Lord of the Links
Donald Steel is the reigning authority on linksland courses, the game in its purest form.
I often think how lovely it would be to have a competition amongst the world's leading players," said British golf architect Donald Steel, "where there are no tee markers, no scorecards, no yardages available, not even caddies. The competitors would have to play the game the way our forebears played the game—by sight and instinct and feeling—over original linksland courses. It would certainly tell you a lot about their skills, character, and imaginations. A good links course brings out all of those elements in a man."
Steel smiled as he said this, then shouldered his bag and set off over the rolling terrain of Rye Golf Club—perhaps his favorite linksland—two hours southeast of London. Though largely unknown to most American golfers, Steel, 62, is widely considered the dean of British golf architects, having constructed or redesigned more than 100 courses in 20 different countries. More important, a former golf correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph and Country Life, he is the undisputed authority on the subject of linksland golf. Steel's delightful book, Classic Golf Links of Great Britain and Ireland, is rightfully considered the essential guide to linksland golf.
I'd long wished to meet Steel and chat with him about linksland courses, a subject that by turns beguiles, frustrates, and confuses most Americans. With the advent of Steel's first two American courses—one in South Carolina opened last year and another in Rhode Island set to open this summer (see Links of Steel)—and golf travel by Americans to Britain and Ireland at an all-time high, it seemed like the perfect moment to shoulder my own golf bag and walk through the stout sea wind of Rye with him.
I began by asking Steel if the very word "links" isn't the most misused and misunderstood term in golf. He laughed and nodded vigorously.
"I'm afraid so, it seems—and not only on your side of the ocean. In an older generation of Britons, for example, you'll hear all golf courses referred to as 'the links.' I think that harks back to P.G. Wodehouse, whose golf stories did so much to popularize the game fifty or sixty years ago. He was always referring to 'the links,' and I think over time that simply got absorbed into the general language of the game."
A true linksland, Steel reminded me, is an ode to geographic simplicity. Golf came from the sea roughly 400 years ago—possibly imported to Scottish shores as the Roman stick game paganica or the Dutch game kolf—and was played from its earliest days on windswept land that literally "linked" the village with the sea. "My definition of a links," said Steel, "is the strip of land which links the sea with more fertile land, often set amongst dunes. The best terrain for golf is sand and that kind of land has minimal agricultural value—which makes such places ideal."
My host summarized it in Classic Golf Links of Great Britain and Ireland: "Character, after all, is the most important ingredient on any golf course, the joy of links being that they are entirely natural. That is why, before architects lent a hand, they were merely adapted as they were found. What God created, man implemented."
There are some 150 true links courses in Britain and Ireland, ranging from the most celebrated (St. Andrews, Muirfield, Royal Lytham, Royal Birkdale, and the five or six others that compose the British Open rota) to the most obscure—village nine-holers tucked in the lee of dunes.
Rye, on England's southeast coast, falls between these compass points. It's a distinguished hundred-year-old "members" club set on the edge of Romney Marsh. During World War II its clubhouse was almost demolished by German bombs and its fairways were barbwired and mined. It speaks volumes about the subtle natural appeal of links golf that Rye's relatively flat terrain appears almost featureless and hence unthreatening. That is to say, it lacks the majestic scenery of other links courses—the sweeping ridges of Scotland's Turnberry, the grand vistas of Ireland's Ballybunion, the steep shaggy dunes of Royal Birkdale, the majestic bluff-top charm of Muirfield.
Compared with the yardage of a typical American course, why even the card looks like a pushover. Rye's Old Course totals just 6,300 yards, plays off a par of 68, and is eccentric for its seeming lack of variety: There's but one par-five and five par-threes. A piece of cake, you think, until you take a bite of it and then it takes a bite of you.
What Rye and other links like it lack in visual intimidation they definitely make up for in subtlety. "My golfing daydreams revolve most frequently around Rye," Steel's written of the course, where he has competed in more than 20 President's Putter competitions, the annual competition between the golf societies of Cambridge and Oxford universities. (This is the longest-running club match in the sport.) "No other course can stand comparison with it in terms of character, setting, and atmosphere. Rye is Rye and that is the end of it."
