Top Links Courses in England
When American golfers plan their trips to play links courses across the Atlantic, they usually zero in on Scotland and Ireland. England often gets over looked, but it shouldn’t as the top links courses in England can compete with the greats across the UK. The English invented modern landscape architecture, so it comes as no surprise that England is the birthplace of many notable golf course architects who have contributed a rich collection of storied courses, many of them true links. Built at sea level on sand-based, exposed, usually tree-less turf that serves as a buffer between the sea and the fertile ground away from the salt water, links courses encompass a landscape of natural sand dunes, knolls and hollows fashioned by the wind. England’s greatest links are clustered primarily in two regions: in the Southeast, by the English Channel, and in the Northwest, in and around the city of Liverpool.
In Southeast England, which is somewhat off the usual tourist routes, the “Trinity” of links golf is made up of Royal St. Georges, Princes, and Royal Cinque Ports, which are located in and around the historic town of Sandwich, about an hour from Canterbury. Each has hosted the Open Championship, but Royal St. George’s is without doubt the most aristocratic and famous of the three clubs. In 2020 it is slated to host its 15th Open Championship. A very proper staff ensures that everything runs inside the stately clubhouse. The par-70 course is noted for its tall dunes and massive bunkers. Level lies can be scarce. Note that Royal St. George’s only allows visitor play Monday through Friday.
Prince’s Golf Club, the friendliest and most relaxed of the great links at Sandwich, features 27 holes located just over a fence from Royal St. Georges. The club, which tends to be upstaged by its more illustrious neighbor, hosted the 1932 Open Championship in which Gene Sarazen captured the Claret Jug and used his newly invented sand iron for the first time. Two of the three nines run parallel to the English Channel. The third nine, the far more varied and enchanting Himalayas nine, is being renovated in 2018, but play will not be interrupted during the project.
Royal Cinque Ports, also known as “Deal,” is one of the world’s most difficult tests. Set directly on the English Channel looking across to France, Deal is a tale of two nines. On the front, the strong wind helps players, while on the back it lashes into their faces. While Deal gives opportunities to score on the front nine, the hindering wind and the length of par fours sends players into survival mode on the inward holes.
A more prolific collection of links courses lies in Northwest England, near Liverpool. The magnificent Lancashire Coast rivals any links destination in the world and boasts three “Royals” that are in the Open Rota—Birkdale, Liverpool, and Lytham & St. Anne’s. The headliner is Royal Birkdale, a truly brilliant course with no weak holes and three (the 12th, 15th and 18th) that are inarguably among the world’s greatest. While only a few fleeting views of the sea are to be had from high tune-top tees, the drama comes from towering sandhills that frame nearly every test. Royal Birkdale’s Art Deco clubhouse, built in the shape of an ocean liner amidst sandhills that look like cresting waves, is one of the most famous in golf.
A number of non-royal links near Birkdale are well worth adding on to any Lancashire itinerary. These include character-filled Formby Golf Course, which is bordered on three sides by stately firs and pines, Southport & Andsdale, and Hillside. Greg Norman once called the second half at Hillside the best back nine in Britain.
Royal Liverpool has hosted the Open 12 times. Widely known as Hoylake, the dunes may be rather flat and short on drama, but to make up for it the club created small berms called “cops” that are designated as internal out of bounds. Throttling rough and deep bunkers also defend the course. For a great 36-hole day, add an afternoon round at nearby Wallasey Golf Club, an Old Tom Morris creation whose dunes are more impressive than Hoylake’s.
Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s, which is more than a mile from the sea and lacks sea views altogether, has hosted 10 Open Championships and two Ryder Cups. Framed by railroad tracks, a road, and stark row houses, the links boasts impressive variety, over 200 exceptionally penal bunkers, and a splendid finishing hole.
Finally, in the remote southwest corner of England, a pair of notable links belong on your radar screen. Royal North Devon, aka Westward Ho! is the oldest golf club in England and the birthplace of English links golf. Laid out on common land, it is a completely natural throwback to the origins of the game. Still farther south, St. Enodoc Golf Club features a long stretch of brilliant holes routed through the most mountainous dunes in all of England. The linksland here rivals storied Ballybunion in Ireland.