Appeared in May/June 2005 LINKS
When the U.S. Golf Association was deciding where to take the organization’s Really Big Show, the 1995 Centennial U.S. Open, they had their pick of most of this country’s top courses.
The requirements were obvious: a club of historic significance; a course able to withstand the abilities of the modern golfer and at the same time one with sublime elegance and character; a layout with just the right amounts of fairness, challenge and open space for corporate tents and media relations; finally, a course with undulating terrain, impassable rough, narrow fairways, slick putting surfaces and the potential for lots of wind. That’s exactly what the governing body received when it accepted the invitation of Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.
This Long Island club was one of five that sent representatives to the meeting in New York City in December 1894 that led to the founding of what became the USGA. To this day, it honors golf with its pure and simple approach to the game.
There have been several courses in Shinnecock’s history. The first was a 12-holer. It opened late in 1891 and the architect often credited with the work was Willie Dunn, although records suggest that it really was Willie Davis.
In 1929 the Philadelphia-based architectural firm of Toomey and Flynn was asked to design a new course for the club. Before Shinnecock signed off on William Flynn’s design it had the British expert C.H. Alison review and comment on the proposal. He concluded: “We are entirely satisfied that Bill Flynn’s plans are as good as can be made on this site and that the proposed course will prove to be of the first order.”
Flynn’s holes he designed are the ones played today with very few minor changes over the past 66 years. The course has a ruggedly refined, natural look and feel to it, and the holes just flow together, one undulation after another after yet another. To the uninitiated, the fairways at Shinnecock Hills appear to be generously wide, but with the wind, the actual playable width of many is less than half of what they appear to be.
The course is made up of marvelous mix of holes: the par 3s range from the 158-yard 11th to the 226-yard 2nd. The 11th, “Hill Head,” requires a lofted shot—usually downwind—to the smallest green on the course.
There are only two three-shot holes, the rather short but narrow 5th hole and the famous 16th, with the tee box that points you to heaven. For the first and only time during the round the straight-on view is one of the entire north side of the clubhouse as well as a side view of the spectacular 9th green area.
It’s interesting that nowhere in its terrific layout does Shinnecock Hills have what you would consider a really short par 4. What it does have, however, is a stable of 12 really fine two-shotters. “Thom’s Elbow,” the 444-yard 14th hole, is a perfect example. As you look down the narrow fairway toward the green, it appears as if you are looking in the wrong end of a telescope. The fairway starts out 30 yards wide and is guarded on both sides by Shinnecock brambles, scrub pines and bunkers in all the right spots. But as you approach the green the fairway narrows.
The one feature that defines Shinnecock Hills more than any other is its simplicity. Unfortunately, simplicity, like its kid sisters, beauty and grace, is a very difficult concept to adequately describe in words; they somehow seem to get right smack dab in the way. But one round at Shinnecock Hills explains it perfectly.