Golf/Golf Architecture

Chop Logic: The Irish Links Initiative

12th hole Ardglass Golf ClubOn St. Patrick’s Day the Golfing Union of Ireland announced the formation of a new Irish Links Initiative, designed to bring together roughly fifty links courses for the purpose of sharing information and promoting themselves as the centerpiece of Ireland’s golf-tourism economy.

According to Brian Coburn, the green convener at Royal County Down, who is heading the initiative, links golf generates 90% of Ireland’s golf-tourism revenue. This figure won’t come as a shock to anyone who has driven through inland counties like Laois and Roscommon. One does wonder, though, why such an initiative is needed to assist prosperous, world-class clubs like Portmarnock and Royal County Down while Irish inland courses languish in comparative obscurity. To be sure, these wonderful links courses are the overwhelming reason that golf travelers hop on planes bound for Shannon and Dublin, and  it’s true that links golf is a finite resource, so it can’t hurt for the GUI to shore up its strong suit. Still, it’s difficult to picture the American equivalent–a USGA-backed initiative to promote Pinehurst and Kiawah Island?

However, alarm bells sounded in the Department of Follicular Bisection at the photo the GUI chose to accompany this news release. This is the par-three twelfth at Ardglass Golf Club in Northern Ireland. Ardglass is a lovely place. The clubhouse is situated in an ancient castle and the holes forge their way across a headland peninsula, with dramatic seaside views throughout. It is a course that is absolutely worth playing, and for the GUI, worth promoting.

But it’s not a true links!

Golf architecture heads know that one of the thorniest issues in the field is the definition of what constitutes a true links course. Tom Doak provides one concise take in the glossary of his architectural primer  The Anatomy of a Golf Course: “A seaside golf course constructed on naturally sandy ground with undulations formed by wind and receding tides. The first golf courses in Britain were all links. [The term is] frequently misused in America to describe a) any course, b) any seaside course, or c) a course which does not return to the clubhouse at the 9th hole (as many authentic British links do not).”

And in Links Golf: The Inside Story, Paul Daley adds: “Some [courses] radiate the appearance of a links, but the presences of thick, matted kikuyu and other luxuriant grass species exclude them…Reduced to the bare essentials, any layout purporting to be a links should look like one. But more importantly, it must play like a links.”  The original links were created where quick-draining sandy soil (and proximity to salty sea spray) made the lands unsuitable for agriculture, but instead offered crisp, firm, fast-running turf that allowed the golfer to play the game along the ground rather than strictly through the air.

And it’s here that Ardglass falls short of the strictest definition. While its high headland setting provides awesome seaside views that few courses can match, it also means the absence of the natural dunal forms that are characteristic of a true links–sand has a hard time blowing up the face of an 80-foot cliff.  The foundation of the golf course is rock, not deep sand, and Ardglass, especially on the second nine, features what seem to be heavier soils and thicker, fuller, almost pasture-like turf that plays a great deal slower than tightly-mown fescue. The result is a golf course that, to return to Daley’s quote, looks like a links but doesn’t quite play like one.

This isn’t to beat up on Ardglass; and after all, this site would be remiss not to point out its classic, out-and-back routing!


…but when I played it I thought it had more in common with Pebble Beach (a clifftopper, not a links) than Royal County Down, just half an hour down the road.

Would love to hear from anyone with inside knowledge of Ardglass’s soil and turf characteristics. Thanks!

photo credit: Ardglass Golf Club (x2)


2 comments for “Chop Logic: The Irish Links Initiative”


    I read with interest your piece on the newly formed Irish Links Initiative (ILI) but found you have missed several important points and I feel some areas of your article are rather misleading, therefore I have taken the liberty of explaining what we are trying to achieve.

    First of all the initiative is not about Portmarnock or Royal County Down. It is about all links courses in Ireland from North Antrim to Kerry most have 18 holes but there are a few sporty nine hole courses well worth a visit. In total there are about 50 links courses scattered around the Irish coast with some in very remote areas. A number are well known and others lesser known but the one thing they all have in common is that they represent the type of terrain where the game of golf began. The ILI is a non-profit making voluntary group run by those with a passion and conviction for Irish links golf.

    The game of golf started beside the sea long before the advent of earth moving machines so the designers were faced with plotting their way round sand dunes and often following animal tracks which led to the wonderful natural links courses golfers enjoy today. Links golf is part of our Irish heritage and we want to share it with visitors, the objectives of the new initiative are simply to preserve, protect and promote links golf in Ireland at home and abroad. It is unlikely due to strict European legislation on the protection of duneland that any more will be built so it is paramount we look after those we are fortunate enough to have.

