By Adam Schupak
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — As soon as the great, rambling white-and-brown gabled structure that is Shinnecock Hills Golf Club pops into view, hearts pump for golfers as if on a first date with a beautiful woman. Golf’s original clubhouse, a Stanford White design, dominates the surrounding landscape on the south shore of eastern Long Island like the crown on the head of a queen.
Indeed, Shinnecock Hills glows with a feminine mystique. She requires thought and finesse, not brute strength. One of golf’s crown jewels, Shinnecock dates to 1891 and is one of the USGA’s five founding members. This is a museum piece that hosted the second U.S. Open in 1896, but one still very much in vogue and beginning June 15, home to the 118th U.S. Open.
When last a national champion was crowned here—South Africa’s dead-eyed putter Retief Goosen in 2004—it marked the last U.S. Open site to be played at less than 7,000 yards. This time, the par-70 layout will measure 7,440 yards. That includes adding 74 yards to the 616-yard par five 16th hole so that the fairway bunkers off the tee and cross bunkers for the layup shot factor into the decision-making process. There seems no stopping the trend of stretching our finest courses like a rubber band.
“Shinnecock never did get updated for the modern game,” USGA CEO Mike Davis says.
Architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw led an effort that began in 2012 to restore the course to the original intent of architect William Flynn using aerial photos from 1938. Coore-Crenshaw removed hundreds of trees, cleared scrub brush, added 10 new tee boxes, enlarged greens, and widened fairways.
But after Brooks Koepka manhandled Erin Hills last year, hitting 88 percent of fairways wider than the Grand Canyon and tying the U.S. Open 72-hole scoring record, set by Rory McIlroy in 2011, with an aggregate of 16-under 272, Davis pivoted and narrowed Shinnecock’s fairways. Swaths of fescue grass were trucked in during September to reduce the average width of the fairways to 41 yards. Still they will be the widest fairways at any of the previous Opens here, but to drive indifferently is to court unending struggle for the remainder of a hole.
“I’m excited to see a proper U.S. Open again,” Golf Channel’s David Duval says. “I think it’s lost its bearings a little bit the last couple of years.”
Voicing an opinion shared by many, four-time U.S. Open champion Jack Nicklaus says, “I always thought the U.S Open was the narrowest fairways, highest rough, hardest greens, fastest greens, and it was the ultimate test of every club in your bag. I’m not for making it like every other golf tournament.”
Rest assured, Jack, it won’t be. Shinnecock is a course where none other than Tiger Woods says, “You can’t fake it.” To single out a hole for praise seems unfair to the others, but it can be argued that Shinnecock features the best collection of par threes in all of golf. All four holes are fickle, rewarding brilliant play and showing utter disdain for imperfection. The 2nd will play up to 260 yards to an undulating green. The 7th, a Redan hole playing 189 yards, garnered the headlines at the 2004 U.S. Open when its green—sloping front right to back left—became impossible to hold and the USGA had no choice but to hand-water the putting surface during play. It wasn’t the USGA’s finest moment. “It was either a disgraceful comic mockery of a great sport or a test of such stupendous difficulty that it was the very apotheosis of the best in the game,” The Washington Post‘s Tom Boswell wrote at the time.
All these years later, Davis, who at the time worked under chief course setup-man Tom Meeks, concedes, “It was certainly a bogey last time. In fact, maybe even a double bogey.”
But the truth is the 7th requires precision any time you play it. The 159-yard 11th plays uphill to a small, infinity green sloping from the back left to the front right, and has wrecked countless hopes of a good card. Deep, gaping bunkers protect the right side. Pros will take three and run. The 17th is another medium-length par three at 175 yards and the tee shot is no less exacting. Here the direct shot to the green flirts with a deep bunker on the left that can destroy any chance of par. The 9th and 18th, which both play back to the clubhouse, and 10th are among a sturdy collection of par-four holes that will leave many competitors folded into the fetal position after the round.
For all of the USGA’s efforts to provide “golf’s ultimate test,” competitors still will be at the mercy of the wind. And like most courses by the water—Peconic Bay to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south—there is rarely a day when the wind is completely absent. That alone should guarantee a stern test and so several players hope the USGA doesn’t overthink the setup.
“I think that the USGA thinks that we’re better than we actually are,” McIlroy, 2011 U.S. Open champion, says. “I don’t think it should be as much of an exact science to set up a golf course as it is. I mean, get the fairways sort of firm, grow the rough, put the pins in some tough locations, but fair, and go let us play.”
And let the carnage begin. The 118th U.S. Open can’t start soon enough.
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