- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Welcome to American golf’s purist paradise.

Augusta National might epitomize manicured magnificence and major mystique. And Pebble Beach might represent the game’s ultimate marriage of style and substance. But no course in the United States approaches the subtle, spare elegance of Shinnecock Hills, the site of this week’s 104th U.S. Open.

“It’s an absolute gem,” three-time major champion Nick Price said yesterday. “It’s extremely rare for a layout in the States in that nothing about her feels contrived. The course feels discovered, not sculpted. It’s just a brilliant raw test of golf.”

Over the years, golf in the United States has morphed into an ultra-manicured, sharply defined, 7,300-yard, stadium-style aerial circus of railroad ties, island greens and environmentally sensitive areas that the game’s early Scottish practitioners barely would recognize.

But not at Shinnecock Hills, a 6,996-yard, par-70 track whose personality hasn’t changed since Willie Dunn tweaked the original 12-hole plan in 1895 to make Shinnecock just the second 18-hole layout completed in the country. (The first was the Chicago Golf Club). The layout received renovations in 1916 and 1928, but the spirit of Dunn’s original linksland plan has persevered.

A native of Musselburgh, Scotland, and a golf professional (ballmaker and clubmaker) by trade, Dunn was lured to the States by William Vanderbilt and a host of his wealthy New York friends after they “discovered” the game on vacation in Biarritz, France, in 1890. Laying out the course in the fashion of his beloved Scottish links with the help of a crew constituted of Shinnecock Indians, Dunn crafted what remains the closest facsimile to a links course in the United States.

In typical links fashion, water makes only one relatively meaningless appearance on the property in the form of a pair of ponds well short of the green at the par-4 sixth hole. And a handful of greens (Nos.2, 7, 11 and 18) are best attacked by landing punch shots short and relying on gentle releases onto the firm, tiny surfaces. This week the U.S. Golf Association shaved down a number of areas around the greens to accentuate the layout’s links flavor further.

“I have to keep reminding myself I’m in the States,” England’s Justin Rose said yesterday. “Walking around out there, you would swear you’re in the UK. This is a Scottish links — from the strong ocean wind, to the treeless landscape, to the sandy soil, to the firm conditions, to the raw, rolling feel. It’s old-world golf, some would say golf the way it was intended to be played. It even has the century-old history of a classic links straight off the British [Open] rota.”

The quirkiest chapter in that history — and a testament to Shinnecock’s commitment to golf first and society second — is provided by the story of John Shippen. A black apprentice to Dunn and a caddie at the club, Shippen was Shinnecock Hills’ most promising young player when the U.S. Open first came to the Southampton club in 1896.

Both Dunn and the membership encouraged Shippen’s participation in the Open, while a number of players, mostly foreign, protested his inclusion and threatened a boycott on the eve of the event. But then-USGA president Theodore Havemeyer refused to yield to the protesters and included Shippen in the draw. Shippen played expertly in the 36-hole, single-day event (78-81) and would have challenged eventual champion James Foulis (78-74) had he not taken an 11 on No.13 in his afternoon round. As it was, Shippen’s tie for fifth in the event earned him the head pro job at Aronomink in Philadelphia, making him the first American-born golf pro.

“It’s hard to believe how much golf regressed from that point with the caucasian-only clause [of the PGA Tour] and what not,” Tour veteran Jay Haas said yesterday. “It fits this place, though. You get the feeling the caliber of your golf has always been the only measure of status around here.”

That certainly will be the case this week as 156 of the game’s best have assembled on the tip of Long Island to scrap over the season’s second major. Interestingly, the Open returned to Shinnecock only twice since 1896. But both times, Shinnecock bestowed its laurels on perhaps the grittiest competitor in the field.

In 1986, Ray Floyd became the oldest Open champion at 43, staring down a final-round slew of contenders that included Greg Norman, Chip Beck, Lanny Wadkins, Jack Nicklaus, Payne Stewart, Hal Sutton, Lee Trevino and Ben Crenshaw. And in 1995, diminutive Corey Pavin fought off Norman with a final-hole four-wood that rates as one of the best clutch shots in golf history.

“The second I hit it, I knew it was going to be good, so I had to run up that hill and watch it land,” Pavin said yesterday of the soft draw he executed perfectly into the wind from 209 yards. “I knew it had to land just short and bounce on to be perfect, and it did. That’s the thing about this course. If that ball carries 10 yards farther and lands on the green, it probably bounces over, and I’m making bogey … Every shot around here has to be so precise, perfectly shaped and carried with the wind and contours in mind. I’m obviously partial, but I think it’s the ultimate test.”

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