The word "great" is often bandied about when discussion takes places concerning top tier golf courses. Often there's little in-depth analysis -- just a lumping together courses more likely very good or just good.
True greatness is limited -- standing apart from all others -- pushing the bar to heights never reached then -- or now.
When I hear the word "great" -- I think of other truly incomparable contributors -- Citizen Kane a great movie -- Frank Sinatra a great singer -- Sir Laurence Oliver a great actor. Greatness is certainty. There's an old expression -- whenever there is a doubt -- there is no doubt.
I have played over 2,000 courses globally and my travels have taken me to a multitude of destinations in searching for top tier golf options. And when I return to my home area in the greater New York City metro region I marvel at the depth of so many superior courses in my "neck of the woods." But there are two specific courses clearly "great" and amazingly located next to one another - Shinnecock Hills and The National Golf Links of America -- both in Southampton and located at the far eastern area of Long Island.
This review is about the former -- I will opine about NGLA in a forthcoming review.
Shinnecock Hills has an illustrious history. Founded in 1891 the club was one of the five original founding members of the United States Golf Association in 1894. The first clubhouse in the USA is attributed to Shinnecock Hills -- built in 1892 by the firm of McKim, Mead and White. The genesis of the course was a 12-hole layout by Willie Davis and expanded to 18 holes a short time thereafter. The course we see today was re-worked from the original and is the handiwork of William Flynn -- built by later successful architect Dick Wilson - from the firm of Toomey and Flynn. Flynn created many fine courses in his career -- but Shinnecock remains the quintessential result.
While the courses did host the 1896 US Open and a few other events of note -- such as the 1977 Walker Cup Matches - the club was frankly invisible to the outside world.
Fortunately, that changed through the desire of then USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan in seeking to return the US Open to Shinnecock Hills. The challenge was far greater than many might realize now. US Open venues were ones with an active ongoing membership. Shinnecock Hills is a seasonal club and while its membership is active the club let it be known to the USGA to handle all of the myriad tasks related to the staging of the event -- most notably the recruitment of all volunteers and support functions.
Hannigan believed the inherent course qualities of Shinnecock Hills was long overdue in again playing a pivotal role in championship golf -- most notably the US Open. In returning to the world stage -- Shinnecock Hills opened the eyes of many.
Before delving into the course specifics -- the greatness of Shinnecock can be fully appreciated by an outline I have long ago developed in assessing courses. The four (4) key elements for me are the following: (1) -- How good is the land the course is situated? (2) - How thorough is the routing? (3) How well does the course test all the clubs in one's bag? (4) - How well is the course prepared on a daily basis so that inherent design elements flourish?
Shinnecock is blessed with ideal land -- rolling but never so abrupt as to distort shots to the point where luck, rather than skill, is the determining factor. The routing is second to none. You're taken too all corners of the property -- all the attributes of the land are brought to the forefront. The key with any routing is never allowing players to get too comfortable -- able to fall into a repetitious pattern and therefore keep players on their toes to constantly improvise. At Shinnecock the land is exposed to the elements -- the routing ensures the wind direction is always changing -- therefore players must be able to adapt to the various situations as called upon.
Testing the fullest range of clubs is a key barometer that often clubs that have the first two attributes fail to deliver. Golf is a game of dexterity with the various clubs in one's bag. It is not enough to be good with a few -- able to skirt by simply because the architecture at a design is not as thorough. Shinnecock mandates control with not only various clubs -- but with knowing when to shape shots and apply the appropriate trajectory to secure the desired result.
The final element is conditioning which cements the first three characteristics. Conditioning doesn't mean manicuring to the point of excess. Rather it means a linking of turf quality to what the game of golf calls upon. Firmness and fastness is the essential element in conditioning. Turf must be able to provide a ground game option - one where the bounce of the ball is no less a factor than flying a ball exact distances. The great courses accentuate the widest array of golfer skills -- such layouts cannot be tamed simply by commanding a few clubs or by the playing of one type of shot again and again.
When you stand on the 1st tee at Shinnecock the magnificence of the course is apparent. It is glorious -- you feel the rush of excitement just ahead. The 1st is the prototype for what a 1st hole should be. Long enough to stretch the muscles but not so rigorous as to be beyond reason. The dog-leg right asks the player to determine how much risk one wishes to take on at the tee. The green at first glance provides an ordinary look but there are falloffs on the sides so marrying the proper distance and trajectory is essential.
The outward nine provides an array of challenges. You face a long slightly uphill par-3 at the 2nd. The 3rd is a muscle length par-4 but often is played with a helping wind to a challenging green. At the mid-length par-4 4th -- you reverse course -- usually back into the prevailing breeze. At the par-5 5th you have a clear risk/reward hole. Strong players can reach the target in two shots but the need to gauge accurately the flight and bounce of the ball is critical in order to secure birdie.
The long par-4 6th is an epic hole -- matching beauty and toughness in a seamless manner. The 6th provides the only water hazard on the course. The 7th is a redan-like hole that gained much attention during the '06 US Open. The USGA stupidly decided not to water the green and, as a result, the surface became nearly impossible to hold the surface -- no more than 17% able to do so during the final round. The hole is marvelously designed and with the wind generally playing as a crosswind. The short 8th is a par-4 that gives the players an opportunity to rebound but only if played soundly.
