"How far is it to the flag?"
"I could tell you, but I'm not gonna. It matters not one bit. You'll only get on if you hit it 100 yards short and 40 yards left of the green."
That conversation with a caddy took place at Lahinch Golf Club on the western coast of Ireland, a course originally designed by Old Tom Morris and redesigned by Dr. Alister MacKenzie. But neither of those grand masters had very much heavy lifting to do. Like most classic links courses, God was the original architect. Man simply mowed the grass.
Like American and Australian football, links golf and golf as it is played in the U.S. share so little in common that it is almost inconceivable they could be related. Most American courses have trees and discernible contouring; bunkers that are penal but playable, and greens that provide a challenging target but that will hold a well-struck approach.
Links courses are nothing like that. They are wild and wooly with rough the length of Kansas wheat and landscapes that look like the earth caught a case of the mumps. There are bunkers as small and deep as dried wells and greens the size of a Steve Wynn hotel; blind shots over towering mounds to surfaces that funnel balls in every direction except the one you need.
And then there is the wind. My first experience playing The Old Course at St. Andrews was in a steady rain with a gale whipping in off the sea so hard that a logging chain would have flapped like a hanky.
The place was full.
"Hard to believe we play golf in weather like this isn't it?" I said to my caddy, a self-deprecating start to what I thought would be an apology for dragging him out in such miserable conditions.
"Aye, this is nothing," he said. "We don't have the violent storms like you have in America, so we're lucky."
After prodding to see what he meant by "violent storms," he said, "You give them names."
I said, "Those are hurricanes. We don't play golf in hurricanes."
But links golf is played in all conditions. I was out at Muirfield when wind blew people off their feet and a July rain felt like it come straight off an iceberg. And I was at Royal St. George's when the oppressive heat made August in Orlando look enticing.
"When I first experienced it, I hated it." Tom Watson told me when we were discussing his experiences on the linksland. "I said, 'This isn't golf.' It took me several trips to realize that I was absolutely wrong. Not only was this golf, this was a lot more of what the game was originally supposed to be than what we played in America."
Most players eventually come to the same conclusion, although some are a little slower to the party than others. Kenny Perry appreciates links golf, but he still doesn't love it. A lot of high-ball hitters find the quirky bounces and brutish conditions a little off putting.
"You'll walk past a bunker at St. Andrews that's just a few yards off a tee and you'll say to yourself, 'Why in the world is that bunker there?'" Hal Sutton said. "The next day the wind changes and you say, 'Okay, now I get it.'"
Yardages are meaningless. When playing Turnberry on a blustery day, I hit a downwind drive 376 yards on the third hole, and then pounded a driver 188 yards to the front of the green on the par-three fourth.
Neither was a normal tee shot, but there are no normal shots on links courses.
Perhaps that is why links golf gets into the blood of those who play it often. The true feel for the game cannot be realized until you are faced with a straightforward 150-yard shot with no water and no trees, and almost no way to play it successfully.
The U.S. has a few true links courses: Chambers Bay, Bandon Dunes and Shinnecock Hills come immediately to mind. When you speak to those who play them, the praise is endless and often delivered in ecumenical tones.
The best in the world will fight and feel their way around links courses in the coming days as the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open is contested at Castle Stuart in Inverness this week, followed, of course, by the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
More than few home-bound spectators will say things like, "Man, th'at looks brutal," or "That can't be any fun," as they watch.
It certainly seems that way. From the comfort of a living room with a hi-def television as your only portal, links golf can look ugly, unforgiving and, at times, unfair.
But on the ground -- with a cold sea wind thumping against your chest and a 5-iron in your hand that you need to hit 170 head-high yards to a target every instinct tells you is miles off line -- you realize Tom Watson was right. This is what the game is all about.