2004: Volatile hole no seventh heaven

By Bradley S. Klein

Southampton, N.Y.

There was little pre-tournament buzz about Shinnecock Hills’ par-3 seventh hole. By Sunday morning, when the final round of the U.S. Open began, there was so much fear and trembling around the green of the 189-yard hole that it looked like a celebrity funeral.

The problem was a sharply banked green that fell away from right to left and front to back - exactly the way the wind was blowing out of the west. The combination of slope, extremely dry conditions and an unusual wind created a volatile mix that threatened to get real ugly and left the U.S. Golf Association trying to fix blame on the club.

The last thing anyone wanted was a repeat of past U.S. Open setup snafus, like the 18th green at Olympic in 1998 or the ninth and 18th greens at Southern Hills in 2001.

By midweek, USGA tournament staff and the grounds crew of superintendent Mark Michaud knew they had a problem. Shinnecock had been honed to bone-dry levels, with the golf course on the edge and the turfgrass lean, mean and fighting for its life. That’s links golf, the way the course was designed. But the seventh green was even dryer and more exposed to wind than the other putting surfaces. With standard practice at Shinnecock during tournament week to double-cut the greens at 1/8th of an inch each morning and afternoon, then roll them with a 450-pound unit, the greens were fast (Stimpmeter speeds of 12.5) and hard.

To keep the seventh from getting too slick, the grounds crew, under orders from senior director of rules and competitions, Tom Meeks, held off rolling that green during the first two rounds.

Things started to get nasty late Saturday when Phil Mickelson and Shigeki Maruyama both sent delicate putts way past the hole - in Maruyama’s case, turning a 15-foot birdie try into a 40-foot chip to save par. That evening, Walter Driver, the chairman of the USGA championship committee, attributed some of the excess speed to what he called an “inadvertent” incident in which the maintenance crew had rolled the green on its own.

While no club officials would speak on the record, Golfweek has learned from extensive interviews that the maintenance crew rolled the green in accordance with instructions from the USGA.

The rolling incident, however, doesn’t come close to accounting for the lightning quickness of the seventh green. There was no rolling on Sunday, and still the green played faster than anyone anticipated. Thursday and Friday had been manageable, thanks to humidity which slowed down the course. But Saturday, the course dried out, and when an arid breeze flared up late Saturday and all day Sunday, the Redan seventh green was not only bone dry but playing straight downwind.

After three of the first four players Sunday (Kevin Stadler, J.J. Henry and Cliff Kresge) made triple bogeys, USGA director of competitions Mike Davis, in conjunction with rules and competitions staff, decided to periodically sprinkle the green to keep the green from going dormant. The practice had been used before on Open courses, including 1977 at Southern Hills and 1994 at Oakmont. But this was one of the few times watering was used to control the speed and playability of a single hole.

The assembled crowd booed the effort, wanting instead to see more train wrecks. The intermittent syringing did have the desired effect of staving off complete disaster, but by day’s end, only 18 percent of the field was able to hit the green in regulation, and for the week, only one-third of the golfers were able to hold the green from the tee. That made it the most elusive putting surface at Shinnecock Hills.

“When you have to hit in the bunker to make par, I don’t think it’s a very good hole,” Jeff Maggert said.

A hole that had played as the ninth-hardest on the course at the 1986 and ‘95 Opens with a combined average score of 3.248 played the second-hardest in 2004, with an average score of 3.413. It yielded 20 birdies for the week, compared with 149 bogeys and 25 double bogeys or worse.

In previous years, the green had been surrounded by trees, but extensive tree removal recently opened this and other Shinnecock holes to the winds. Normally, the seventh hole plays into a moisture-laden headwind coming from the south, where the ocean is. But not during the final round of the 2004 U.S. Open.

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