If you watch much of the British Open coverage this week, you'll likely hear a commentator or two describe Muirfield as a "links golf course." The term may immediately cause you to think of the local "links course" down the street, but links golf has a little different meaning when it comes to the course hosting the British Open.
In the United States, a links golf course is typically thought of as a wide-open course with a few or no trees. In reality, that is just a golf course with no trees. A links course includes several other geographic elements.
What elements make a links course?
In the generalist sense, there are eight elements required to make a true links course. A lack of trees is indeed one of the elements, as links courses typically have few, if any, trees. The courses are usually built along a major body of water, often in between the coastline and agricultural areas inland. The soil of the course is sandy, which allows for maximum drainage and creates a very firm playing surface, including on the greens. Those greens are typically very challenging as links courses feature a lot of undulations and slopes both on the greens and fairways.
Just like with trees, a links course will also have few, if any, inland water hazards. A poor shot may land in an ocean, like at Pebble Beach, but you won't find any creeks or man-made lakes on the course. That doesn't mean there aren't obstacles. Many links courses feature deep, pothole bunkers which will challenge even the best wedge players. Gorse bushes or other large shrubs are common and the fairways are lined with thick and tall seaside grass. Hit your ball there and good luck finding it, let alone playing it.
Possibly the most notable characteristic of a links course is the layout itself. Without trees or other large obstacles, links courses are natural and open. The layout and the oceanside location tend to lead to a lot of wind, rain and whatever else Mother Nature can dish out. A links course can play a dozen different ways depending on which direction and how hard the wind happens to be blowing at that time.
How will the players adjust at Muirfield?
Accuracy off the tee is of utmost importance when playing a links course. Not only do players need to avoid errant shots, but they also need to control their ball in the wind. As a result, many players will modify their bag setup to accommodate for the conditions.
According to Rex Hoggard of the Golf Channel, a few players, including Hunter Mahan and Billy Horschel, are testing out a new driving iron from Ping this week. The 2-iron is engineered for low ball flight, which will help players avoid the wind and take advantage of the firm conditions for maximum rollout. Jason Day typically plays with a 2-iron, but he will take it a step further this week by adding a 1-iron to his bag.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are also tinkering with their sets. Woods is testing a new Nike driver this week, according to Jonathan Wall of PGATour.com. Mickelson, meanwhile, won't have a driver or his "Phrankenwood" in the bag and is instead carrying a 3-wood and five wedges, according to Todd Lewis of the Golf Channel.
In addition to equipment changes, players will also adjust their games. Instead of hitting high tee shots, players will keep the ball low off the tee. Flop shots don't work as well on the firm greens and many players will instead utilize bump and run shots when chipping around the green.
The setup may be different, but Muirfield's links layout should lead to an exciting tournament that will test even the best players in the world.