When you reach the par-4 9th at 443 yards -- you will experience one of the great two-shot holes in all of golf. Named "Ben Nevis" -- after the tallest mountain in the British Isles -- the genius of the hole begins with the terrain. When you stand on the tee you can make out the putting surface - high on a hill with the majestic clubhouse just to the right. The tee shot must be shaped as the fairway moves left -- pushing shots in that direction. The putting surface is elevated and therefore gauging the proper club and trajectory is essential. When the pin is cut tight to the front side of the green it's very possible for short shots to be pulled back.
As good as the outward nine -- it is Shinnecock's inward half that's arguably among the best concluding series holes in golf.
Interestingly, the first four holes on the back nine are located on the easternmost section of the course -- it also means crossing a public thoroughfare - Tuckahoe Road -- at the 12th and 13th holes.
The par-4 10th is a solid follow-up to the 9th. The tee shot presents a high degree of uncertainty -- landing areas not immediately discerned. One can lay-up before a major dip takes places roughly 240 yards from the tee. Those opting for the more daring play can secure additional yardage from the fall-off but are then left with a short pitch to an elevated green with a pronounced false front area -- waiting for the half-hearted play and then pulling it back down in front of the green. As demanding as short is -- those going long will then face an even more exacting play as the green slopes away. In the 1986 US Open -- Jack Nicklaus lost his first ball in the championship when hitting far right off the tee during the 1st round. The ball was never found.
The par-3 11th is certainly in the conversation as one of the best short holes in golf. You tee within a cluster of trees and therefore the full impact of any wind is hard to gauge. The green is 160 yards away -- resting high on an elevated portion of land. There is no background border of trees -- the infinity look proves most unsettling in trying to assess club selection. There are several bunkers to be avoided -- anything missed left will likely have four or more on one's card. A grand hole exposing nerve and ability to rise to the occasion.
The next four holes are all par-4's -- each well done and quite varied. The long 12th generally plays downwind but requires good placement in the fairway for the best approach angle. The mid-length par-4 13th marches back in the opposite direction -- beginning from an elevated tee and generally into the prevailing wind. The par-4 14th is another of the grand holes at Shinnecock. Named "Thom's Elbow" -- the 444-yard hole moves to the right and again the player must decide -- hit less than driver and secure a wider landing area -- or push driver to get into the neck of a narrowing fairway for a shorter approach. Generally, the hole plays downwind and the wind can hamper shot control as the green is elevated and will reject all but the surest of plays. The par-4 15th plays from the highest point on the course -- a mid-length par-4 that provides a birdie opportunity with two well-played shots.
The final troika of holes at Shinnecock complete the 18-hole journey in a tour de force fashion.
The par-5 16th hole generally plays much longer than its 540 yards. The hole turns left in the drive zone -- staying on that side achieves a better angle for the remainder of the hole. There is a cluster of greenside bunkers needing to be avoided. The hole provides a birdie opportunity but getting home in two shots with the wind against is only doable for the strongest of players. Often the smarter play is securing the best angle for a short 3rd wedge shot.
The par-3 17th plays 179 yards and heads due west -- in a completely different direction. The championship tee is placed to the far left and forces a more severe angle that must avoid three bunkers on the left side. The toughest pin is the one used for the final round in the '04 US Open -- in the immediate front where the green narrows considerably.
The concluding hole at Shinnecock Hills is 450 yards and usually encounters a demanding cross wind from right-to-left. In the '86 US Open -- the hole played extremely long and winner Corey Pavin had to hit a 4-metal club to reach the putting surface. In the '04 Open the grounds were extremely firm and fast -- players able to hit short irons and even wedges into the green. No matter the approach club the 18th is a demanding closer -- knowing how to flight one's approach to the green is central.
The routing by Flynn is brilliant -- two loops that always provide constant change -- mandating adjustments by the player. In many ways -- Shinnecock is reminiscent of Muirfield's routing for being so thorough and precise for what the player must do to succeed. The role of Mother Nature is constant -- benign at times -- brutally unkind as seen during the 1st round in the '86 Open when no player broke par in the first round. Shinnecock Hills was recently tweaked by the accomplished architectural duo of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore and there may be a few additional nips and tucks prior to the '18 US Open.
It's rare to find a proven championship venue able to also reasonably test players of average ability. Wisely the USGA announced in '16 the club would also host the same event again in "26. The debacle in how the course was set-up for the '04 US Open almost caused the leadership at Shinnecock to pull itself out of future host roles. Fortunately, for all involved, the return of Shinnecock Hills demonstrates an understanding by the USGA on the superlative elements the course provides and that by not having it as a host site would be a true loss to the championship and to golf in general. In my 36 years in covering the US Open there are three sites that should always host America's national championship each 10 years -- Pebble Beach, Oakmont and that Long Island marvel -- Shinnecock Hills.
By M. James Ward
Date: January 09, 2017