Golf marketing professionals tend to have a fairly free and easy way with words. Terms like 'championship course' and 'signature hole,' it seems, have no meaning other than what the writer of a press release wants them to mean at any given time.
But few words are so roundly abused as the simple term 'links.' Look at a selection of golf course websites, and you would be forgiven for thinking that a links golf course can be built on any old piece of land. Links doesn't have to be by the sea, it doesn't have to have sandy soil, it doesn't have to have dunes. If some golf marketers are to be believed, a links course is defined by the absence of trees: try telling this to a member at Formby! But this abuse of terminology is made possible because the definition of a links really isn't that clear. If linksland is that which has been reclaimed from the sea over the years – as is the case at St Andrews, for example – then how can land atop a substantial rocky cliff be links? Yet try telling golfers from Pennard or Bandon Dunes – both of which are clifftop courses with sandy subsoil, dunes and bouncy turf – that they don't play on a links. Or what about Kingsbarns, which has the seaside location and the sandy soil, but which is a totally constructed landscape? The point of this apparently abstruse debate is that the only really sensible way to identify a links is by playing characteristics. If a course sits by the sea, has sandy soil and turf that causes the ball to bounce and roll, then, to all intents and purposes, it is a links. It's a turf thing.
The turf thing is why, up until now, links golf has been the preserve of cool climate areas such as the UK. The natural fescue grasses that thrive in seaside climates in Britain and Ireland cannot tolerate extremes of temperature. Hot climate golf courses have tended to make use of bermuda grass strains, which, because of their broadleaved nature and their need for heavier watering, cannot be made to play so firm and fast – except, ironically, during the winter, when the grass goes dormant and is actually a fantastic playing surface. Shame courses grassed with bermuda mostly feel the need to overseed with rye during the winter to retain a green look! A few courses, though, are starting to prove that warm climate links golf is not a contradiction in terms. Mackenzie and Ebert's Abaco Club in the Bahamas is one such example, and the Links at Las Palomas, built by Arizona-based architect Forrest Richardson on the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortès in the Mexican province of Sonora is another.
The secret to these tropical links is a new type of grass. Actually, seashore paspalum isn't new – it derives from naturally occurring strains from South Africa – but it has only been deployed on golf courses relatively recently. Paspalum's greatest virtue from the perspective of the course owner and greenkeeper is its ability to tolerate high levels of salt in irrigation water, making it a very desirable grass for courses where water is scarce and expensive. But the new hybrids of paspalum, such as the SeaDwarf used at Las Palomas, require less water, can be mowed down quite short, and – most importantly for the links-seeking golfer – provide the most convincing warm climate facsimile of links turf yet seen.
The Las Palomas golf course is part of a US$300 million resort development outside the old fishing port of Puerto Peñasco. Several high-rise condominium blocks line the seafront, while the golf course occupies land a small distance away from the water's edge. Around three hours' drive from Phoenix and Tucson, the whole area is exposed sand for miles around – I have never seen such a huge expanse of sand in my life.
For a golf architect, to be presented with a vast area of virgin sand right on the seashore is a massive opportunity. But such opportunities rarely come to fruition without problems arising. At Las Palomas, Richardson and his team faced a range of difficulties from the challenge of stabilising the sand – the railway-sleeper faced bunkers he has built may be reminiscent of traditional links such as Prestwick, but they are there to stop the bunker walls collapsing rather than for aesthetic reasons.
Around 1.5 million cubic yards of earth were moved by Richardson and his team to construct the golf course. Most of this took place in the central 'plain' area of the course, where several large lakes were excavated to provide fill for shaping holes and to act as irrigation reservoirs (a shortage of water is a constant issue in this arid environment). For me this part of the golf course is the least satisfying. Not that there aren't good holes in this area – the par five twelfth bends around a lake in classic cape hole fashion – but this lowlying area is less links-like than the rest of the course, and, in consequence, less interesting. I personally would have preferred the reservoirs to be concealed and the central area to be shaped more like the dune holes that ring the property – but as architect Richardson points out, the parcel of land allocated to the golf course is not huge, and the need for water storage had to be accommodated somewhere.
