HUGGAN: No science to links golf

 

In this ever-more technological age, one where Trackman rather the thinking or imaginative (wo)man rules golf at the highest levels, the game by the seaside remains an art form no amount of science will ever truly master. You want evidence of this immutable fact? I give you the third round of the ISPS Handa Vic Open at 13th Beach.

On a day when the golf provided a little bit of everything, the weather did likewise. And so, in turn, did the Beach Course. Which was no surprise really. The clue is in the title. 

The temperature ran all the way from cold to hot and back again. The wind blew in unpredictable gusts that at times made decision-making a lottery at best. As sharp, squally showers made things, at least briefly, all but intolerable, the Aussie summer became a Scottish Autumn. Golf by numbers morphed into golf by numbness. 

Ah, but here’s the thing. Through all of the above the course stayed playable. But only for those with the nous to put aside their yardage books, their preconceived notions and, invariably, their sky-high ball-flights. This was links golf at its best, a game for artistes, for virtuosoes, for composers of beautiful, ‘classical’ shots created by imagination and flair, never by mere calculation. 

So it was that, amidst some inevitable carnage - scores in the high 70s and low 80s - the opportunity was there for the truly skilful to separate themselves from the pack. Although some previous and no doubt practical experience in the prevailing conditions was clearly an advantage, too. Being born British or Irish, for example. Dubliner Paul Dunne - who, as an amateur, led the 2015 Open at St. Andrews with a round to play - is right in contention. And Englishman Callum Shinkwin, who could and should have won the Scottish Open in similar conditions at Dundonald two years ago is another making the most of his upbringing. 

Then again, memories can be short sometimes. 

“It felt a bit like amateur days,” said Dunne, whose 70 took him to 11-under par. “Playing in that strength of wind and with no ropes for the spectators, it really was like an amateur event. But I must admit I’ve forgotten how to play that sort of golf a bit. There were a lot of ‘mystery’ yardages where I came up 20-yards short or long. So I’ve lost a bit of my feel for it. But it’s all about grinding and putting well, which is what I did. That’s the real key.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, as many as five Scotsmen made it through the halfway cut and on the distaff side, Kylie Henry’s 69 was one of only a few sub-70 scores. 

“It was really tough out there,” says Scot, David Drysdale, who is ten-under par after a 71. “It was cross-wind after cross-wind. And the (104m) 7th hole? I just didn’t know what to do there. Everyone in my group ended up left of the green. So did the three in front of us. That sort of wind is so difficult when you have loft in your hands. 

"For all that, the scoring is still reasonable. As strong as the wind is, the course is still playable. But it is so hard aiming so far away from your ultimate target. I like to draw the ball and in a left-to-right wind I see the shot as ‘holding’ against the breeze. Not today. I just couldn’t draw the ball enough. And yardages? I just threw them out the window.”

So it wasn’t all plain-sailing for the Caledonian hordes. European Solheim Cup captain Catriona Matthew, a native of North Berwick on the ever-breezy East Lothian coast, struggled to a 75 and so missed out on the final round.

“The hardest thing for me was controlling the ball into the wind,” she admitted. “I was pulling them to the left too often. And putting is always tough in wind like that. You are never sure how much the ball is going to be affected. 

“The big key is staying positive at times when the round feels like it is slipping away. It helps to remember that if you are finding it tough, many others are probably doing the same. So you have to take your birdie chances what they come along; you know you are going to make mistakes. It’s just hard though. Today I made a bad bogey on the first, dropped another on the second and arrived on the third tee wondering where a par was going to come from.”

Another part of playing links golf is to break some of the rules that apply to regular play. Long par-4 into the teeth of the wind you might not be able to reach in two? Try to drive into semi-rough so that you get a”jump” on your approach. Widen your stance in putting for better stability. Take more club and hit shots softly to keep them down in the wind. As the old cliche says, “swing with ease in the breeze.”

And hole some putts of course. Some things never change. No matter how windy it gets.