2004: Course, game have changed, but you still have to putt

Southampton, N.Y.

After the first round of the U.S. Open, having hit his second shot to the side of the par-5 16th green, Jay Haas said this: “I remember having 110 or 120 yards into the green on my third shot in 1995. Now I’m hitting my third shot from right beside the green. A lot of guys are hitting this green in two.”

Because of a dry spring and the benefits of modern golf equipment, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club effectively played much shorter this year than it did when the U.S. Open was held here in 1986 and 1995.

The short-hitting Corey Pavin, after reaching the 16th green with his second shot, said, “The new equipment helps everybody the same. The long hitters are even longer, and the shorter hitters are trying to keep up. Nothing has changed. The one constant is that equipment will change and get better.”

Fred Funk played in ’86 and ’95. After hitting pitching wedge into the green on the par-4 12th this year,

he recalled that the shortest iron he had previously hit to No. 12 was a 5-iron.

Change is the name of the game here at Shinnecock Hills. A change in distance was prominent this year, but other changes also have occurred.

When the U.S. Open first came to Shinnecock in 1896 – 108 years ago – the golf course played to a

yardage of 4,423 yards. That figure will stand forever as the shortest in U.S. Open history.

In 2004, Shinnecock played 6,996 yards.

James Foulis won the 1896 event with rounds of 78 and 74. He beat 27 other contestants. There were only 12 scores in the 70s, with the 74 by Foulis being the lowest.

This year’s U.S. Open attracted 8,726 entrants, with 156 making it to the championship proper. The 152 total of Foulis in 1896 would have missed the 36-hole cut in 2004 by seven strokes.

Shinnecock Hills generally is regarded as the U.S. Golf Association’s showpiece Open course in the East, while Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links occupies a similar position in the West.

The transformation of Shinnecock Hills from 1986 to 2004 has been fascinating. As a championship test, its length has changed little (up 84 yards from a 6,912 total in 1986) and yet its character around the greens has changed dramatically.

In 1986, the greens were ringed with high, thick grass. Although many of the players don’t like this – “There is no skill involved; it’s just luck,” said Funk – the USGA was using this setup for most U.S. Open sites in the 1970s and 1980s.

The evolution of the chipping area or collection area around some greens began in the 1990s under the stewardship of former USGA president Frank (Sandy) Tatum Jr. During the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, for example, a handful of collection areas were in place.

By 1999, when the U.S. Open came to North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort for the first time, chipping areas were everywhere. “The design of the golf course lent itself to that kind of setup,” said Tim Moraghan, USGA championship agronomist.

Moraghan further explained that a course such as Shinnecock Hills is perfect for collection areas, whereas a course such as Oakland Hills (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.) or Oak Hill (Rochester, N.Y.) is not.

In the heat of battle, golfers tend to be candid about their feelings. Thus David Toms didn’t hesitate in suggesting that Shinnecock make a few changes. “As many great holes as there are here, there are a couple that ought to be at the local muni,” Toms said. “On No. 1, the tee box points you 150 yards wide of the fairway. Why hasn’t that been redone? Because it’s a good conversation piece?”

Another subject for conversation: Shinnecock’s diabolical greens. They were firmer and faster this year than in the ’86 and ’95 U.S. Opens, and they served to neutralize the advances in modern golf equipment.

“If we didn’t have to putt,” Haas said, “we might tear up this place.”

But that was one change that didn’t happen, of course, and only two players broke par for the week.

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