John Huggan: Pros rarely play the great links and it’s all down to money

Former Open champion Darren Clarke is happiest on links courses. Picture: Getty
Former Open champion Darren Clarke is happiest on links courses. Picture: Getty
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IT IS, by almost universal agreement, the most interesting and stimulating form of the game.

Yet, as Scotland prepares to host two weeks of linksland fun and games, the next fortnight stands out as a beacon of light amidst a sea of darkness on the European Tour. Or any tour, come to that. Sadly, the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart and the Open Championship at Muirfield are exceptions to the tedious norm that today is so much of professional golf.

Still, let’s look on the bright side. Given halfway decent weather over the coming days, we are about to be treated to the prospect of – gasp – golf shots that are more than one-dimensional blasts up in the air. The bounce and roll of the ball will be vital parts of the equation, a fact that will ask tough and unfamiliar questions of the great and good. Some will handle it well, others will not. But one who can be relied upon to know what is required is former Open champion Darren Clarke.

“Links golf, to me, is all about controlling your ball flight,” says the Ulsterman who, these days, makes his home in Portrush. “It’s a completely different challenge to the one we typically face week to week on tour. There, all too often, shots are all about where they land. On a links there is another dimension. You have to use the terrain a lot more than you do normally.

“You work the ball off hills. You work the ball off slopes. You run it on to the greens. And maybe the greatest aspect is the variety of shot you are asked to hit. At Royal Portrush, where I play regularly, I often hit a 5-iron from 140 yards, then a few holes later and going in the opposite direction, a wedge from 210 yards. The club and the yardage become almost irrelevant. They are just starting points. You have to first ‘see’ the shot in your mind’s eye then reproduce it for real. That’s why, if you haven’t got control of your ball flight, links golf isn’t likely to be for you.”

Clarke, despite his recent struggles – he has only one top-20 finish in 31 stroke-play events on the European Tour since his famous victory at Royal St Georges two years ago – remains one of the premier and most versatile shot-makers in the game. And, not surprisingly, he “gets” golf by the seaside.

“Links golf holds an endless fascination for me,” he continues. “I can sum it up in one phrase really – ‘the game becomes more and more interesting the longer the ball spends on the ground’. If you go back through history and look at players like Old Tom Morris and Harry Vardon, they had to play the ball on the ground because of the equipment and balls they were using. Keeping shots down and out of the wind was an art back then. It isn’t now, unfortunately.

“To be a good links player, you need a few things going for you. Growing up in windy conditions is an obvious advantage. You learn how to play so many different shots in conditions like that. It’s the opposite of most American golf – or at least the golf you see on the PGA Tour. You need to play by instinct rather than by the numbers. And that’s a skill you have to learn when you are young.

“It’s sad that we professionals so rarely see all the great links we played so often as amateurs. I know that has a lot to do with money, but it’s a great pity. And it doesn’t help us produce champions in this country. We all grow up playing a lot of links golf – and learn how to play it well – then when we turn professional we hardly ever see them again.”

Despite that enforced absence from the game he grew up playing, Clarke remains something of an authority on the endless nuances of links golf. Anyone who has watched the wide variety of shots he can routinely hit – but are sadly not much use at your typical tour event – will not have been surprised that he won his only major title with a strong wind in his face.

“I’d love to see more links golf on the European Tour,” he says. “It would be wonderful if the Open was the climax to, say, a month-long links season, a bit like Wimbledon brings to an end the grass court season in tennis. That’s why the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart is so special. When I won the Open two years ago, it was – despite the awful weather – a great place for me to practise all the shots I needed at Royal St Georges. I spent a lot of time on the range there perfecting my ‘punch’ shots, for example.

“One key to playing good links golf is fighting the wind when you really have to. That’s especially true when the breeze is really blowing. The heavy sea air is part of that too. It tends to be full of moisture and so the ball doesn’t go as far as you might expect. There’s so much to take into account over and above the yardage.

“If I can use the wind, I will. But, again, that’s the opposite of what I tend to do on tour. There, I ‘fight’ the wind because the ground is softer and I can more easily predict what the ball will do after it lands. But that’s risky on a links.”

OK, so what are the keys to playing and scoring well on a championship links? According to Clarke, experience is a big part of that particular equation. As is the ability to hit “knock down” shots, marrying the bounce and roll of the ball to the contours of the land. “I want the ball to do the work, not me,” he says. “That’s why visualising the shot is so important.”

“A big key in scoring well on a links is avoiding missing the green on the ‘wrong’ side,” continues Clarke. “When you ‘short side’ yourself and leave little room between the edge of the green and the flag, chances are you are not going to get the ball that close – especially if there is rough ground or a bunker in your way. Hitting the ‘flop shot’ off hard, bare ground is a huge risk and very difficult to pull off successfully. Which is why you won’t see me trying it too often over the next two weeks.”

What you will see more of is a happier Clarke. Roused by the challenge of playing the sort of courses he enjoys more than any other, the five-time Ryder Cup player and surely future captain is looking forward to the prospect of a break from the familiar formula – soft greens, shots hit almost exclusively through the air – that prevails on the world’s circuits.

“I get a great feeling of satisfaction when I pull off a successful shot on a links,” he points out. “Far more than I do on tour. But you have to be philosophical too. Links golf is unpredictable. You get bad bounces as well as good ones. So you have to take it on the chin when that happens and move on. It’s hard to know that others are probably getting the same sort of luck, but patience is part of the challenge. And I say that as someone who struggles hugely with that aspect of the game.

“Having said that, I am way more patient on a links than I am elsewhere. Because I know what can happen. And that helped me at St Georges. I went out every day expecting at least two bad bounces. I think we will see less of that at Muirfield though. It’s known as the ‘fairest’ links on the Open rota for a reason. There are fewer humps and bumps to contend with. You can nearly always run the ball on to the green. I like that.

“Then there’s the weather, of course. Back in 2002, I remember standing on the first tee at Muirfield at about 1pm on the Saturday. It was just about then that the famous storm rolled in. I ended up shooting 77, having played quite well. It was brutal. But not impossible. In the middle of it all, Ernie Els shot 72, a magnificent round that had a lot do with his victory the next day. He’s an exceptional talent.”

So is Clarke, of course. And let’s hope he gets ample opportunity to showcase his gifts over the next couple of weeks. Certainly, he knows what to expect and – even more importantly – what it takes to succeed.

“For me, two words sum up links golf – process and acceptance,” he states. “It’s all too easy – and I can be guilty of this – to become overly concerned with the outcome of a shot. All you can do is hit the shot the way you want to. After that, where the ball finishes is out of your control. Which is where the acceptance part comes in. You must take what you are given. I did that at St Georges. And that was a big reason why I won.

“I’ve been that way every time I’ve won to be honest. But it’s a difficult state of mind to produce to order. It’s like being in a trance and not being ‘into’ the outcome or the score or whatever. And totally unlike my usual demeanour on the course. Playing links golf is all about commonsense really.”

And it’s a lot of fun. Enjoy it while you can.