Editor's Note: With professional golf entering its quasi-offseason, we're hoping to tell some stories that highlight aspects of the game that us mortals experience. This week, our own Ben Hotaling writes about his first experience with proper links golf, and some of the ways it lit up his golfing brain like never before.
The wind didn’t scare me. As a Kansas-bred golfer, I felt like I understood the wind. In a sense, my game had been shaped by it.
I wasn’t intimidated by the turf, either. The firmness of the ground, particularly after spending half my life hitting off soggy lies in America, was invigorating.
But my brain would not stop humming. The possibilities seemed overwhelming. Nothing ran on autopilot. In front of me was a canvas, and I was used to solving math problems.
For years, I had longed for the chance to play true links golf. I was itching to test myself. Now, after a long day of work in St. Andrews, I found myself at Lundin Links on a perfect Scottish evening. I thought I was ready.
My education, I soon learned, had just begun.
My colleague Matt Golden and I had fought and clawed our way through a friendly but intense match with our coworkers, Big Randy and D.J.. Everyone had played well; neither team held more than 1 up through the first 17 holes. The sun was setting and it was getting dark — darker than any cameras might have made it appear, although there were none in sight. We were one of the last groups on the links. The wind was still strong, blowing right into us as we tried to figure out what we needed to do to close out this match.
Matt made a nice pass at the ball which came up just short of the green. He mosied over to me, hoping he could help me break down what I needed to do to get the ball on the green to make a par and seal the match.
I had already pulled off a great drive, deftly avoiding the looming out-of-bounds stakes on the left. I was rewarded with a perfect links lie and an open look at the green. D.J. and Big Randy couldn’t say as much. They’d bailed out right and now had a compromised view of the green, a tough angle with a large hill on the right sporting a death bunker carved into it. Matt and I had called out that death bunker on the first tee of the day. “If it comes down to 18,” he said to me as we walked down the first fairway, “looks like we need to avoid that bunker at all costs.”
As Matt was walking up to my ball, I pulled out my yardage book for the millionth time of the day and began examining all the potential outcomes in front of me. Even though this was my first time playing golf in Scotland, I already understood the value of the “stroke saver” — Scottish for yardage book — on these links courses. By that point, the stroke saver was going in and out of my pocket before every shot, including some of my putts. It looked like a child’s stuffed animal, worn down by affection and love. I examined it intensely, my head moving from the book to the greensite like the bobblehead you get at an MLB game.
Matt and I started our process. The math had begun. We examined the lie — perfect. Flat, with no grass clumps in front of or behind the ball. My stance was good. But the most important question remained: How was it going to come off the club? Would the contact be pure? Though my lie was perfect, it was still wildly unfamiliar. As the sun went down and the air got cooler, the ground became even more firm. My hands were beginning to numb a bit. The last few strikes from the fairway felt like clipping a shot off the cart path or hard pan in Texas in the middle of summer. Uncomfortable.
The equation moved to the wind and temperature. There was a strong breeze all day. Not gusty but everpresent. Being from Kansas, the wind wasn’t new to me. I regularly play in 20+ mph winds. But on Scottish links, the wind is an entirely different animal. The ball gets attacked the minute you make contact. There are no trees to alter the wind, and no opportunities to pull the trigger after a gust blows through.
I pulled out my rangefinder. I was 138 yards to the stick. I turned to my partner, talking to myself as much as I was to him. “Alright Matt,” I said. “We have 138 yards. Perfect lie. Wind directly in. Temp dropping quickly. Pin tucked up against the death bunker. What do you think?”
“Yeah man, sounds like a good number,” Matt said. “Hit a good one.”
But was it a good number? I had no clue.
I’ve always loved laying out my process, doing the math equation verbally, almost speaking great shots into existence. But in Scotland, I found myself delivering monologues.
“138 + 15 for wind, add 5 for temperature.” I said aloud, to myself as much as to Matt. Do you like a 160 shot?”
“Yeah, I love it,” he replied.
A perfect full 9-iron. I reached toward my bag.
Hesitation hit me like a blast of wind. “Well, it could balloon and climb the wind if I hit it well,” I said. “With the wind, I think the ball should stop on the green if I land it by the flag. I think I am going to hit a stock 8-iron that comes out mid-height.”
“Do it,” Matt said.
I grabbed my club and looked up at the green one more time.
I had totally forgotten about my target and shot shape. There was OB left of the green with a severe run off toward the left. The death bunker was pin high on the right. I figured I might be able to get a lucky kick off the bunker slope — so long as I missed the bunker. Long and short are both OK but would require some snazzy short game work with perfect pace to lock up the match.