    It is clearly stated in the Initiative that links golf will never be promoted by making unfavourable comments with other forms of golf. We have some wonderful parkland courses in different parts of the country from solid ‘members courses’ to new resort courses designed and constructed by many famous names; parkland golf represent 90% of all Irish golf courses.

    Links golf is unique both in terms of playing and course management. The golfer has to develope the ‘bump and run’ shot and cope with bad bounces, firm greens and fairways. I would advise players to keep the lob wedge for bunkers as it is not the club to use approaching firm and fast greens. Windy conditions are very common presenting the golfer with another challenge frequently it becomes the major hazard. The maintenance of links courses is totally different from others. To keep them in their natural state there is a very low maintenance policy with a minimum use of fertilizers and pesticides, where possible cultural methods are favoured instead of chemicals. The Irish Links Initiative plans to bring superintendents and other officers from links clubs together for seminars and workshops to discuss common maintenance issues and to make sure visitors enjoy the ‘Irish Links Experience’ involving all employees of the club.

    As links golf in Ireland only represents about 10% of the total courses most education programmes and indeed seminars and conferences are focused on parkland conditions so this is an area in which the Initiative hopes to become more involved.

    Links courses are subject to many problems such as coastal erosion, climate change, salt spray, salt laden winds, sand blow etc. Using the correct species of grasses and playability is of prime importance. Many courses are in an SAC (special area of conservation) coming under legal restrictions imposed by the European Union makes it difficult to undertake any reconstruction work on their links. The Initiative will provide a platform for the exchange of experience and ideas between superintendents, green convenors and club captains to tackle and possibly overcome some of these problems by speaking with one voice.

    I feel it is unfair to criticise the Golfing Union of Ireland for supporting the ILI as traditional links golf attracts many overseas golfing visitors to Ireland, a significant number play other parkland courses when they in the country. Links golf represents 90% of the Irish golfing tourist income therefore it is of great value to the economy so why should they not support the ILI. Their interest will help to stimulate all those involved in this type of golf to ‘raise the bar’ in the form of course presentation, quality of service to visitors in the clubhouse and take an inward look at their whole operation.

    Your article included the photo of Ardglass Golf Club which accompanied the GUI news release; you said this is not a links course. You are perfectly correct but I had no control over this error, it must have been a slip-up in the GUI library. I would describe Ardglass as being a cliff-top course with wonderful views of the Irish Sea and some very demanding holes. It is fun and a pleasure to play backed by some good old fashioned Irish hospitality in the clubhouse. Although Ardglass may not be classed as a links as it does not have duneland and a sandy base but it does share many common problems such as coastal erosion, salt spray and salt laden winds etc.

    It is not up to me to define what a links golf course is and what it is not, I feel that the ILI is open to anyone who has a keen interest in this type of golf.

    A question often asked. What is a Links golf course? In a book ‘Journey Through The Links’ written by David Worley, he states – ‘A true links course should not only look like a links but it should also play like one. To say that links land is simply the link between arable land and the sea ignores what is really a very complex ecosystem.’

    I could go on and on but I hope I have given you some insight to how I view links golf in Ireland and what we are endeavouring to achieve with The Irish Links Initiative. Come over and see for yourself and bring some friends!

    Best wishes

    Brian Coburn

    Chairman ILI

    Posted by Brian Coburn, Chairman, Irish Links Initiative | April 9, 2009, 1:33 am
  2. Mr. Coburn,

    Thank you for your letter. From where I sit, in New York City, it’s quite easy to see such an initiative as “gilding the lily”–the links experience in Ireland is already about as good as it gets in the game of golf. On the other hand, I understand the desire of those on the inside to avoid complacency and strive for even better practices.

    The fact that the GUI ran a photo of Ardglass to accompany the press release is the type of thing that can tempt an observer toward snark, but at least it wasn’t the K Club. In spirit if not agronomic reality, I do agree that Ardglass is a links, and the welcome there is as warm as you’ll find in Ireland.

    In any case, I am very much on board with the notion that Ireland’s links are a valuable resource and worthy of a serious preservation effort–so I’m glad my initial post caught your attention. I hope you’ll keep me informed ([email protected]) as to any specific programs, agronomic or otherwise, the ILI implements going forward. I’d be glad to pass that information along to the readers of this site.

    Kind regards,

    Posted by td | April 9, 2009, 9:08 am

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