The Golf Course 'Burn': Do You Know What It Is?

Barry Burn at Carnoustie golf course

Golfers (and everyone else) in Scotland, England and some other Commonwealth countries know exactly what a "burn" is on a golf course. But Americans and other golfers mostly hear the term once a year, during the British Open.

That's because the term "burn" is almost exclusively used (by golfers) to describe a stream, creek or small river located on a links golf course.

And that's what a "burn" is: It's the term for a small waterway — any small waterway, whether on a golf course or not — such as a stream, creek or small river.

So burn is not actually a golf course term, it's a geographical term. It is used today in Scotland and England, plus some other places including parts of Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

The term derives from antecedents such as "bourn" and "bourne," and in addition to links golf courses you can see the term in place names for cities built next to waterways such as Blackburn and Bannockburn.

One reason that burns carry such intrigue for American golfers is because of that name that sounds exotic since we only hear it during British Opens. Another is that burns on a golf course tend to be much more subtle than the streams and creeks we are used to seeing on American golf courses.

American golf course streams often have shaggy banks, wide openings, and might be rock- or tree-lined. They are, typically, very easy to see in the landscape. Burns on links courses, however, often sit level with the surrounding fairway or rough, are more tightly cut into the landscape, and can be difficult for golfers to see. They also tend to be much harder to hit out of, if such an option even exists. If your ball goes into a burn, it is almost certainly submerged in water.

And burns, all of which run to the sea, can twist and turn and loop around links courses, many coming into play on multiple holes.

A few famous burns in links golf include:

  • Swilcan Burn, The Old Course at St. Andrews, crosses first and 18th holes, is crossed by the Swilcan Bridge.
  • Bluidy Burn (or "Bloody Burn") at Cruden Bay
  • Wilson Burn at Turnberry
  • Pow Burn at Prestwick
  • Barry Burn at Carnoustie, into which Jean Van de Velde hit during his memorable collapse at the 1999 Open.

Photo credit: "Barry Burn" by Richard Webb is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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