A June 15 Sports article about the U.S. Open golf tournament incorrectly said that fairways at the Shinnecock Hills course average 260 yards in length. The article should have said fairways will average about 26 yards in width. (Published 6/17/04)
Not long ago, Shinnecock Hills golf course superintendent Mark Michaud, who has overseen the four-year overhaul of one of America's oldest and most revered venues, was paid the ultimate compliment by a longtime member of the club.
"A guy in the dining room said he'd heard a lady who'd been a member for 50 years say, 'It looks like it did when I first joined here,' " Michaud said last week, as the club prepared to host the 104th U.S. Open, which starts Thursday. "The feedback has been nothing but positive about the new look."
Not that there was all that much wrong with the old look, or the degree of difficulty over a storied links layout former Open champion Johnny Miller has described both as "the Holy Grail of golf in America" and arguably the best course in the world. After all, the last two Opens here produced a winning score of 1-under-par 279 from Raymond Floyd in 1986 and even-par 280 by Corey Pavin in 1995, and the wind blew on only one of the four tournament days in both events.
"It's a golf course that the way the greens are, the way the wind blows, it just does not lend itself to making a ton of birdies out there," said Pavin, whose career-defining, 228-yard 4-wood second shot from the fairway into the 18th green clinched his one-shot Open victory over Greg Norman nine years ago. "There are a lot of little nuances out there. It's a positioning golf course. . . . I think the way it is now is the way it was designed."
The classic course was the creation of architects Howard Toomey and William Flynn and opened for play in 1931; the club was founded in 1891 and was one of the five founding members of the U.S. Golf Association. Shinnecock hosted the 1896 Open, but on a different course.
The allure of the current venue was a factor in the weekend decisions of defending Open champion Jim Furyk and former British Open winner David Duval to make their comebacks at this event. Duval, who tied for 28th here in 1995, hasn't played since last October because of a bad back and a disintegrating game. Furyk had surgery March 22 to repair cartilage damage in his left wrist and hasn't played in six months.
"It's getting back to playing golf for a living and getting back to knowing what I know how to do," Furyk said Monday in explaining his decision to give it a go at Shinnecock. "Last year I came to Olympia Fields [in Chicago] and I was thinking about winning the golf tournament. This year, I'm thinking about starting the golf tournament.
"I'm going to tee it up. I've earned that right. I've earned that spot. For me right now, if there's a question in my mind on whether I can play 18 holes, then I'm going to have to seriously sit down and think. Right now, that's not a question. I'm not in pain. I haven't played for six months, so my game is obviously not in tournament shape and I'm playing a really difficult golf course. . . . Am I here like last year trying to win the golf tournament? Absolutely not. I'm an idiot, but not that much of an idiot."
Those in the field of 156 know they can be made to look foolish on this eastern Long Island course, especially if the wind blows in off the Atlantic, visible from several high spots on the rolling grounds. The prevailing wind comes out of the southeast and generally blows around 20 mph this time of year, picking up at mid-morning and dying down late in the afternoon.
Links golf is the antithesis of the style usually required at most stops on the PGA Tour. A true links should be built on sandy soil and wind through the natural terrain, often through seashore dunes. Even after a well-struck shot down the middle, lies are meant to be uphill, sidehill and downhill, depending on the kick of the ball.
Fairways should be firm to allow plenty of bounce and roll, the better to reward low shots required to pierce the wind, and bunkers are usually deep and recessed so that breezes do not blow the sand away. It's bump-and-run golf to hard, fast greens as opposed to the high, aerial trajectory to the heavily bunkered, soft putting surfaces of most modern courses.
Virtually every hole here bends one way or another, and players must constantly gauge their shots in relation to which direction the wind is coming from. Part of the cleanup effort to eliminate tons of underbrush, weeds and poison ivy included the removal of more than 400 trees since the '95 Open. Several holes once guarded from billowing breezes by tree-lined fairways are now exposed to capricious crosswinds.
"At the 14th hole, trees blocked the wind gusts," Michaud said. "Now it's totally opened up. At number seven, trees 40 feet high were in back of the green. There's just one left, for depth perception. Now the wind can just howl there. It will be great to watch."
Pavin added that the cleanup "makes it even better. It's an even more linksy look, so when you stand up by the clubhouse and look out, you can see almost the whole golf course. It's beautiful to look at."
The par-70 course is relatively short at 6,996 yards, even with an additional 80 yards from the 1995 Open, but requires more finesse than brute strength as players aim at fairways averaging about 260 yards in length. The USGA has also added a number of chipping areas around the smallish greens to catch off-target shots and test even the very best short games. And while the primary rough will be about four inches, shots wandering too far off the beaten path will result in dicey lies out of the high hay fescue all around.
At the moment, the course is playing hard and fast, and players will have some difficulty keeping their approach shots from bouncing off greens that often slope toward the back or the sides. The USGA, as usual, will have the putting surfaces running at warp speeds, yet another reason most believe that despite huge improvements in club and ball technology since 1995, a championship score likely will be in single digits under par, and very close to even par.
"If the wind blows," said Vijay Singh, "it's going to be almost impossible."