GULLANE, Scotland — Perhaps the greatest thing about links golf at the professional level is the series of questions posed to participants. They are not necessarily more difficult than any other week on tour. But they are different. Which, at least initially, makes them more difficult.
There is a lot of evidence to this effect. Former European No. 1 Ronan Rafferty is the ‘global ambassador’ of the Renaissance Club, venue for this week’s Genesis Scottish Open, and has spent the past few days shaking his head at some of the things he has seen, in especially around the greens.
“It’s been interesting to see the shots chosen by so many players,” said the Northern Irishman, a 1989 Ryder Cup player at The Belfry. “Typically they go with loft, using their 60 degree wedges. But links golf is played on the course. They play the wrong shot. I understand though. Ninety-eight percent of their golf is played on courses where it’s the required shot. But it’s strange that when they arrive in Scotland they don’t seem to have a clue what to do. That they are even hesitant to try the right move is even more puzzling. Links golf seems to have them scratching their heads.
So what exactly are we talking about here?
We are talking about the (usually lower) flight of bullets in the wind. We’re talking about “seeing” shots bounce and roll rather than fly and stop. We’re talking about feel and imagination rather than consulting yardage books. We’re talking acceptance and adjustment on the greens, where left-to-right putts tend to snap right-to-left when the wind decides to blow. Patience is a big thing.
“Usually what happens first is every player asks for a new club,” says Mike Walker, who coaches US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick. “Invariably it’s kind of an iron to replace a 5 or 7 wood. It might not be the prettiest thing, but it’s effective in the wind.
“On the range, there’s a lot of reverse shots that get hit,” Walker continues. “Getting the ball back in position is just one element of that. The major problem is that, having rolled the ball back, players tend to lose the timing that makes their swings work so well. Either they get a bit narrow and steep on the descent, or they do the opposite and create too much spin and therefore height. It can also lead to directional errors.
When it comes to driving, Walker is someone who doesn’t see the need for too many changes. He subscribes to Tom Watson’s theory. The five-time Open champion has always claimed that all he tries to do when playing in strong winds is to hit the ball solidly.
“But that’s just one way to go,” says Walker. “Some players like to hit punch balls. Matt is one of them. He used to have four different tee shots, depending on the condition and the circumstances. There was a ‘stock’, a “second serve” (when he didn’t want to hit a 3 wood, but wanted to hit it from 3 wood distance), a “bomb” when he needed a big carry and a ‘ball’ for in the wind.
As for the chipping, Walker acknowledges Rafferty’s point about the choice of shot. But there is at least one mitigating factor.
“Major players play most of their golf in the United States,” says Walker. “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 stroke required. You can do that by changing clubs, of course. And there is still an argument for doing so. But, as Ronan says, a lot of guys just take out their 60 degree corner. Which can be good too. At least it’s consistent.
“Still, it’s hard to hit high shots from the tight lies you get on a tie,” he continues. “So there is a premium on your swing low point. Then your imagination kicks in. You have to use the topography to get the ball into the hole, rather than just flying it up there. If you have good chipping action, you will have good control of your low point. This, in turn, gives you a good hit, initial direction, and flight. All this is more difficult to achieve this week because of the narrowness of the grass.
When it comes to putting, the biggest adjustment for tour players is the speed of the greens. Due to the ever-present danger of high winds, binding set-up surfaces should be slower than you’d see elsewhere on tour. This week, according to putting guru Phil Kenyon, the greens at Renaissance are running “no more than nine on the Stimpmeter.”
“Monday and Tuesday I spent a lot of time with the players getting used to the speed,” Walker reveals. “The great thing about speed is that when you add slope downhill or uphill it has a profound impact on the putt. Upwind uphills are so slow or seem so slow that it’s difficult convince yourself to hit the ball hard enough. The slowness with which the ball decelerates takes some getting used to. Visually, it’s a lot to take in. So your feel and instincts have to adapt. It comes images you see in your head and how you respond to them.
“When you slow down the greens, you bring the field closer,” he continues. “The faster greens tend to be better conditioned. On slower greens, luck becomes more or less of a factor. Putting is more random. And the more skilled putter has fewer opportunities to show that skill. Conditioning as much as speed is a factor on link greens. Not only are they slower, but they are less true. So the putting is a bit more random.
It is true, however, that some types of shots have a harder time adapting to link conditions than others. A longer, languid shot will likely have a harder time adapting to slower greens. Especially if it’s windy. It’s almost like a full swing in that more impactful action is advantageous. Faster shots that are more compact have a definite advantage on link greens.
“A lot of feeling and instinct are also needed,” says Kenyon. “And you have to be patient. I was talking to a player this week about putting in the wind. He wanted to know what he should do differently. Some guys expand their positions. But that doesn’t really make a difference. It’s a mental challenge more than a physical challenge. It takes a lot of patience and commitment. Things can get into your head when you’re having trouble adjusting.
It can be done though. A year ago, Collin Morikawa completed a modest T-71 at the Scottish Open. But a week later, at Royal St. George’s, he was Open champion.
“Collin had a bad time here last year,” Rafferty said. “He was gutting and thinning chips. Until someone pointed out to him that he had, for golf links, the wrong bounce on his wedges. Then a week later he won the Open, crediting Renaissance for teaching him how to hit chip shots. Which was nice of him. But he just needed a lot less bounce on his wedges. The firmer a price is, the weaker you want the bounce to be. He understood it and never looked back.