As I discovered that day, everything that makes links golf such a singular joy—or a three-hour good walk spoiled—is present on the flattish terrains of Rye: a raw, ever-present sea wind; wiry, salt-cured fescue turf that bounces balls erratically; uneven fairways that have been shaped by sheep and wind instead of bulldozers; deep and ragged rough; outcrops of punishing gorse; sod-walled bunkers meant to inflict mental anguish; blind shots; shaved approaches; firm and fast-bent greens; even short flagsticks, which may bend less in the wind but always make the hole appear longer than it is to the unaccustomed eye.
How one chooses to play a course this elementally different from the typical parkland layout is both the soul and challenge of the links experience. "Golf—especially links golf—is a game of decisions, and part of that decision process on a links course is understanding you've got many kinds of shots to play," says Steel. "Often, by studying the movement of the land, you find it's far more sensible to use a less lofted club and run the ball along the turf, rather than fly the ball directly to the hole with a wedge or sand wedge."
Steel illustrated this beautifully on the 10th hole, a slight dogleg right par-four of 420 yards that plays directly into the teeth of a stiff sea wind. (We started on the back nine to avoid a club competition in progress.) The hole played more like a par-five, and both our second shots came up woefully short of the green. Facing a 70-yard pitch, Steel used a three-iron to scoot the ball along the side of the tilting fairway, down a small gully, and up onto the putting surface. He wound up eight feet from the hole.
"I learned a very interesting lesson here back in my golfing days at Cambridge," he said to me, after watching me imitate his classic "run-up" shot, which also achieved the green. "Our team captain invited John Jacobs, the great tournament player, to come out and do a bit of coaching. When he saw us hitting wedges to greens like these he proposed a little competition—that he could beat us on the approaches by simply using a putter." Steel grinned above his perfectly knotted club tie. "I'll give you one guess who took all the money.
"The unfortunate circumstance of many modern golf courses," he explained, as we moved on to the shortish 11th hole, "is that by design there really are only one or two clubs that you can play from a hundred or so yards out: principally the wedges. They place all of these bunkers or lakes around greens, making islands of the putting surface, forcing you to accept only one way of getting to the hole. That's a great tragedy, removing the element of creativity and true shotmaking from the experience."
Linksland greens are typically open in front to allow for just such run-up shots. And instead of the collars of semi-rough that define the borders of so many American layouts, the shoulders of links greens are frequently smooth and rounded. Chipping from such tight lies, as they're called, can be maddening: You're usually far better off putting, even from 10 or 15 yards off the green.
Links courses are defined by what you don't see—housing estates, shopping centers, even roadways. "I've frankly never understood this American fascination for building a house directly upon a course," Steel said as we trudged toward the 13th hole. "The links idea, conversely, is one of absolute freedom. If anything, you have a wild, bleak, and lonely feeling out here, as if it's you against the old game. I feel that's as it should be. You're here to try to solve a problem that's decades, in some cases centuries, old—namely how to get round by properly reading the landscape."
At the handsome 13th, another hallmark of links golf hove magnificently into play: the blind shot. For a number of reasons—ranging from complaining members to potential insurance liabilities—American designers avoid building blind teeshots and approaches. "There is this ridiculous idea that you always must see the target, but, of course, a hole is really blind only once: the first time you play it," said Steel. "Still, the blind shot adds a wonderful element to the game, the thrill of the unknown, a bit of fun. Some modern designers, I fear, would simply like to delete the concept of the 'rub of the green.' I hate to think what golf would be like without a hole like the eccentric par-three fifth at Prestwick or the marvelous 15th at North Berwick—aptly called Perfection. Those are holes nature designed, and man could scarcely improve upon them. This one's not at all bad, either."
That was an understatement: Rye's 13th hole is truly magnificent. It requires you to fire a stout teeshot over the shoulder of a ridge into the flats of a valley, then loft an approach over twin posts sticking out of a large dorsal of sand dune to the green below. It reminded me of Machrie on Islay, my hands-down favorite golf course in the world—one that appears to have been built by The Almighty 500 years ago and touched up by his pal, Old Tom Morris. By my count, there are a dozen or more major blind shots on that extraordinary relic, and it shouldn't have surprised me at all to learn that the distillery that owned Machrie had hired Donald Steel to make a few adjustments.
