Where’s the World’s Best Links Golf Hole?
Tom Watson has his favourites, and we reveal ours. Where are yours?
In addition to being a great links player, Tom Watson is a big fan of links courses. Ask him about his favourites and he quickly mentions hallowed Muirfield, in the East Lothian region of Scotland, where he won his third British Open championship. Old Tom also offers up praise for Ballybunion in Ireland, where he first came to fancy that style of play in the early 1980s, and Turnberry, where he won the 1977 British Open—and nearly took the 2009 championship as a 59-year-old afterthought.
It is hard, however, for Watson to choose an absolute best, much as it is impossible for a parent to select a favoured child.
Not surprisingly, that is a fairly common problem among experienced links golfers. For many, their passion for that type of game is so strong that they find something to like about every links layout—and find it difficult to rank one above others. There are also players of more micro-analytical bents who are inclined to break down links courses by the holes they like most. It’s a way of refining the discussion of the good and great—and elevating it from mere post-round chatter to Ph.D.-level debate. It is also fun.
So much fun, in fact, that we picked our own favourite links holes. All are in the British Isles, where that style of golf has been played for centuries, and they comprise a composite course links lovers like Tom Watson would no doubt like to play.
The First Hole, “Burn,” at the Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland
The most famous opener in golf, and you feel that as soon as you stand on the first tee, in the shadow of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and in front of townspeople looking to see how you do.
The Second Hole at the Old Course, Ballybunion, Ireland
Plenty of driving room on this meaty par-4, so long as the wind doesn’t blow your tee shot off target. But the approach to an elevated green fronted by a pair of gnarly dunes is a toughie.
The Third Hole, “An Traonach” (“The Corncrake”), at Carne Golf Links, Ireland
Golfers get to see this scenic hole in its entirety from the tee, beginning with a downhill drive to a wildly undulating fairway and ending with testy putts on a two-tiered green.
The Fourth Hole, “Klondyke,” at Lahinch Golf Club, Ireland
The best part of this delightfully testy par-5 is the blind second shot, over the imposing Klondyke dune.
The Fifth Hole, “Dell,” at Lahinch, Ireland
Another blind shot defines this charmingly difficult hole; only it’s a par-3, with a tiny green snuggled in the grassy dunes.
The Sixth Hole at Kingsbarns Golf Links, Scotland
One of the best short par-4s in the U.K., with stunning vistas and a chance to reach the green with a well-drawn drive.
The Seventh Hole at The European Club, Ireland
Pat Ruddy’s course south of Dublin is one of the most celebrated new links in the British Isles. And the seventh, a long par-4, with a green backed by the shimmering waters of Brittas Bay, is perhaps the finest.
The Eighth Hole, “Short,” at the Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland
The large, egg-shaped green looks easy to hit from the tee. But winds that blow incessantly across the St. Andrews links and a putting surface sloping from front to back make it difficult to hold even the most precise shots.
The Ninth Hole at Royal County Down, Northern Ireland
You begin with a blind tee shot over a dune to a fairway that drops 60 feet, the Mountains of Mourne looming beyond. Then there is the matter of an approach shot to a smallish green guarded by a pair of devilish pot bunkers.
The 10th Hole, “Spires,” at Jubilee Course, St. Andrews, Scotland
It is all about the visuals here, and the sight of the elegant spires of the town’s churches rising in the distance as you begin to play your way home.
The 11th Hole, “Colt’s,” at Royal Dublin, Ireland
A beguiling par-5 with deft bunkering on both sides of the fairway and a heavily contoured green.
The 12th Hole, “Mass Hole,” at Waterville Golf Links, Ireland
This glorious par-3 is sculpted among dunes where early Christians held clandestine church services. The design alone makes this a great hole. The story of the site makes it even better.
The 13th Hole, “Pit,” at West Links, North Berwick, Scotland
The distinguishing feature on this par-4 is a slanting stone wall over which golfers must hit their second shots. As charming as it is troublesome.
The 14th Hole, “Calamity Corner,” at Royal Portrush Golf Club, Northern Ireland
Intimidation is a seemingly bottomless, 190-yard-wide gully between the tee and the green of this par-3—especially when the wind is blowing hard.
The 15th Hole, “Redan,” at West Links, North Berwick, Scotland
Named after a military fortification from the Crimean War, the 15th here plays to a green that slopes from right to left, and front to back. The design is so well-regarded that course architects all over the world have copied it.
The 16th Hole, “Barry Burn,” at Carnoustie Golf Links, Scotland
Two par-3s in a row push the design envelope. A trio shatters all boundaries. But this 245-yarder plays more like a par-4 anyway. Just ask Tom Watson. He didn’t card a single 3 here when he won his first British Open at Carnoustie in 1975.
The 17th Hole, “Alps,” at Prestwick Golf Club, Scotland
A venerable par-4 that has been played since the course opened in 1851. The second shot to a sloping green guarded by the fabled Sahara bunker is one of the most compelling in the game.
The 18th Hole, “Tom Morris,” at the Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland
It’s the best finishing hole, bar none. You feel that as you hit your drive, the townhouses of the ancient ecclesiastical centre rising to your right. And you sense it as you walk over the famed Swilcan Bridge, past Old Tom Morris’ golf shop and onto the massive green where golfing greats have wrapped up championships and tipped their caps to the crowds.
Now you tell us. Which are your favourites?