There was a new factor to consider: Whenever I try to flight an iron, my natural right to left shape gets amplified due to timing. With the wind blowing steadily, that would get amplified.
“Where is my target?” I yelled to Matt. “I think I’m aimed right at the death bunker.”
He smiled and nodded.
My internal clock was screaming. Hit the ball already!
I love playing fast. It’s part of how I was raised. Now I was doing everything I could to hit the ball before my imaginary 45 seconds was up. Moments like this, I’d never really had to consider. Back home, I did my math in seconds. 138 meant 138. When in doubt, fly it in the hole. If you’re a good player, the ball will stop more often than not. That was not the case today.
My brain was still firing as I set up to the ball.
Getting that mid-flight shot just right.
Let’s win this match.
Nothing else in the world existed besides my 8-iron, that ball and the greensite ahead.
I flushed it.
When I am swinging well, I don’t make divots, and in that moment, I absolutely roasted the shot leaving the turf completely untouched. The ball pierced through the air at that perfect mid-flight, whistling as it tracked towards the greensite. Halfway there, I knew it wasn’t going left. The ball disappeared into the darkness right at my target.
“Anyone see where that finished?” I yelled out.
A resounding NO from the group echoed back.
I grabbed my bag and hustled toward the green, bouncing down the fairway like Rory McIlroy at Congressional. No balls on the green that I could see. My shoulders slumped a little. I did a hole check just to be sure. No dice.
We were all scattered tracking down our shots. Both D.J. and Big Randy’s approaches found the hill to the right of the green, no surprise because that’s all they could see from their approach. Sheepishly, I climbed the hill to peer into the death bunker. The sobering truth stared back at me.
Fried egg, right in the middle. Dead pin high.
I had missed that kick I was hoping for by a yard.
Randy and D.J. hit up and, as expected, left themselves with a chip and a very long putt from the opposite side of the green.
I ventured into the deep bunker knowing if I could keep it on the green, it would be a remarkable shot. Getting it close was unthinkable. Leaving it in the bunker was a real possibility.
My ball came out nicely, hit the backside of the bunker — then scurried to the wrong side of the green. A 40-footer in the dark awaited me.
Matt hit up and left himself 6 feet. There was hope after all for this match!
D.J. hit a solid chip to secure a five. I hit my putt and missed.
It was Randy’s turn. Even among friends, we could feel some tension in the cool Scottish air.
A tentative lag putt finished 10 feet short, but then Randy approached his fifth like the Slenderman approaches the unsuspecting.
Buries it. Dead center. He’d been doing it all day.
Matt now needed to make a 6 footer for the win.
But in the punishing darkness, we watched his putt slide by the hole.
The match is a draw.
I’ve thought about that shot from the fairway for two months now, repeatedly going over my checklist of what I accomplished:
The Lie? Check.
Wind Management? Check.
Avoid left? Check.
Hit at target? Check.
I did everything I had set out to do besides getting the ball to fall a yard left. The dreaded straight ball bit me. It cost Matt and I an important, yet meaningless victory.
I signed for a 76, one of several on that trip. This one came on a 5900-yard local track that should have had my name written all over it. I’d hit it well all day, making 4 birdies and a bunch of pars. However, those few times I messed up cost me dearly — two doubles and a few good bogeys. I wasn’t proud of the score, but I was so invigorated by the challenge, that if someone had produced a pack of glow balls, I would have immediately signed up for another 18. The demands on each shot that day were so high and working to get each one just right was an absolute thrill.
This particular shot has stuck with me because it separated links golf and the golf I know into two distinctly different sports. I’ve never spent that much time in a yardage book at any point in my golfing life — either for fun or in competition. I’ve never really understood them, to be frank. Yardage books, I always figured, can’t do what I can do with a rangefinder and experience.
This time it was an absolute necessity.
A seemingly innocuous 138-yard shot bit me and bit me good. I got 90 percent of the way there and it wasn’t enough.
Every so often, I return to that canvas in my mind, sketching out a different approach, a new series of brush strokes. Could I have chipped a 6-iron that ran up and never challenged that bunker? Was it a flush 9-iron I just needed to trust wouldn’t balloon and come up short? Maybe I just needed to be more skilled — mentally and physically — to pull off the shot and win the match.
Maybe, however, I just need more chances. I like that theory best.
Ben Hotaling has been part of No Laying Up since 2020. You can catch he and Soly's coverage of the Asia Pacific Amateur this week on our Instagram stories, including a showdown between the two of them at Royal Melbourne on Monday, Oct. 30.
Email Ben at email@example.com.