What sets Links courses apart?

July 3, 2019
Jake Nichols

In 2016, we presented research showing which players have over-performed their typical performance on links courses. Later that year, we teamed up with the European Tour to analyse the advantage gained by players who prepare for the Open Championship at the Scottish Open versus other tournaments. This week – in partnership with the European Tour – we’ve updated the research showing which players enjoy a links advantage. Now, after collecting shot by shot data in partnership with the European Tour for nearly two years, we can present our findings about what factors differ between links courses and other courses on Tour.

We have been using this dataset for the past year to help our Waggle clients gain an edge on the field. Our course intelligence focuses them on the key areas and prepares them for the unique challenge of each course.

In our dataset, we have two editions of the Dunhill Links in 2017 and 2018 – played at Carnoustie, Kingsbarns, and St. Andrews – the Scottish Open in 2018 – Gullane – the British Masters in 2019 – Hillside – and the Irish Open in 2018 – Ballyliffin. In the next two weeks we will add two new courses at Lahinch and Renaissance Club. This gives us over 150k shots to glean insight into what sets links courses apart statistically.

What factors differ?

Penalty for missing fairway

The penalty for missing the fairway on links courses differs in two ways from all other courses. First, pot bunkers provide an extreme penalty compared to the normal waste bunkers or fairway bunkers on course. In all other events tracked, a fairway bunker penalizes the player about 0.39 strokes relative to hitting the fairway at the same distance. In links events, that penalty nearly doubles to 0.73 strokes! The six toughest fairway bunkers on Tour are the six links courses in our database.

Second, the penalty provided by ‘Other’ lies (non-rough, fairway, or bunker lies) also nearly doubles compared to all other courses. We’re not measuring apples to apples in most cases; ‘Other’ lies on normal courses are water or trees in many cases vs the native areas and tall grass at links courses, but the point remains: big misses are punished more on links courses.

Approaching the green

Many links courses have generous greens, but with more than usual undulation. That shows through the data with players averaging 75.1% of greens hit on links courses vs 72.6% on other courses. Controlling for distance/lie of 2nd shot this is a statistically different result. At the same time, it’s tougher to hit it close on links courses – 23.7% of shots land inside 15 feet at links courses vs 26.6% at all other venues (again, statistically different when controlling for distance/lie of 2nd shot).

On and around the greens

Hitting more greens, but not hitting it closer leads to more lag putts – about 5.6 per round from 30+ feet vs 4.2 at all other courses.

The type of shots around the green also differ with more from fairway/collar (2.5 at links vs 1.8 at other courses), and fewer from rough/sand (3.7 at links vs 5.4 at other courses). In fact, 40% of short game shots come from fairway/collar at links courses vs just 25% at all other venues.

Surprisingly, the pot bunkers around the greens haven’t proven to be more of a challenge than bunkers at regular Tour stops, but the long rough has proven more difficult with up and down rates below 50% vs 54% at all other courses.

How to game plan?

With those differences in your mind, how do you prepare for this stretch of links events?

First, that additional penalty posed by pot bunkers should change how you approach tee-shots. Normally, the value of gaining extra yards by hitting driver vs fairway wood or iron out-paces the (small) value of hitting more fairways you get with a shorter club. Hitting driver is rarely a poor play unless it dramatically increases the odds of missing a fairway (for example, a cross hazard or extreme narrowing of the fairway). However, on a hole with a pot bunker (or two or three!) guarding the fairway, laying back to avoid it might be the prudent play. At the same time, if driver can completely eliminate the risk of the pot bunker it might be the best play even if it leaves an awkward angle or yardage into the green.

Second, more attention must be paid to your line of attack into the greens. Spend more time judging how to use each green complex to hit it close and how to avoid placing yourself in a tough up and down situation if you do miss the green. This is especially crucial when the course is firmer and faster.

Finally, you’ll require different shots around the green. Expect to rely much more on chipping off tight lies and lag putting on undulating greens than on your sand game or playing from the rough.

To find out how to access this course intelligence throughout the rest of the season get in touch!

Never miss one of our weekly insights. Sign up to our insights mailing list.