GULLAINE, Scotland — Perhaps the greatest thing about links golf at the professional level is the multitude of questions asked of the participants. They are not necessarily harder than any other week on tour. But they are different. Which, at least at first, makes them more difficult.
There is plenty of evidence to that effect. Former European No.1 Ronan Rafferty is a ‘Global Ambassador’ at the Renaissance Club, the venue for this week’s Genesis Scottish Open, and has spent the last few days shaking his head at some of the things he’s seen, particularly around the greens.
“It was interesting to see the chip shots chosen by so many players,” said the Northern Irishman, a 1989 Ryder Cup player at The Belfry. “Typically, they go with a loft using their 60-degree wedges. But Links golf is played on the ground. They play the wrong shot. I understand that though. Ninety-eight percent of their golf is played on courses where such a shot is required. But it is strange that when they come to Scotland they seem to have no idea what blow to strike. That they are reluctant to even attempt the right shot is even more puzzling. Links golf seems to make them scratch their heads.’
So what exactly are we talking about here?
We are talking about (usually lower) flying balls in the wind. We’re talking about “seeing” footage that bounces and rolls instead of flying and stopping. We are talking about feeling and imagination rather than reference in meter books. We’re talking about receiving and correcting greens where left-to-right shots tend to break right-to-left when the wind decides to gust. Patience is a great thing.
“Usually the first thing that happens is every player wants a new club,” says Mike Walker, who coaches US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick. “It’s always some kind of driver iron to replace a 5-wood or 7-wood. It might not be the prettiest looking thing, but it’s effective in the wind.
“On the range, there’s a lot of putts that get hit,” Walker continues. “Returning the ball back into the post is only one element of that, though.” The main problem is that once they move the ball back, players tend to lose the synchronization that makes their swings work so well. They either get a bit narrow and steep on the way down, or they do the opposite and create too much spin and therefore pitch. This can also lead to directional errors.
When it comes to driving, Walker is the kind of guy who doesn’t see the need for too many changes. He subscribes to Tom Watson’s theory. The five-time Open champion has always maintained that all he tries to do when playing in strong wind is hit the ball hard.
“But that’s only one way to do it,” Walker says. “Some players like to hit balls. Matt is one of them. He had four different strokes, depending on the condition and circumstances. There was a “stockpile,” a “second serve” (when he didn’t want to hit a 3-wood but wanted to hit it 3-wood away), a “bomb” when he needed a big carry, and a “bullet in the wind.”
When it comes to chipping, Walker takes Rafferty’s view on shot selection. But there is at least one mitigating factor.
“The top players play most of their golf in the States,” Walker says. “So they don’t hit a lot of chip and runs. Previously, players were taught to vary the loft of the club depending on the shot required. You can do this by changing the club, of course. And there’s still an argument for that. But, as Ronan says, a lot of guys just pull out their 60-degree wedge. Which might be a good thing too. At least it’s consistent.
“Still, it’s hard to hit high shots from the tight lies you get on the links,” he continues. “So there’s a premium on your low swing point. Then your imagination kicks in. You have to use the topography to get the ball to the hole instead of just driving it there. If you have a good chipping action, you will have good control over your low point. In turn, this gives you a good shot, initial direction and flight. All of that is harder to achieve this week because of the tight field.”
When it comes to putting, the biggest adjustment for tour players is green speed. Due to the constant danger of high winds, the putting surfaces should be slower than what you would see elsewhere on tour. This week, according to putting guru, Phil Kenyon, the greens at Renaissance are going “no more than nine on the Stimpmeter.”
“Monday and Tuesday I spent a lot of time with the players to get used to the speed,” Walker revealed. “The big thing about speed is that when you add a downslope or upslope, it has a profound effect on the stroke. Upwind they are so slow or feel so slow that it’s hard to convince yourself to hit the ball hard enough. How slowly the ball slows down takes some getting used to. Visually, it’s a lot to take in. So your feeling and instinct must adapt. Which comes from the pictures you see in your head and how you react to them.
“When you slow down the greens, you make the field closer together,” he continues. “Faster vegetables are usually better conditioned. On the slower greens, luck becomes more of a factor. Placement is more random. And the more skilled putter has fewer opportunities to display this skill. Conditioning, as well as speed, is a factor on the green links. Not only are they slower, they are less accurate. So the placement is a bit more random.”
However, it is true that some types of shots adapt to the conditions of the links more difficult than others. A longer, flabby putt will likely have a harder time adjusting to slower greens. Especially if it’s windy. It’s almost like a full swing as the more impactful action is an advantage. Higher tempo shots that are more compact have a definite advantage on the links greens.
“It also takes a lot of feel and instinct,” says Kenyon. “And you have to be patient. I was talking to a player this week about letting the wind go. He wanted to know what he should do differently. Some guys widen their positions. But it doesn’t really make much of a difference. It’s more of a mental challenge than a physical one. You need a lot of patience and commitment. Things can go to your head as you struggle to adapt.”
It can be done though. A year ago, Collin Morikawa finished a lowly T-71 at the Scottish Open. But a week later at Royal St. George’s he became Open champion.
“Colin had a terrible time here last year,” says Rafferty. “He was pulling and thinning chips. Until someone pointed out that he had, for links golf, the wrong bounce on his wedges. Then a week later, he won the Open, thanking Renaissance for teaching him how to hit chip shots. Which was nice of him. But he just needed a lot less bounce on his leggings. The harder the course, the lower you want the bounce to be. He understood this and never looked back.