When I think of Shinnecock Hills, two words come to mind: "national treasure." As a researcher and golfer who has dedicated nearly four decades of his life to developing swing- and course-management strategies to help players shoot better scores, it remains the ultimate test — if you can outthink this place, you can outthink anyplace. I paid a visit to the William Flynn masterpiece last fall, walking the fairways with my son, Eddie, and even playing a few shots. It was as vexing as ever.
The goal of my visit was to paint a picture of the challenges that await the best players in the world so you can better appreciate the drama sure to unfold before your eyes during the playing of the 118th U.S. Open, whether you're there in person or catching it on TV. Even among its major-venue brethren, Shinnecock stands alone in its ability to squeeze every ounce of shotmaking savvy and heart from players' games — a test hardwired into the course's layout, the slope and contour of the greens and the ever-present wind. When these elements combine — and you can bet they will — watch out.
It's not all purgatory. Many of Shinnecock's greens are downright friendly, with raised edges that funnel shots toward the center of the putting surface. Most, however, are shaped to repel shots away from the flagstick and, in some cases, off the green entirely. Be advised: every green features serious undulation. A few are so sloped that it's impossible to imagine the ball stopping on its own.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Shinnecock's greens run faster than Flynn originally intended. Shortly after he redesigned the course in 1931 (Shinnecock dates back to 1891), the USGA began measuring how fast and far balls rolled on level putting surfaces, calling the measurement "green speed." At that time, Shinnecock's greens measured in the 4- to 5-foot range, and even then they were considered outrageously sloped, severely undulating and very difficult to putt. Come this June 14, these same greens will roll at 12-foot green-speeds, requiring the most deft green reading and putting touches on earth. Good luck, fellas.
ENTER THE ELEMENTS
Few trees exist on the course to hinder the free movement of heavy air from Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, to say nothing about the neighboring waters of Hampton, Mecox and Bullhead bays (and the smaller Cold Spring, Old Fort, Middle and Far ponds). It's not unusual for Shinnecock Hills to be swept by strong and gusting winds. What makes the design unusual is the way Flynn laid out the course to incorporate the breeze as a significant part of its challenge. Raymond Floyd, who grabbed his lone U.S Open here in 1986, recently tipped me off to this Shinnecock secret. If you moved every hole in situ so that each tee box originated at the clubhouse, you'd discover how Shinnecock forces you to play toward all points on the compass. Regardless of which way it's blowing, players must deal with the wind at their backs, in their faces and from the left and right in almost equal amounts. "Genius," says Floyd, and I agree with him. More than any other major venue on American soil, Shinnecock requires those who play it decipher the effects of the wind on every single shot, independently. In other words, Shinnecock plays no favorites.
No. 2 (258-yd par 3 / '04 scoring average: +.26)
It says: "Nice par on No. 1. I hope you enjoyed it. I'm not that easy."
Shinnecock opens with a wide and fairly benign 399-yard par 4 (it played as the fourth-easiest hole during the 2004 U.S. Open). Then it slaps you in the face. Hard. No. 2 is a 250-yard-plus par 3 with sand on both sides of the green and serious rough in play off the left. The green is the second-largest on the course, with a consistent elevation drop of four feet from back to front (though mild undulations help channel shots toward the center of the green). Depending on the wind direction, don't be surprised to see some players swing driver here. It's an absolute beast.
For fun, I walked to where PGA Tour ShotLink data says is the average miss distance on a shot taken by a Tour player from 260 yards of the target — about the yardage players will face in the Open on No. 2. This miss pattern puts the ball in the deep rough next to the bunker left of the green. This is not where you want to be, especially during a major. To prove it, I threw six balls into the grass in this area during my fall visit; the photo at right shows the only time I was able to lash the ball onto the green (and it eventually rolled off the back). That's right — I pulled an "o-fer." I left three of the six shots in the rough and dribbled one into the bunker. The remaining ball? I assume it's still burrowed somewhere deep in the fescue. I never found it.
The tall grass at Shinnecock — here and all over the course — can be so severe that I've discussed with some players heading into this year's Open the usually unthinkable option of taking an unplayable-lie penalty and dropping within two club-lengths if and when they find such a nasty patch of grass. As absurd as this idea may sound, my experience proves it a viable, shot-saving strategy.
No. 4 (475-yd par 4 / '04 scoring average: +.326)
It says: "Let's play links golf."
No. 4 is a slight dogleg right with a welcoming look off the tee. No matter which way or how hard the wind blows, players will find getting their second shot on the green a breeze — the opening to the putting surface is about as wide as you'll find at Shinnecock. Getting the ball in the hole is the tricky part. The green has only minor contours, but they're there, and they must be read correctly for any shot at birdie.
No. 7 (189-yd par 3 / '04 scoring average: +.41)
It says: "I'm small, but I will break you."
I must warn you: The seventh hole features one of the most wicked green complexes you'll ever find. It'll play anywhere from 175 to 205 yards, and to the largest green on the course. It's a classic Redan — the putting surface slopes away from the tee box, from a high point in the front-right section of the green to seven feet lower in the back-left. Bunkers left and right of the green are there to punish inaccuracy; heaven help the player who finds the sand on the right — he'll face a huge change in elevation to a green running straight downhill from his line of flight. As I said, Shinnecock is beauty and beast.
The two bunkers on the left are much more manageable. From here, you're at least hitting into the slope of the green; unfortunately, it's also tilted severely from right to left. Expect anything but your garden-variety sand shot.
