The Missing Links

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Tony Roberts / Corbis

The royal and ancient game's last attempt at innovation was street golf — a rather contrived form that, some years ago, saw groups of young urbanites tee off in cities from Paris to Auckland, aiming for holes located up alleyways and across vacant lots. It was fun, but never really took off. Now comes a development that could refresh the sport not by situating it in the urban jungle, but by returning it to its original home: the links.

The Scots, who invented the game, typically played golf on grassy sand dunes and rugged coastal stretches, which they called the links because they "linked" the ocean to inland areas. Golf played on such harsh, marginal land is known as links golf, and it has always been enjoyed in the U.K. and Ireland. But as golfers tire of the heavily watered, manicured greens that have come to dominate modern international course design, links are cropping up elsewhere. A handful of links courses have taken root from the U.S.'s West Coast (Bandon Dunes in Oregon) to Canada's East Coast (the new Cabot Links on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia) and as far afield as Australia's island of Tasmania (Barnbougle Dunes). Mike Keiser, a Chicago businessman who created the four-course Bandon Dunes and is currently unveiling his similarly styled Cabot Links, ties every hole to the allure of the ocean.

"Everyone likes to go to the seashore," he notes, "and that is what a links course is: seaside golf."

With so few courses outside of Europe, most players are ignorant of this unique form of the game, says Australian golfer Adam Scott, ranked in the world's top 10. He wishes all golfers could take a hack at the links style and attack a course in an array of ways, "generally inspiring a lot of creativity from the player." American golfer Peter Jacobsen echoes the intriguing aspect of "hitting unconventional shots not dictated by the course architect."

Awareness of links golf will get a boost with the hosting of the 2015 U.S. Open at Washington State's publicly owned Chambers Bay course. Opened in 2007 and built on a reclaimed mining quarry, Chambers Bay is at times reminiscent of the legendary links of Scotland's St. Andrews. For Keiser, it's an opportunity for millions of golfers to see the dunes and sweeping ocean views that links golf is all about.

"To see links on the ocean is to want to play it," he says, "whether you live in Oklahoma or Saskatchewan."

Tom Doak, who designed a course at Bandon Dunes, says the addictive nature of links golf keeps players searching for more opportunities, which has him now working in New Zealand and Keiser investigating remote land in County Kerry, Ireland. Growing environmental awareness will also drive more players to seek out the game, says Barnbougle Dunes owner Richard Sattler. Why use tons of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, not to mention obscene amounts of water, to make a golf course grow out of coarse uneven land, when that land can offer some of the best golf of all?