Some courses seem to hold up forever, even at levels as lofty as major national championship sites. Shinnecock Hills, site of the 104th U.S. Open on June 17-20, is one of them. It has been in the national spotlight since its founding in 1891, it played host to its first U.S. Open five years later and has been basically unchanged in length and playing character for more than 70 years.
If there’s a current “retro” movement in golf design that celebrates classic courses and their restorations, it’s largely attributable to the USGA’s decision to take the U.S. Open back to Shinnecock Hills in 1986 after a 90-year hiatus. That’s when the world’s best players discovered that a golf course doesn’t have to have waterfalls, stadium-style seating and island greens in order to make a lasting impression.
Shinnecock Hills has a disarming simplicity. Only one green (the short par-3 11th) is bunkered in front. All the rest are wide open to low-slung approaches. Power is less important off the tee than simply being in a safe spot on the fairway. The par-70 course plays to a maximum length of 6,996 yards (slope 140 / rating 74.8), though the course provides plenty for most golfers at the standard teeing grounds of 6,248 yards (133 / 71.1).
With winds regularly howling at 20 to 30 mph on the far eastern end of Long Island, a round of golf here often is a matter of staying in play and avoiding disaster. The thick rough – with 3-plus-inch-deep ryegrass, bluegrass and fescue framed by wavy, knee-high blue stem and other native grasses – provides an attractive facade to the underlying terror.
Shinnecock Hills started as a 12-hole layout in 1891, designed by Willie Davis, and was soon expanded to an 18-hole layout by Willie Dunn. In 1916, Charles Blair Macdonald was aided by the Southampton town surveyor, Seth Raynor, in creating a new 18-hole layout. In 1931, Howard C. Toomey and William S. Flynn rerouted much of the course onto an expansive parcel to the north to make way for a new railway line and highway on the south end of the property. Along the way, they managed to incorporate a handful of Macdonald-Raynor holes as the present second green and Nos. 3, 7 (Redan), 8, 9 and 18.
The course occupies an ideal site – 256 acres, most of it well-draining sand, with 35 feet of elevation change and nary a level fairway lie. Trees dot the site but don’t affect main lines of play. The fairway bunkers are staggered on diagonal lines and thus offer numerous inventive angles of play off the tee rather than some military forced march down the middle between hazards left and right.
The greens, averaging 5,700 square feet, comprise a healthy mix of bentgrass and Poa annua and offer subtle, not sudden, rolls on every putt.
If only modern course design could keep things this basic and elegant.