Is Belek’s top-ranked course actually a links? And just how good is it anyway?
The 2015 US Open was not short of narratives, but the strongest were centred on the course that played host. In addition to debates over its fairness, conditioning and all-round suitability to host a major was the question of whether it was a links. What definitively constitutes a links is a much-debated theme, due in some part to golf course owners’ (and their marketing departments) widespread eagerness to have their course regarded as one. While it’s an understandable desire – connecting your own venue with the type of course on which the game began and which is regarded as its purest form – it is in many cases a preposterous suggestion.
The description ‘links-like’ is often a good indication it is not in the least bit like a links, save for some long, wispy rough that waves in the wind. The claims of that kind of course are easy to dismiss. But there are some much more difficult calls too. Some good judges insist a links must sit on low-lying sandy soil between the sea and the start of farmland and that extensive earth moving to create the course invalidates its claim. That would (if nothing else did) exclude Chambers Bay and also threatens somewhere such as Kingsbarns (expertly built on farmland).
The playing surface is another factor; it is turf that is firm and dominated by native fine fescues – one of the few things that will grow on the sandy land, hence its availability for golf in the first place. “To me the term links refers very specifically to courses found on naturally occurring sand dunes,” architect George Waters, author of ‘Sand and Golf: How Terrain Shapes the Game’, tells Golf World. “The more dynamic a dunefield is, meaning sand is in motion throughout the landscape, the closer to a true links it will be. Manufactured links can play very much like a true links but do not reach the full standard. This would include Chambers Bay, where the sand moved into the site in massive quantities will never perform like naturally wind-blown sand. A totally created environment will never be the same as a natural one.”
The reality is that few courses built in the last 100 years fit all these criteria. These tales of topography and agronomy were at the forefront of Golf World’s mind as we arrived at Lykia Links (note the name) in southern Turkey. And at the risk of rendering the remainder of this six-page article redundant, Lykia can be summed up with two statements. First, it is an essential experience for every well-travelled golfer. And second, it is not a links as we understand it in Britain.
One of Turkey’s most distinctive courses
Lykia isn’t just the most distinctive course in Belek, it is one of the most distinctive in all of Continental Europe. Laid out on a long stretch of coastline near Antalya, the images accompanying this article illustrate how closely Lykia’s terrain resembles that of the links we are familiar with in Britain and Ireland. Indeed it is probably aesthetically more appealing than many familiar names in our islands, owing to endless, dazzling Mediterranean views as well as today’s machinery presenting designers with the ability to shape a course as they want it. So duneland can be made more dramatic, and views magically unobstructed.
At Lykia, the terrain of over half the course – notably the four holes from the 2nd and then the all-star section from the 12th – sits on natural terrain. It was simply ‘cleaned’ of scrub, then tees and greens created. It is usually easy to detect manufactured humps and bumps and
on these holes it feels authentic; the topography of the 12th is like an excerpt of Prestwick, Perranporth or Porthcawl. And there is no denying the sandy nature of Lykia’s site; sand hills are rarely out of view and when you stray from the fairways you are greeted by piles of the stuff, populated by hardy indigenous vegetation that thrives in this kind of sand-and-salt environment. It really does have strong echoes of our seaside courses.
However, the difference is in the kind of game you play here. While the wind is as much a factor as it is on our shores – that there is minimal shelter from breezes is a good indication of how unrestricted and breathtaking the views are – your tactics to counteract it are different. So whereas at Portmarnock or Leven or Saunton you will adopt the ‘ground game’, at Lykia it is not a realistic tactic. Yes, you will be attempting to hit three-quarter, knock-down shots to keep the ball lower and try to reduce the spin, but you won’t be bumping and running into greens as you would in GB&I. The lolium/paspalum turf simply doesn’t allow it, its lush wiry blades grabbing your ball, rather than sending it on its way as lean, barely-alive fescues do.
“Using fescue was discussed and we tested some,” designer Perry Dye tells Golf World. “It was a ‘might work’. The paspalum was much more at home next to the sea and the warm summer weather. “The most important decision was to get grass to grow on the sand and stop the constant wind damage, which one time blew the course back to totally flat. When I told the owner that the golf course was gone, he asked ‘where did it go?’ I said ‘back to the ocean I think’.
“If you like, the ‘Love Grass’ and the other bushes can represent the gorse (of Scotland). But to be honest, I’d give up all the other great Scottish looks for the warm weather at Lykia to play a links.”
It is easy to pontificate with no money at stake (had it not worked the cost of re-seeding, coupled with the loss of a season’s green fees would have been astronomical) but it is intriguing to ponder what might have been had they gone with fescue and it’d been a success. The result might have been a course to rival those in Britain and Ireland, as so few in Continental Europe can. A fescue-covered links might well not have made any difference to the success of Lykia given it is thriving anyway under the canny stewardship of Manchester-born Director of Golf Kieron Morrissey. Indeed, building a bridge between central Belek and Lykia (you must circumnavigate a river to get here, adding 20 minutes to what would’ve been a five-minute trip) might well have attracted even more intrigued golfers than fescue grass.
Sandbanks and shrubs
And despite the reluctance to describe this as a links, there is no doubt this is one of the Continent’s top 50 courses. Part of its allure is undoubtedly its distinct nature. Golf on holiday is very rarely this exciting or interesting. Lykia is a unique combination of the kind of sandbanks and shrubs that line the fairways of Royal Hague or Le Touquet, along with quaint British links elements such as cool little sleepered-steps into the dunes to help begin a ball search or those familiar narrow-slatted wooden fences to stop sand blowing around. They don’t always work though – in the middle of an event for Turkish pros, an inch of sand blew in overnight, rendering the 11th hole unplayable; a problem only courses right on the edge of the sea have.
It is only extreme weather that threatens the course, now that the shaping work that was done has settled down and married with the existing sand hills. And as if to emphasise the natural feel of the environment, it is now thriving with lizards, chameleons, sea turtles, owls and hawks. Once a barren land roamed by wild dogs, it is now a sanctuary used by the University of Antalya to monitor sea turtles and their eggs. Lykia’s clientele is holidaying golfers and to ensure it is ‘playable’ for them, Morrissey has astutely edged back some of the ‘Love Grass’ rough that Dye brought from America. So, the wide-open 1st is a confidence-boosting, forgiving opener. Yet no-one will come to this corner of Belek and take it apart. Sea breezes and often demanding green complexes will routinely see to that. While the earth moved on the 7th included creating a lake that looks out of place with the rest of terrain that mimics our links, it was vital for irrigation. Now enhanced by an additional pump station, Lykia is in magnificent nick; notably lush and green, rather than burnt and brown (with greens better than Chambers Bay’s).
If you come to Belek and aren’t staying at Lykia, a day here is absolutely essential. Its holes offer consistently top-class fare, with personal highlights including the 3rd and 10th that end on infinity greens, contrasting short holes at the gorgeous 3rd and exacting 17th, the split fairway of the 13th that takes you down to the sea, and then the three holes along the shore.
Not links golf as we know it in Britain and Ireland perhaps, but one of the best experiences away from our shores.
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