Sports, Fitness & Wellness

Shinnecock Hills Golf Club Then and Now: A Century of U.S. Open Play

Southampton's famous course has hosted the U.S. Open five times.

2018 marks the fifth time in the U.S. Open’s 123-year history that the famed tournament is being held at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton. But wait, you say, this is only the 118th U.S. Open. Indeed it is. The tournament was cancelled in 1917 and 1918 due to World War I and again from 1942–1945 during World War II. Add that to the long list of things that war isn’t good for.

Following the inaugural U.S. Open tournament at the Newport Country Club in Newport, Rhode Island in 1895, Shinnecock Hills hosted the 1896 tournament. At that time, Shinnecock Hills—one of the five founding member clubs of the USGA, which puts on the U.S. Open—was only five-years-old, making it the oldest incorporated golf club in the Unites States, founded by a group of men who learned the game in Europe. Those men, together with Samuel Parrish (founder of the Parrish Art Museum), paid $2,500 for the 80 acres of Shinnecock Hills in 1891.

There seems to be some confusion regarding the origins of the course itself, however. In a 2004 article written for Golf Digest, Robert Whitten says that the original 12-hole course was designed by Willie Davis, not, as the club’s official history states, Willie Dunn.

Shinnecock Hills in the early days
Shinnecock Hills in the early days, Photo: Southampton Historical Museum

Whitten cites an 1896 New York Times article that reads: “After Willie Davis went to Newport, Willie Dunn, one of the most celebrated Scotch professionals that has ever come to America, was secured to take charge of the grounds” and to renovate and expand the course. The idea that Davis designed the original course is now, for the most part, taken to be fact.

Samuel Parrish, however, writing in 1923, remembered it differently. “The original course, as laid out by Willie Dunn in the summer of 1891, consisted of 12 holes,” he recalled. “Shortly thereafter, the links having become somewhat congested, an additional nine-hole course was constructed for the exclusive use of the women players,” which created some dissatisfaction among members, causing that 9-hole course to be abandoned in favor of a single 18-hole course.

Willie Dunn also remembered it differently. In a September 1934 article published in Golf Illustrated, Dunn wrote that he was brought to Southampton by the club founders and was shown the site of the proposed course. He remembered his first impressions of the land as “rolling and sandy, with thick growths of blueberry bushes in some places.”

He continued: “I laid out plans for 12 holes and started work with 150 Indians from the reservation, the only available labor. Except for several horse-drawn road scrapers, all the work was done by hand. The fairways were cleared off, and the natural grass left in; the rough was very rough—with clothes-ripping blueberries, large boulders and many small gullies.”

The greens, meanwhile “were made with sod taken from neighboring estates, using just ordinary lawn grass” and “averaged about 40-square-feet, placed on little slopes or in slight hollows, so that some masterful pitching and chip shots were required.”

Shinnecock Hills during the U.S. Open
Shinnecock Hills set up for the U.S. Open, Photo: Barbara Lassen

Dunn also recalled some of the original hazards of the course. Apparently skunks were abundant. “During one friendly practice game, I remember, one of my drives made a direct hit on a skunk who immediately released a cloud of poisonous gas and refused to move away from the ball,” he wrote. Another hazard “was provided by huge bald eagles who would sometimes pick up balls and carry them out over the bay.”

On a far more somber note, Dunn described the land as “dotted with Indian burial mounds,” adding, “we left some of these as bunkers in front of the holes. Others we scooped out and made into yawning bunkers, and sand-traps.”

This redesigned 18-hole course was revised four more times before the present course, designed by William Flynn and built by Dick Wilson of Toomey and Flynn, was opened for the 1931 season, laid out utilizing the natural topography of the Shinnecock Hills. Golf aficionados might see a resemblance to a number of the courses on the British Isles.

As for the Clubhouse, Dunn described the original as resembling “a road-side hot dog stand.” The architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White was employed to create a new clubhouse, which they built in 1892 and which remains substantially the same. Over the years it has gone through several expansions and renovations before undergoing a major restoration completed in 2016.

But enough history. The U.S. Open is one of the four Major Championships, often referred to simply as “the Majors,” and is played every year on the weekend ending with the third Sunday in June—that’s now! The other Majors are the Masters Tournament, held every April at Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia; the Open Championship, held every July in the United Kingdom; and the PGA Tournament, held every August.

Only five golfers in history have won all four major championships: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods (the only player to hold all four championships simultaneously), Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen. If Phil Mickelson wins at Shinnecock this year, he’ll be sixth to win all four—a feat unofficially referred to as a Grand Slam.

What makes the Open unique among the tournaments is that it’s notorious for being played on difficult courses with tight fairways and speedy greens, demanding pin positions and thick, high rough. As a result, six of the last nine Open winners have scored even par or higher. For comparison, the Masters has only one winning score over par since 1956.

Vowing not to have a repeat of some unfriendly conditions golfers encountered in 2004—most notably the condition of the green at the par-3 seventh hole where sun and wind dried out the green so badly that tee shots couldn’t quite stop rolling off what became a stone-hard putting surface—several changes have been made to the Shinnecock course this time around.

Shinnecock Hills today
Shinnecock Hills today, Photo: Barbara Lassen

This year, the course at Shinnecock Hills will be lengthened 449 yards, bringing it to an overall length of 7,445 yards. That’s a 6.4% expansion. The par-3 second hole, for example, has been lengthened by 26 yards, and the pin on the par-4 third hole has been moved back 22 yards and to the left. In total there are 10 new back tees including the par-4 14th hole and par-5 16th hole, which are both set back 76 yards. That par-5 16th was once considered a short par-5, but will now play as a legitimate, long par-5.

Many of the fairways have been narrowed to 28 to 34 yards, but will, on average, be slightly wider than they were in 2004. In fact, about seven acres of fairway have been converted to rough. A recent restoration of the course included bringing bunker play closer to the ideal line, more naturalized blowouts, removal of ryegrass roughs and their replacement with native grasses, and the removal of trees.

Of course, at the end of the day, what might make the difference is wind. On a good day, Shinnecock Hills requires extreme accuracy off the tee, careful approach shots, a better-than-average short game and nerves of steel when putting.

But if the winds kick up… Wind speeds average between 10 to 15 miles-per-hour with directional shifts as the day goes on and the flags atop the clubhouse are often not a good indicator of wind directions as they’re known to flutter, each in an opposite direction.

As Tiger Woods said in a recent interview “If wind blows [at Shinnecock], everybody scores over par.”

The 118th U.S. Open is being held at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, 200 Tuckahoe Road, Southampton through June 11–17. For tickets, visit usga.org/tickets. For more on Shinnecock Hills visit shinnecockhillsgolfclub.org.

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