Feature Interview No. 2 with George Peper
December, 2010

True Links - Winner of the 2010 GolfClubAtlas.com Book of the Year Award

1. What was the genesis of True Links?

In 2007 my friend and co-author Malcolm Campbell began to form something called The Links Association, a group dedicated to the promotion, protection and preservation of links courses around the world. As part of that project, he’d started a list of links courses. He said that at some point he thought maybe he’d do a book. I immediately horned in on that idea, told  him “Malcolm you can’t do a book of that magnitude all by yourself, let me help you.” The rest is history.
2. From when you decided to commence the project until it was published in October, 2010, what were some of the surprises you discovered along the way?

Overall, we learned there were fewer genuine links in the world than we’d thought. I was also surprised to discover that New Zealand has more links courses than just Paraparaumu—in fact there are more links in New Zealand than in any nation outside the UK.
3. How did you even learn about some of these links? Not everyone will have exactly heard of some of the twenty-five nine hole courses that made the cut or a links like Fano.

We had plenty of help. Early on, we assembled a sort of kitchen cabinet of people around the world whose knowledge of links golf we respected—from architects Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Tim Liddy, Forrest Richardson, and Pat Ruddy to writers Paul Daley, Jim Finegan, David Hamilton, Adam Lawrence, David Worley, and Geoff Shakelford to great links champions such as Peter Thomson and Sir Michael Bonallack. Two guys who were particularly helpful were Christof Meister, one of Europe’s leading authorities on golf history and architecture (it was he who turned me on to Fano), and golf course architect Scott Macpherson, a GCA forum frequenter, whose work with Greg Turner on  the Oreti Sands links in New Zealand (also know as Southland) led him to become the most knowledgeable person in the world on links in that country. I also owe Tom Coyne a vote of thanks as a couple of the Irish nine-holers came  to our attention through his terrifically entertaining book, A Course Called Ireland.
4. You clearly state what criteria were used in determining whether a course could be considered an authentic links and thus be included in the book. Please state why Pebble Beach and The Ocean Course at Kiawah were not among the 246 courses that were included.

Have you ever seen Pebble after a heavy rain? I played in the AT&T Pro-Am one year when they had to close the practice range because they’d run out of balls—they’d all embedded in the turf. Despite its name, Pebble is emphatically not a links, it’s a clifftop course (like Old Head and Nefyn & District).  As for the Ocean Course, although its design is sort of linkslike, its warm climate can’t sustain the thin-bladed bents and fescues that are vital to maintaining year-round fast-running conditions that are integral to links golf.  Basically, for this reason there are zero links courses in warm climates, except for South Africa’s Humewood, the proverbial exception that proves the rule. 
5. Of the 246 courses, which three were laid over the flattest land? Which three are laid over the most rambunctious topography?

The two that come to mind as flattest are the Old and New at St Andrews (and since those are where I play most of my golf—bag on shoulder—I’m rather please at that). Another super-flat one is Sweden’s Falsterbo. In fact Malcolm and I had a bit of a dispute about that one. I feel it’s so low-lying—and gets so wet and soggy during the winter—that it doesn’t really play like a links. But, as with most of our disputes, I let him win because he’s been playing and studying links courses a lot longer than I have.

As for “rambunctious topography” (an expression I wish I’d coined) Ballybunion comes quickly to mind (both course) as does Machrihanish (both courses) along with Gullane 1, Cruden Bay, and Noordwijske. Donald Trump’s course will be pretty rambunctious, too.

The long views afforded from Gullane are some of the best in golf. Christopher Lowe is the photographer.

6. What are three hidden gems to which you would particularly like to draw people’s attention?

I’m not sure whether these qualify as hidden gems with the  GolfClubAtlas crowd but:  Brora (Scotland), Carne (Ireland) and Granville (France).

Granville is not to be missed when in France. Photograph courtesy of Golf Club de Granville.

7. By number, Scotland has the most links and golfers eventually make a pilgrimage to that country, in part to enjoy seeing many links on a single trip. Other links such as Humewood and Paraparaumu are more remote and standalone by themselves. Hole for hole, how do you think those two links measure up against some of the more famous pockets of courses in Scotland?

Humewood and Paraparaumu are genuine links courses, and both have several strong holes. But they don’t stack up against the best links in the British Isles. Golfers should head to South Africa or New Zealand for reasons other than golf, then enjoy these courses as a bonus.
8. What impressed you about Rolf-Stephan Hansen’s work at Budersand?

He had a good but not great site, and I think he did a strong with the routing, free of gimmicks and full of interesting holes, particularly on the last third of the course. There was a winding burn and a couple of sizable natural dunes and he worked them gracefully into the design. The sea comes into full view only sporadically but on one those occasions he created a par three that play straights at it , similarly to the 7th at Pebble Beach. All in all it was a remarkable debut for a golf architect.
9. You note that 70% of all links were in existence by 1935. Briefly summarize why there is reason to be optimistic that more true links will be built in the coming years.

