SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Here at Shinnecock Hills, where old architecture meets modern technology, the players pull their G400-LST-SFT-Max drivers and lash their Pro V1x golf balls past a shingled 1896 clubhouse that sits on a narrow spit of ghostly dunes. It’s a contest between progress and some funny old things called grass and wind. The question in this U.S. Open is whether players can shove the future down the throat of the past.
Shinnecock is a welcome piece of restoration for the Open. Over the past few years, a sense of what this tournament should be had gotten lost; the “toughest test in golf” too often became an experiment in new venues and tricky setups. “Carnival golf” is what Phil Mickelson calls the result when the U.S. Golf Association loses its way.
But this tournament will go “back to the future,” according to USGA Executive Director Mike Davis. Take a course that hosted the second-ever U.S. Open in 1896 and give it the latest in agronomy techniques and a brush-up from the historically respectful architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and what you get is an interesting balance between tradition and innovation and a course that will demand a rich variety of shots. One on which the organizers hope to “to get all 14 clubs dirty to make sure that these players are tested to the nth degree,” Davis says.
Visually, Shinnecock doesn’t look like much at first glance, just a trampled down old hay meadow. But it’s crowned by Stanford White’s version of a Gilded Age beach cottage, with Peconic Bay on one side and the Atlantic on the other, and when you inspect it more closely, you notice the constant sea breeze flapping in the shirts of the players and the knee-high fescue grass. Then there are those greens, like tilted trays that won’t hold a drink and spill every martini set down on them.
Shinnecock, one of the five founding member clubs of the USGA in 1894, is an interesting combination of unchanged and modernized. Coore and Crenshaw, working from old black-and-white photos, took out a number of trees to reopen the original beachy vistas and give the wind free run of the place. But they also added 450 yards of new length to grow it to 7,445 and built a number of tees of varying elevations.
The traditional U.S. Open template has been narrow fairways, penal rough and fast greens. Shinnecock has those qualities, and it also has some visual deception. The fairways and greens look more generous than they actually play because the severe contours of the slopes mean players will have to pick small targets.
“I enjoy the fact that you’re hitting off different slopes,” Jordan Spieth said. “You have to work. You have to play in the wind. You have to work certain ball flights to hold greens. You can’t get away with one ball flight all the time. You kind of have to maneuver it around off different slopes and winds. It just requires more of an artistic approach. You have three or four different blind tee shots where you’ve just got to step up and really trust what you’re hitting at. . . . It makes you think a lot.”
There will be one nontraditional Open feature, however: Instead of thick shag rough surrounding the tilted greens, the areas have been mowed. Miss a green, and a player could see his ball roll as much as 15 yards off the putting surface. That should make for some interesting results atypical of Open play. Instead of hacking out of the rough, players will be able to employ more of their creative short games.
“Touch will be a factor,” Mickelson said.
Creating a great U.S. Open course is a fine bit of alchemy, and the USGA doesn’t always get it right. It has veered notoriously at times between too soft and too punishing. A prime example of over-severity came here in 2004, when Shinnecock’s sloping greens turned so hard in the sun and wind that by Sunday the par-3 seventh hole became all but unplayable and a two-foot putt by Billy Mayfair ran into a bunker. Lately the USGA has experimented with newer venues, with uneven results. Chambers Bay in 2015 was too raw and unpredictable, and Erin Hills in 2017 was too easy, especially after the USGA over-trimmed the rough, producing record low scores.
“The difficulty is, when you dream of winning these tournaments as a child and you work hours and hours and you fly in and for days and days do all this prep work and then you are left to chance as opposed to skill, that’s a problem,” Mickelson said.
The ideal course is one where something close to par is a good score. Players should be “tested but punished if you hit a bad shot,” Rory McIlroy said.
For the better part of its history, Shinnecock has done an admirable job of just that, protecting par yet producing interesting golf. In 1986, Raymond Floyd became the then-oldest Open winner at 43, winning with his know-how at just 1 under par. In 1995, Corey Pavin clinched his victory at even par with an epic 4-wood on the uphill 18th. And in 2004, Retief Goosen survived the caprices of the final round to win at 4 under over Mickelson, the only other player in the field under par for the week.
This will be the third century in which Shinnecock has hosted an Open, and there are some concerns that perhaps the event has outgrown it. But interestingly enough, those have nothing to do with the golf course itself. Rather, they have to do with the narrow roads and whether its acreage can handle all the tents and people. Traffic jams have been so nightmarish that players have had commutes of almost two hours and are concerned about missing their tee times.
“It’s a small piece of land, and it can only take so many people,” McIlroy said.
But that’s what you get when you bring a 21st-century-size event to a quaint Victorian haunt. And it’s worth the trade-off.
“The last thing we’re going to do is give up on one of our truly treasured sites,” Davis promised. “We love this place.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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