to bite or run, then you can’t control your distances. With a flatter ball flight, at least players know the ball is going to chase forward, so they can better choose where to land it. Also, a lower shot is less affected by the wind.Lesson No. 3: Objects are closer than they appear The visual cues we Americans are used to are just not there. Links courses don’t have trees, and many of the tee shots and approach shots are blind. It’s like hitting into a vacant field with no target. Your aiming point might be a tiny house or shack three or four miles into the distance. Sometimes you have nowhere to aim at all and have to just fire away over grass-covered mounds, trusting there’s friendly country on the other side.
Plus, the flagsticks also create problems for first-time links players because they are typically much shorter than the flags in the states. With no reference to compare the size (remember, no trees), it always looks like the green is much farther away than it actually is. Lesson No. 4: Fairway bunkers equal one-stroke penalty I have one word for the fairway bunkers: Brutal! The walls are firm and go straight up. That means if your ball hits the lip, it's not going anywhere. You're either in, or you're out. The bunkers are also deeper than what we're used to, making your escape even more precarious. What’s more, the bunkers sometimes seem randomly placed and can be impossible to see. It’s no fun to hit that 350-yard drive along firm ground only to end up in a pit that’s 10 feet deep and takes a ladder to enter. In short, the fairway bunkers are simply a one-shot penalty. Get the ball out with your sand wedge and then advance. Lesson No. 5: Know Your Putting Line Even when you get to the green, you’ll face a new challenge: long lag puts on huge greens. An 80-foot putt is never easy to get close. Add a 30-mph wind and you have your work cut out for you. Take care of your line—it’s easy to roll what looks to be a nice putt, only to find a little slope that brings the ball right into the greenside bunker.
When all was said and done, I needed a par at the last hole on Day Two to qualify for my first Open Championship. The play on that last hole perfectly depicts the challenges of links golf. Though a nearly drivable par 4, it had a couple of bad fairway bunkers that needed to be avoided. I went with a 1-iron off the tee to keep them out of play. I was thrilled to see the ball heading right down the fairway, which should have left me with an easy wedge. But in true links fashion, the ball bounced hard left on a mound that was in the middle of the fairway, deflecting my ball (You guessed it!) into a fairway bunker. The lie was so good and the distance was short enough that I thought I could make it out with a short iron. I went for it, catching the very tip of the lip, miraculously kicking the ball up and causing it to finish some 80 yards from the green. A quarter of an inch lower and the ball would have finished at my feet.
My heart was pumping as I attempted to save par to the closely cut pin. I short-sided the approach, chipped to five feet, and missed the putt for a six, missing the Open playoff by a shot. Rats!
Tom Watson captured it best when he said after his first links experience, "This isn't golf, this is luck." The winner at Royal Birkdale this week will not only be great, he’ll be one of the luckiest in the field too. Golf Magazine Top 100 Roger Gunn teaches at Tierra Rejada Golf Club in Moorpark, Calif. You can learn more about Roger at www.GolfLevels.com