I’m not sure I’d be optimistic—hopeful might be a better word, and for four reasons. 1) The minimalist design movement continues to be in vogue. 2) The continuing weak global economy adds to force to the R&A’s advocacy for courses that are “sustainable,” i.e. inexpensive to build and maintain, and 3) Ever-increasing ecological awareness has found its way to golf in the “brown is green” philosophy now being championed by USGA President Jim Hyler. 4) Enlightened self-interest: Rich-guy developers like Keiser, Kohler, and Trump are turning their minds and wallets toward links and links type courses because they such courses will attract attention and have a good chance of climbing the Top 100 lists.
10. What countries in particular have both the coastline and environmental laws that might foster such courses?

There is still some coastline in the UK as well as on the other side of the North Sea in Northern Europe. There’s also a bit in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and in Tasmania where the land near Barnbougle Dunes could probably accommodate a bunch more courses. The key is to find it and fund it. It’s largely a matter of three things: vision, money, and patience with the permitting process.

11. Just because a links enjoys sandy soil and is located by a large body of water is no guarantee that it will play fast and firm. You make the point that Birkdale had over fertilized for years before successfully returning to a more genuine form of links golf in recent years. What courses really impressed you with their maintenance program and in how they promoted fast and firm playing conditions?

Forgive the bias, but I think the courses in St Andrews deserve top marks. The Links Trust has done a terrific job with conditions of all seven of the town’s courses. Others that deserve a nod are Royal County Down, Brora (where the James Braid course remains authentic in every way) and Rye.
12. Of the several thousand links holes that you saw, please describe five of the quirkiest features.

Twelve-hole Shiskine is a wild place. One green has two flagsticks, another has red and green signal lights, another a railroad signal. At Brora, electric fences surround the greens to deter the dozens of grazing sheep and cattle. Wild horses roam the fairways at Westward Ho! and at Royal Ostende in Belgium you have to make five crossings of a major highway and railway, two of them involving signal lights. It’s the only course I can think of where one’s pace of play can hinge on the day’s traffic conditions.

Royal Ostend enjoys a great playing environment once it gets by the water. Photograph is courtesy of Royal Ostend Golf Club.

13. The ability to confound and infuriate are part of links golf. Some of that can come in the form of blind shots and links golf possesses much more of it than any other form of golf (i.e. heathland or parkland). What are five (either tee ball or approach) of your favorite blind shots?

I don’t think there’s anything more fun or exciting on a golf course than climbing a gentle rise to discover your ball sitting next to the pin. Two of my favorite blind shots are the tee shots at the par-three fifth holes at Prestwick and Lahinch, known respectively as the Himalayas and Dell holes. The approach to the par-four 15th hole at Lundin Links, over the Spectacle Bunkers is a blind shot classic. Number three at Aberdovey is another hole where you don’t know how long your birdie putt is until well after you’ve player your tee shot. Finally, for sheer lovable nuttiness there’s the 15th at Cruden Bay which plays around a mini-mountain—it’s not only blind it’s a blind dogleg par three!

Iain Lowe, the primary photographer for True Links, captures the 15th and 16th holes at Aberdovey.

14. Where did you encounter some of your windiest days and wildest weather?

Day in and day out it’s the Old Course. I played there a couple of years ago in an R&A medal, one group in back of Arnold Palmer. It was so windy Arnie walked off the course at the sixth hole, saying if it had been a pro event it would have been cancelled. Just about everyone else played on. I was very proud of my 91 that day, especially since it included two penalty strokes for balls that moved on the green. One of my playing companions actually got a penalty stroke when his ball moved after he’d addressed it in a bunker. I’ve played that course on several days when the wind has gusted over 50 mph. At the 11th hole—a par three of 165 yards, I’ve hit everything from a wedge to a driver.
 The only truly crazy weather day I can recall was at Machrihanish which I played with the publisher of True Links, Peter Workman. It was cold for most of the round and the rain was pelting at us horizontally. On one hole, while Peter engaged in an extended hunt for his ball, I curled up  under the lip of a bunker for several moments. We had planned to play 36 that day, but at lunch after each of us had consumed a hamburger and a large single malt we jointly decided we’d be better served with another round of single malts than another round of golf.
15. Quite a bit of travel was required to write such a comprehensive book. What are a couple of funny (or sad!) travel stories that emerged from the undertaking?

I did a whirlwind tour of the European courses—played or walked nine of them in five days, starting in France and heading through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and  Sweden before driving back to Amsterdam. It was an odyssey of 1200 miles that took me on two ferries and a car train. Thank goodness I had a multi-lingual GPS in the car. It went off without hitch except for the moment on the German Autobahn when a wild turkey flew across the highway and bounced off the front end of my rental car, smashing the cheap plastic grille.
16. Since going to press, have any links come forward that you wish had been included?

Happily, no. But the book has only been out for a couple of months. I’m sure we’ll be hearing from people.
17. After links, the next best form of golf is surely heathland. Any thoughts on a companion coffee table book?

That’s a nice idea, and I’m sure Malcolm and I would enjoy the challenge, but heathland is pretty much a UK thing isn’t it? Also, I’m afraid it lacks the romance, and therefore the commercial viability of links golf.

18. What do you hope people will take away from having read True Links?

I hope they’ll be glad that, for the first time, the world’s genuine links have been collected and identified as a group. I hope the book draws attention to links golf not only as the original form of the game but as the ultimate form. And I know I speak for Malcolm Campbell when I say I hope the book dramatizes both the need to protect the 246 treasures we now have and, whenever and wherever possible, to encourage the creation of more links courses in the years to come.

The End