Golf in the UK vs. Golf in the USA

Winston Churchill once described America and England as “two nations divided by a common language.” It’s true; while the words are the same, some of the vocabulary is very different. Just ask anybody from Texas or Massachusetts what they thought when an English friend said, “I’m afraid I’ve rather got the hump” or admitted to being “quite chuffed about it.” These two Britishisms may sound like they have similar meanings, but trust me, they don’t.

Similarly, golf in the UK and US, while proceeding by generally the same rules and conventions, are, in some ways, rather different games. Admittedly, they are less so than in years past, when even the ball was a different size. Up until 1990, the ball approved for play by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (the R&A) weighed 1.62 ounces—the same as the American ball—but was smaller in diameter: 1.62 inches vs. 1.68 inches. You wouldn’t think that a difference of six hundredths of an inch would be noticeable, but many players strongly preferred the British ball when playing into a headwind and the American ball when the wind was at their backs. In 1974, the R&A ruled that in the National Open (the British Open, for our American readers), the American standard ball would be used, but as more and more players lobbied for consistency between the two continents, the R&A finally adopted the larger ball in 1990.

But the ball is far from the only difference. Those who have attended tournaments in the British Isles—or even watched them on television—can attest to the vast difference in course design between the UK and the US. Many British courses are “links style” courses. This specific type of course developed on the sandy, seaside locations that fostered the very beginnings of the game: The Old Course at St. Andrews, Muirfield, and Turnberry (names synonymous with golf history and legend). Links courses originated in beachside areas characterized by grass-grown dunes. In the earliest days, there was no earth-moving machinery, and sophisticated course design principles were still in the future. Bunkers had to be dug by hand, and they needed to be deep to keep the sand from being blown away by the stiff ocean breezes. Trees typically don’t grow in the sandy soil of a links course, and the topography tends to be bumpy and irregular, shaped more by nature than by humans. In the same way, greens had to be fashioned from the existing terrain.

By contrast, most American courses (though not all) are what would be called “parkland” courses that include treelined fairways, bunkers of various sizes and shapes, undulating greens built on earthwork berms, and other constructed features. Parkland courses typically reward an aerial style of play in which golfers seek to “carry” their target: landing the ball in the area from which they hope to play the next shot.

Links courses, on the other hand, require more shots that stay low, out of the wind, and run along the ground toward their target. The “chip-and-run” game is a must for players who want to succeed on courses like those that typically host the British Open.

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