A golf course, Steel added, must "always have something up its sleeve," and he was the first to congratulate me when my second shot flew over the posts, bounced down the leaning slope, and ran directly onto the putting surface as if it had eyes.
"There's an excellent point to be made about the uneven nature of links fairways and the unexpected bounces and lies that they create," he said after we had vacated the green with two pars. "That's admittedly true. These are fairways that were typically created long before we had the ability to move earth. They appear rough, and they are rough, with dips and holes that make shots a real adventure. You may hear people complaining about the unpredictable bounces—but you seldom hear them talking about the beneficial bounces they often unexpectedly get as well."
I asked Steel why he thought that was the case.
"Well," he said with a sigh, "I'm afraid some modern players feel that every good shot ought to be rewarded by a perfect lie in the fairway. That is simply not the case on a links course. There's an attempt today to standardize courses, rewarding you with a perfect lie for landing in the fairway, an unobstructed view of the green, and so forth. Well, on a links course even a good shot can wind up with an unfortunate lie that will test your ability to create something, and as a result, an element of luck is naturally involved. That's what gives links golf its edge and mystery, a certain rough unpredictability."
One links factor that is utterly predictable is sooner or later finding your ball in a deep, sod-walled pot bunker, as I did off the left side of the par-three 14th. As a Carnoustie Scotsman once told me, "Being in a links bunker is a little like sitting in a rigid pew at the village kirk on Sunday—you're noot here t'ave a good time, lad. Yer here to atone fer yer sins!"
When I mentioned this to Steel, a son of Dundee who grew up playing golf in England, where his father practiced medicine, he laughed—as much at my pathetic imitation of a Glaswegian accent as at the Calvinist truth about linksland bunkers.
"I sometimes think American designers place bunkers on courses because they can't think what else to do. They use bunkers as directional factors, and many are so shallow that they pose no real challenge to reaching the green—they're what Americans sometimes call a 'sand trap.' On a links course a bunker is quite different, having evolved from holes that were scraped into the dunes by sheep so they could get out of the wind. The truth is, you don't need a lot of bunkering on a golf course—not if the design is clever enough. That way, when you do have a bunker, it means something quite significant.
"A links bunker is meant to penalize you for a wayward shot. You're only meant to get out of it, not advance your shot to the green. When you think of famous bunkers like the dreaded Beardies or aptly named Hell and Grave bunkers at St. Andrews—fierce things—or The Spectacles at Carnoustie, or even the famous cavernous bunker on the fourth hole at Royal St. George's, those are mean, nasty places you're meant to avoid at all costs. Many a fine player has met his end—but grown wiser—expecting to do too much from those bunkers."
As we made the turn (finally the wind was at our backs) I asked Steel what he enjoyed most—designing, playing, or writing about golf courses. In the early 1970s, he was one of the top golfers in Britain, playing in the Centenary British Open at St. Andrews, and for England in the Home International matches with Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. At the same time, Steel—a keen student of Bernard Darwin's golf prose, and reared in the journalistic shadows of such legendary British golf writers as Leonard Crawley, Peter Dobereiner, Pat Ward-Thomas, Peter Ryde, Henry Longhurst, and the American Herbert Warren Wind (who was an advisory editor on his and Peter Ryde's legendary Encyclopedia of Golf)—was also hailed as one of the finest writers of that genre. Deeply learned but remarkably humble, Steel may be the closest thing golf has to a Renaissance man.
"A very good question," my host replied, after we had fired at the difficult par-three second green 180 yards away. "When I left Cambridge and went to the Sunday Telegraph in the early sixties, I was very fortunate to be taken under the wing of Leonard Crawley, as fine a golf writer as there ever was, in my view. The first two Opens I covered were Birkdale in '61 and Troon the following year, a very auspicious beginning, as it happened."
The Birkdale Open was won by Arnold Palmer—an event that electrified the golf world and is widely credited with convincing other prominent American golfers to begin to take the British championship seriously. Palmer's follow-up performance at Troon made him a golfing icon in Britain.
