- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2004

Miguel Angel Jimenez was on the cutting edge of technology when the U.S. Open last came to Shinnecock Hills. He was among four players in the 156-man field who hit a driver made of titanium, the hottest new product on the market.

Tom Lehman, who held a share of the 54-hole lead, was one of 18 players using a wooden driver (yes, they really did make golf clubs out of wood once upon a time). Most everyone else had drivers made of stainless steel in 1995, although even those are now novelties.

“My little pea with a toothpick stuck in it,” is how Nick Price referred to his old driver.

The technology boom was just getting started about the time Corey Pavin left Shinnecock Hills with his first major championship, clinched by hitting a 228-yard shot with a Cleveland VAS 4-metal into the 18th green.

Now, some are curious how the 113-year-old course, which has added just 80 yards since the ‘95 U.S. Open, will hold up against today’s game and its bigger drivers, better golf balls and well-conditioned players.

“We’ve seen so much difference even from 2000,” Kenny Perry said. “Because with my equipment, the ball is flying straighter and farther and more accurate into the crosswinds than it did back then. I’m anxious to go back there, to tell you the truth. That course beat me up. And I’ll be hitting it a lot farther and straighter.”

Change is difficult to measure year to year, especially in different weather.

Ernie Els alarmed some purists by hitting 400-yard drives at Kapalua, winning the 2003 Mercedes Championships at 31 under. A year later under soft, stiller conditions, he never reached the bottom of the hill on the same par 5, and the winning score was nine shots higher.

It has been nine years since players last saw Shinnecock Hills, and change might be more noticeable.

Titleist had just come out with a new golf ball — the Professional, a wound ball with a more durable cover that kept it from being easily cut. Most players still used the Tour Balata, another wound ball. Now, wound golf balls are all but obsolete, replaced by three- and four-piece balls with complex dimple patterns.

Equipment has gone so high-tech that computerized launch monitors can optimize distance and control by matching players’ swing and spin rate with the best shaft, loft, lie and type of ball.

And the players? Greg Norman and Nick Faldo no longer have the gym to themselves.

“Every time we go back to classic major courses, we look and see how much equipment has changed the style of the golf course,” Price said. “I think Shinnecock will be the same way.”

Els was using a Titleist Tour Balata ball, a Callaway War Bird driver and the Lynx Boom Boom 3-metal when he played Shinnecock Hills in 1995, where he missed the cut.

“It will be interesting to see how the first hole plays,” Els said about where the new equipment might make a difference. “I would think we can really take it over the right side, bump it over there. The par 3 [No.[ThSp]2], a long par 3, could be a lot different. We might be hitting a lot of irons, which I’m not against.”

The 72-hole record in the U.S. Open is 272, first set by Jack Nicklaus at Baltusrol in 1980 and matched by Lee Janzen in 1993 at the same course. It was tied twice in the last four years, by Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach and Jim Furyk at Olympia Fields.

“It seems like forever that everybody was using wood, but it wasn’t that long ago,” said 50-year-old Jay Haas, who used wooden clubs at Shinnecock in ‘95. “If the guys go nuts there and shoot 10 under par, they’ll go, ‘Wow! Something has to give.’ But I seriously doubt that’s going to happen. If the wind blows a little bit, even par will still be a good score. If the wind blows, I don’t see too many guys breaking par.”

Indeed, Shinnecock Hills might be a good gauge of a different sort.

Despite enormous gains in distance — nine players averaged more than 300 yards off the tee last year, led by Hank Kuehne at 321.4 — scoring records are not being shattered. Nineteen of the first 22 PGA Tour events were won with scores of 13 under or lower. This year, only 13 tournaments fall into that category.

Strong wind (MCI Heritage, Houston), difficult greens (Honda Classic, Wachovia) and firm conditions (Players Championship, Byron Nelson) keep scores down. The U.S. Open has all that and more.

Aside from Bethpage Black two years ago, won by Tiger Woods and dominated primarily by big hitters, the U.S. Open neutralizes power as much as any other tournament.

Shinnecock Hills is only 6,996 yards and plays to a par 70. None of the par 4s is longer than 480 yards. Both par 5s are about 540 yards. Par is still considered a good score.

“I think Shinnecock is going to prove to the world that you can have a golf course under 7,000 yards and still test them,” said Tom Meeks, the senior director of rules and competition who has been setting up U.S. Open courses since 1975 at Medinah. “If you look at this yardage and think this is a piece of cake, you’re going to be in for a big surprise.”

John Cook played the 1986 and the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, and he is an alternate this time around. He has seen it enough to know that even the most modern equipment is of little value unless used properly.

“This will be a good gauge, but it also will show people that there are Shinnecocks and Harbour Towns where 6,900 yards is very competitive,” Cook said. “You throw away a yardage book. It doesn’t matter how far you hit it. If you don’t hit it in the fairway … you’ll look stupid.”

Shinnecock Hills and Pebble Beach are about the only two U.S. Open venues where wind is all but certain. The rough is higher and thicker than in any other U.S. venue.

“I played there with the new stuff,” Davis Love III said. “For me, it’s not that much different because I was hitting 300 [yards] with the wooden drivers. I think it shows that the guys that have won there have been real shotmakers. It’s not really a power course. And that’s not going to change.”

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