Of course, a lot of players will successfully avoid the trouble and land their tee shots on the green. Even in this scenario, No. 7 can still derail a player's hopes of winning the championship. In fact, you can stick it to four feet and still have problems. The seventh hole at Shinnecock Hills is the ultimate example of why you need to leave approach shots below the hole on severely sloping greens. As you watch the Open, count how many times the players who end up above or right of the pin on No. 7 wind up three-putting. It was a pivotal hole in the 2004 U.S. Open. Expect more of the same this year.
No. 10 (415-yd par 4 / '04 scoring average: +.446)
It says: "Hello. I'm the most difficult hole in U.S. Open history."
Can you believe that a relatively short, downhill 415-yard par 4 — with no water, out-of-bounds or obviously penal hazards — can play as the most-over-par hole in U.S. Open history? It looks so innocuous. You simply lay up 220 yards off the tee to the crest of the hill or roll a 5-wood or hybrid all the way down to the bottom, and then either play a 190-yard 7-iron or 75-yard wedge shot to a nicely sized green. Two-putt for par. It looks — and seems — so simple.
And it can be — under normal circumstances. It's not too difficult if the course is playing soft and slow, despite the fact that the green is seriously sloped, elevated in relation to its surroundings and crowned at two-thirds of the way from the front. Its reputation as a monster stems from the fact that, in 2004, the winds completely dried out the green and made it play extremely firm and fast.
From behind the green, the odds of stopping a return pitch close to the hole are long. In fact, many attempts roll down the front side of the crown, off the green, down the fairway and all the way to the bottom of the hill, 75 yards short of the green — right where the player started from. Madness! More than any other hole, No. 10 rolls all of Shinnecock's mysteries into one: elevation, slope, contour, wind and firm and fast greens.
No. 11 (159-yd par 3 / '04 scoring average: +.258)
It says: "Maybe a birdie–or double-bogey."
From the tee box, the 11th green looks relatively flat. That's because you can't see most of it.
As you can see, the green is high in the back right and has more than four feet of elevation change down to the front-center. The putting surface slopes away from both the left- and right-side bunkers, making it difficult to stop sand shots close to short-sided pins. Taking these slopes into account, players have but a 15- to 20-foot effective landing area, depending on green and wind conditions, from the tee box. It's one of the hardest 160-yard tee shots you can imagine.
This hole will surrender its fair share of birdies, but not to those who find the sand off the tee. The bunkers short and right of the green sit 12 feet below the putting surface. Good luck. The worst miss, however, is long, over the back of the green and down the hill behind it. From back there, and even from the back fringe, the green falls directly away from you — and fast! It's almost not fair.
No. 13 (374-yd par 4 / '04 scoring average: +.33)
It says: "Looks are deceiving."
This hole looks easy but plays downright nasty if the wind is up. From the fairway, the green appears tame. What's difficult to pick up is the severe, extended false front, the substantial runoffs to the right and left (into bunkers, no less), a steep fall-off near the back, and a gentle crown in the middle. Add it all up and players are left with a miniscule effective landing area to stop shots near the flagstick. In 2004, No. 13 — the shortest par 4 on the course — surrendered only 54 birdies in 442 attempts. Missing the green left or right will demand hitting a flop shot for your third — other short-game shots just won't hold the green. And hitting lobs in a gusting wind is no picnic. You can sail long or come up short without notice.
No. 16 (616-yd par 5 / '04 scoring average: -.16)
SAYS: "I've got an 80-foot putt with 40 feet of break waiting for you."
The 16th green is the third-smallest at Shinnecock and falls nearly five feet as it slopes continuously from back to front. Its gentle contouring will yield birdies, and you can expect many of the bigger hitters to go for the green in two. The danger is hitting your approach past the hole. Make this mistake and you'll face one of the most challenging putts you can imagine. From the back-left to a front-right pin, it's a roller-coaster ride. Expect a lot of three-putts.
No. 18 (484-yd par 4 / '04 scoring average: +.312)
It says: "Finish me off — if you can."
Standing on the 18th tee at Shinnecock — with the fairway disappearing beautifully into the distance and the stately clubhouse on the horizon — is one of the singular thrills in golf. As I gazed upon this grand finale, I thought of the players who will be taking in the same view come June 17, a possible United States Open Championship within their grasp. What a moment.
Then it hits you: "Wow, what a tough hole!" At 484 yards, it demands an accurate drive in the fairway and another 200-yard-plus shot uphill to an elevated green. Corey Pavin needed 4-wood to get home in two on No. 18 during the final round in 1995 en route to victory. Today's players are a lot longer than Corey, but so is the hole, and there's only so much you can bite off with your tee shot. The approach remains a bona fide killer.
Even if a player hits two good shots, there's still the matter of sticking your approach in the right spot. Players better hope they're not past or above the hole, or that the ball hasn't rolled into the back fringe or over the green, because it's darn near impossible to stop any pitch shot or putt in the opposite direction.
I attempted this shot during my fall visit to Shinnecock. I softly slipped a wide-open 64-degree wedge under the ball, landing the shot just three feet in front of my lie. I played this shot as well as I could've played it. Then, for the next 25 seconds, I watched the ball slowly amble away from me, down the green and past the hole. It eventually rolled off the front of the green, stopping only after it had traveled 10 yards back down the fairway. Unfair? Maybe. Difficult? Absolutely! But this is the U.S. Open. This is Shinnecock.
THE COURSE ASKS: "Did you listen?"
Of course, my personal answer to the original question is, "Yes, I listened." I obeyed what the slopes, crowns, contours, wind, green firmness and speed asked of me. I've been around the game a long time, yet Shinnecock always teaches me something new. I'm eager to see which pros will do likewise; who will manage the conditions and warnings of Shinnecock while finding a way to maintain confidence. More than anything, I'm anxious to see the course again and its magnificence. The Open doesn't get any better than this.