Links golf may be the original and truest form of the game, but it can polarise some players. German golf legend Bernhard Langer says he was one when first introduced to the links. "The first links course I played was St Andrews, and I hated it," he says. "I thought it had nothing to do with golf, because you could stand on the tee and not have a clue where to aim. All you saw was a couple of sand dunes – and nothing else.
If you didn't have a good, local caddie you didn't know what to do. I just didn't get it – I thought it was stupid to have to hit blind shots and run the ball. I couldn't see how great the design was and that actually a good shot was rewarded and a bad one got penalised. It took me a while to figure that out. But once I had played it five or six times it grew on me and now I love it. The more I play that golf course the more I see what a great job the architect has done – the subtle slopes on the greens and working the pin positions with the wind. It's really a great design.
Even the first and the eighteenth – you have a 200 yard fairway and a flat green on number one. But put the pin just over the burn on the first, or over the Valley of Sin on the eighteenth and it becomes a tough shot – you can hit it 15 yards long and suddenly you're struggling to make par." When professional golfers complain about links golf, it is typically because they find it too random – an unsurprising objection from players who have spent years trying to perfect their ball striking and remove the element of chance from the game. "Some links courses are not always fair. Royal St Georges is not fair," says Langer. "You can hit a nice tee shot down the middle of the fairway, it can hit the wrong side of a mound and you find yourself in a pot bunker." The twice Masters champion was talking to GCA during a site visit to Navarino Dunes in Greece, where he is the signature designer, along with European Golf Design architect Ross McMurray, on a striking new course set hard alongside the Aegean coast.
Although the Peloponnese is far the Kingdom of Fife, the waterside location and windy conditions, plus the naturally sandy soil, have induced the designers to adopt a links-like look on parts of the course, with deep pot bunkers and pushed up, undulating greens. "I like to make people think a little bit," says Langer of the courses he has been involved with, which are spread widely across Europe and America. "I don't want them to walk on to the tee, automatically pull the driver every time and say 'I've just got to hit it as far as possible.' On a links-type course, with different winds, I want players to think and consider whether they should hit a three wood to a particular area that's wide open rather than hitting a driver and maybe taking on three bunkers. Play from one area to the next, and then perhaps have a wedge onto the green rather than trying to go for broke and maybe making an eight. Or if people feel good about their game, sure, let them go for it and try to make a birdie or even an eagle."
"I didn't know it was going to be this pretty," he says of the Greek course. "The biggest surprise was the beauty of the land with the mountains, the different colours of the ocean and the olive trees – it's a nice contrast with the greens and blues. How many properties do you get where you're this close to the ocean on a number of holes, and you have beautiful views of the mountains as well? Plus we have some holes that go along the river where you have older, bigger trees – so you get a completely different look. We have quite a bit of elevation – most of the tees are built up so you are playing downhill and you see what's in front of you. Yes, there are a lot of pot bunkers, but you can see them, and the fairways are wide and generous."
This article first appeared in issue 13 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2008.