"It's curious, I see now, how one thing often leads to another," said Steel. "One of the fortunate aspects of my job was that my employers at the Telegraph encouraged me to play a great deal of amateur golf. I qualified in 1970 at St. Andrews at Panmure, near Carnoustie, a marvelous little-known linksland, I might add, and was the first to tee off in the first round. I'll never forget coming toward my ball on the sixteenth hole, having avoided one of those dreaded bunkers I mentioned, and seeing Arnold charging up the third fairway. He saw me and registered great surprise.
" 'What are you doing here, Donald?' he said, with that big movie-star smile of his.
" 'Desecrating the Open championship you've come to save, I'm afraid,' I replied.
" 'Good for you!' he said, and then we both laughed."
Sometime later Donald Steel was invited to watch the British golf architect Ken Cotton construct a course at St. Pierre, near the Welsh border. "That lit the fuse for me, I'm afraid. At that time, there simply wasn't much golf course construction going on, so the opportunity was a rare one indeed. I kept in touch with Ken—and a few years along he invited me to come on board as sort of an office boy and general factotum. It was a splendid opportunity, and I jumped at the chance to learn the trade from the ground up, so to speak. Two other men in the company, Frank Pennik and Charles Lawrie, also had a tremendous influence on me."
Over the next two decades, Steel had a hand in the design or refurbishing of over 100 golf courses worldwide; he also served as an advisor on work carried out at more than 400 clubs, ranging from a reworking of the 14th hole at St. George's to building new holes at Royal County Down. Finally, in 1987, he ventured out on his own, building the delightful Strathtyrum Course at St. Andrews, and, in 1991, the highly praised links course at the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle near Dornoch, Scotland, the first true links course constructed in Britain in more than 50 years.
Steel's work also led to the award-winning Redtail Golf Club near Toronto, his first job in North America, which in turn got him his first American exposure. Steel was hired by Peter de Savary to construct links-style courses at Cherokee Plantation in South Carolina and Carnegie Abbey, on Narragansett Bay, near Newport, Rhode Island. Both of these layouts are distinguished by simple routing that sensitively utilizes the character of the existing land, and classic links touches like sod-walled bunkers. Recently, he and his two young design associates, Tom MacKenzie and Martin Ebert, signed on as architects of record for a proposed links course on Martha's Vineyard.
"I would have to say that designing golf courses has brought me the greatest sense of satisfaction in golf," Steel concluded, as we struggled up the difficult fourth fairway, a narrow shelf that's bordered by drop-offs into thick rough and a smallish, unbunkered green. It's a simple hole, one that perfectly summarizes Steel's belief in astute land usage, not architectural gimmickry.
We both worked hard to achieve bogey on the hole. Afterward, Steel explained his philosophy of golf course design, as it was expressed by the late Harry Colt, who constructed the Rye course and went on to design many of the finest courses in Britain and America. "Colt always asked, 'Will it last?' And I always think of that when I'm working on a project.
"I think, fortunately, we are finally returning to common sense about golf courses—that less indeed may be more. The old links courses in Britain—as well as many of the older courses in America—are once again being appreciated for their value. In my view, a 7,200-yard golf course is an abomination. A well-done course of 6,600 yards can be a stern test for anybody."
Steel thinks of his work as an "opportunity to refresh people's memories about the natural look of golf courses where balls bounce and run." Not too surprisingly, he doesn't think that many of the great old courses can be improved upon.
"Most important of all, golf should be a good test but an enjoyable experience," he commented, as we finished our round and headed to the locker room so I could put on a necktie for lunch—a British golf tradition that I would like to see come back to American clubs. "Because golf's a difficult game, it should always be fun to play. That is the great balancing act that course designers must do. Will it last, and is it a bit of fun. That is what I would add to Harry Colt's view on the subject."
Steel asked me how I had found Rye. I replied that though my brain was shot, my memory was refreshed as to why I adore linksland. I assured him that I'd had more than a bit of fun at Rye—even if my card failed to support the notion.