Another downside of the golf course, for me at least, is the par three eleventh.
Jutting into the lake on the right hand side, Richardson has built a jigsaw piece of straight, right-angled walls to support the green, rather in the manner of Desmond Muirhead, an architect with whom he worked early in his career. His reasoning behind this is sound – the course's main pumphouse is located to the left of the green, and he wanted to draw the player's eye away from the building, but it seems to me unfortunate that this feature is destined to become the most photographed aspect of a golf course that should be celebrated for its linksiness. I also found the hole a little uninteresting, though I imagine things would be different with the pin stuck out on one of those squares! It's the dune holes that make Las Palomas a fantastic experience, though.
Although the scale of earthmoving (or rather sand moving) undertaken was pretty vast, there remains one section of the golf course where the holes sit on relatively undisturbed natural dunes. From the par three fourth to the par four eighth, the golf course rises onto slightly higher ground, and here the feeling of true links golf is at its most intense.
Take the sixth hole, a classic short par four in the making. Several scrub-covered dunes in the line of play set a stern challenge for the player. At 333 yards from the blue tees, driving the green is not out of the question given a following breeze and firm turf. There is, though, only a very narrow gap between the first, and largest, dune, which occupies the middle of the fairway, and a smaller one some 40 yards further on to the left of the green. The left-to-right cant of the fairway means that only a running draw has much chance of holding its line and successfully threading this opening, especially given the severe drop-off from the built up right side of the green. A safer choice is to lay up from the tee.
Here the best line is to go right, but from the far side of the fairway, the approach will be tricky, especially if the flag is on the front of the green.
The seventh hole appears at first sight to be modelled after the famous eleventh at St Andrews, often incorrectly referred to as the 'Eden' hole (it is actually the High Hole – In). There are the two characteristic bunkers – deep Strath to the front centre and menacing Hill to the left – and a wide green that sweeps to the right, with a substantial fall from back to front. Here, though, the right side of the green is higher than the left, meaning that a tee shot leaked out to that side will not swing quite so far away from a flag tucked behind the front bunker. But in compensation, the wide green offers a number of extra pin locations, including one pushed onto a sliver of short grass at the far right hand side that will defy the best.
Hole eight, the last in the high dunes, is a tremendous par four from an elevated tee. The tee ball must avoid a dune to the right of the fairway, plus two bunkers on that side. Another dune in front of the green splits the putting surface in two – a large area to the right and a tiny elevated knob to the left. Only a precisely judged running approach will have any chance of holding this plateau, while getting up and down from the dune will be beyond the compass of most golfers.
My advice if you find the pin up here is to play safely for the right side of the green and trust your long putting.
Other notable holes on the golf course include the tricky short par four thirteenth – not for nothing is it known as 'Poco Diablo', or 'Little Devil'. A large grassy hump right in the middle of the landing zone forces a difficult decision from the tee. Hit this lump, and your ball will almost certainly come back down, leaving a completely blind approach. Right is a possible line, but the ideal tee shot will be played down the left side of the hump. A low, running drive may bounce up the ridge leaving a tricky half-wedge or long chip and run, and the long hitter can attempt to carry all the trouble, in which case the green is just about within range. Cleverly shaped undulations in the fairway, though, mean that the only tee ball likely actually to make the putting surface is the one blasted bravely over the grassy mound.
Go left and – like this writer – your ball will probably kick further in that direction. Richardson has plans to extend the green further back, creating a small lower tier: I do not envy those golfers trying to get close to such a pin location, as there will be exposed sand on three sides.
One may be hesistant to dub the course a true links, but the evidence of the eyes is undeniable. Fans of wild bounces, running approaches and short game creativity should be running to Sonora as fast as they can.