The great writer and curmudgeon Dan Jenkins has always maintained that if he had his choice of courses to play in Eastern Long Island, he’s go with either Maidstone or National Golf Links over Shinnecock Hills, the site of this year’s US Open.
In a sense, I agree – both of his selections ooze charm and could have been dropped directly into their current Hamptons locales directly from Scotland. Willie Park Jr’s Maidstone has a decidedly old-school appeal, with heath flaring from its bunkers while its clubhouse sits on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. The National is the product of Charles Blair MacDonald, who brought the design concepts and course strategies of Old Tom Morris to the States and created an architectural template for many other historic course built here. Of course, unless your money is wrinkly old and your blood a deep shade of blue, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever play either of these tracks.
As appealing as these courses are, neither course has the teeth to hold a US Open, what with Maidstone being too short and National being far too wide open. Which brings us to Shinnecock.
I confess to having a bittersweet relationship with Shinney, which presents as strong a test as one can find in this country and certainly has its own identity. My ex-wife grew up about a mile or so away from the course (the back yard of her mother’s house butted up against Southampton C.C., which borders Shinnecock to the east – National is adjacent to the west), and on visits there I would walk the course. One Christmas, I noted that the clubhouse was shuttered, but the flags were up. I grabbed my late father-in-law’s clubs, bundled up to brave the windy, 40 degree overcast day, and made my way around. It was exhilarating.
A few years later, the US Open returned to Shinnecock; this was the year that Corey Pavin carved a 4-wood into 18 to seal his only major championship. I attended the second and third rounds.
On the practice tee, I watched the skinny US Amateur champion strike his driver ungodly distances. Kid named Tiger Woods. Unfortunately for him, during the second round he injured his wrist trying to gouge his ball out of Shinnecock’s high blue-stem fescue that borders most of its narrow fairways and had to withdraw.
I saw many of the greats from that era over those two days – The two Nicks (Faldo and Price), Ernie Els, Bernhard Langer, Seve, Jack, Ray Floyd, Ian Woosnam – but the best round of golf I saw came in the third round by Tom Lehman, who fashioned a 67 in 25 mile per hour winds and was one of only two players to shoot a subpar round that day (Woosnam managed a 69).
So, save the Old Course and Augusta, I have more familiarity with Shinnecock than just about any other major championship venue, and will sing its praises to just about anyone who will listen. While it’s situated about a mile or so inland (the only water view comes from the 12th tee), it definitely plays hard and fast – a true links experience. Tuckahoe Road intersects the course, the panoramic view of the course as one looks to the west is breathtaking.
Much like Augusta, there are elevation changes at Shinnecock that are not readily appreciated on the TV screen. The downhill drop on the 12th rivals that of Augusta’s 10th hole, and the uphill approaches to 9, 10, and 11 are nerve-wracking. And Shinnecock possesses as fine a collection of par-4 holes as can be found anywhere. My personal favorite is the 14th, named “Thom’s Elbow” after longtime club profession Charlie Thom, whose cottage overlooked its tee and where he often gave lessons. The long, dogleg-right hole features a downhill tee shot that appears all but impossible to hold in the fairway due to what appears to be a severe tilt; however, there is a bowl-like area that will hold an accurate drive. Then it’s back up the hill to a small, well protected green.
The hole that will command the most attention – and maybe prove once again to be the most controversial – is the 7th, a medium length par three that features a Redan-style green that even under ideal conditions is difficult to hold. During the third round of the 1995 US Open, I sat in the bleachers bordering the 7th green and watched 8 groups come through. Only two players managed to hold the green in regulation, one of whom was Gary Hallberg. He made a hole in one, and if that shot had not one-hopped into the hole, it likely would have run off the green as well.
But the 7th’s infamy was sealed at the 2004 Open when its green became so crusty that USGA officials had to water it for each group that teed off on the hole. It was unseasonably hot in the Hamptons that year; by the weekend, most of the greens had pretty much turned brown. It was to Rateif Goosen’s ever-lasting credit that he was able to putt as well as he did to win it all that year (although to be fair, Phil Mickelson’s inexplicable double-bogey on the next to last hole was helpful to Goosen’s victory).
Hot weather should not be an issue this year, and if the wind kicks up, we’re liable to see a return to even par as a winning US Open score. And Shinnecock will deliver it honestly, with no gimmicks. That’s the only prediction I’ll make.