He smiled and offered me his hand in true gentleman's fashion. Then we went in to find that necktie.
The Short Course: New & Noteworthy, Picks & Pans
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KIAWAH UPDATE Pete Dye's acclaimed Ocean Course, site of the 1991 Ryder Cup "War by the Shore," recently collected another plum—the first Hertz International Golf Travel Awards' "America's Golf Course of the Year" honor. It deserves it: The course has matured into one of the world's great linkslands, with shot values that rival Pebble Beach and Pine Valley. The resort's Fazio-designed Osprey Point remains one of the great "sleeper" courses of the South, and the addition of a sharp Clyde Johnston track, Oak Point, hard by the Kiawah River, brings the resort golf vita to five. For a complete connoisseur's experience here, try to get on the property owners' private Fazio River Course—one of the most beautiful anywhere. Next up: Tom Watson's new Cassique Course (also private), set to open in April, a tribute to British links golf that seems slightly out of place in the flat low country but with time and softening will be a joy to play. Resort packages begin at #&36;139 per person. 888-854-2924.
KINGSBARNS GOLF LINKS The most talked about new course in Britain this summer will be Kingsbarns Golf Links, set to open this July in St. Andrews to coincide with the 2000 British Open. Just six miles from the first tee at the Old Course, Kingsbarns spreads spectacularly over man-made dunes created by California architect Kyle Phillips. As all linkslands should, Kingsbarns looks more daunting than it is: The generous fescue-bent fairway turf and large, firm, well-contoured greens generally allow run-up approach shots. My prediction: This will become the second biggest draw in St. Andrews. Information: 44-1334-880222.
CALLAWAY HAWKEYE TUNGSTEN INJECTED TITANIUM IRONS
If your iron shots fly neither straight nor high, these are the clubs for you. The unique double-cavity design, which allows wider distribution of weight, dramatically increases forgiveness, while the Tungsten weighting system provides the lowest center of gravity ever in a set of Callaway irons. That promotes higher trajectory shots. They're also just about the prettiest clubs Callaway has ever rolled out. Steel, about #&36;1,000 per set: graphite, about #&36;1,250 per set. 800-228-2767.
STRATHTYRUM This restored ancestral mansion belonging to the Cheape family, who own much of the land adjacent to the Old Course at St. Andrews, recently opened its doors for guest lodging. The Golfers—the most famous oil painting in all golf—dominates the entrance hall. The fully staffed mansion can accommodate 12 guests, and it can be rented in its entirety. Also available for private dinners. A great corporate-outing headquarters. Information: 44-1334-473600.
Links of Steel
Donald Steel's first two American projects—at Cherokee Plantation, near Charleston, South Carolina (opened in 1999), and Carnegie Abbey Club, near Newport, Rhode Island (opening this summer)—are part of developer Peter de Savary's grand scheme to create an international network of private sporting clubs with an emphasis on golf. But for fans of British links golf, they are a rare opportunity to play the minimalist game of golf's ancestors closer to home.
At just under 7,000 yards from the back tees, Cherokee Plantation is far from long by modern standards but is by no means easy. With five par-threes, traditionally shaped greens with mowed-down runoff areas, and only 35 bunkers (those at hole nine), the course emphasizes approach shotmaking. Set on a sprawling former rice plantation designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Cherokee beautifully uses rough and native grasses and sod-walled or revetted bunkers to replicate a true linksland course. "The most wonderful aspect of it," Steel says, "is the splendid sense of rural isolation you get playing there. You're so far out into nature, all you see are birds, forest, and field, scarcely any other golfers—which is rare these days."
Carnegie Abbey, a former farming estate turned monastery, occupies 350 acres overlooking Narragansett Bay. There are two or three holes on or near the water, with others 100 feet above sea level affording spectacular ocean views and sunsets. "The governing idea was to avoid changing the character of the land," Steel says of his handiwork, "and yet at the same time create a test of one's shotmaking that will endure over time." Like many traditional links, Carnegie Abbey plays just a whisker over 6,600 yards from the tips. For information on membership in either linksland course, call 401-683-7720.
James Dodson is Departures' Maine-based contributing editor for golf.