“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”
The United States Golf Association has heeded the words spoken over 200 years ago by Franklin, one of our founding fathers. In preparation for the 118th playing of the United States Open, which starts today for the fifth time at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, the USGA has made some major changes to the iconic course. This will be the fifth time Shinnecock has hosted the U.S. Open, and it’s the only course to have done so in three different centuries.
“We wanted to bring changes to help restore the golf course back to its original intent when it was redesigned by William Flynn in the late 1920s,” course superintendent Jon Jennings said during a media tour of the course.
So, what changes have been made at Shinnecock? The clubhouse, built in 1894, is the oldest golf clubhouse in America and was designed by renowned architect Stanford White. The stately building has undergone an entire renovation that took three years to complete.
Restoration of the course began in 2012. Ten tee locations were changed, 270 sprinkler heads were relocated, more than 200,000 square feet of turf was moved, seven acres were resodded and the greens were restored to their original size. “We researched documents and drawings we have in the clubhouse to learn the original size of the greens,” said Jennings.
Some fairways were tightened, but even with the tightening, this year’s Open will have the widest fairways ever played. “They wound up much wider than we wanted for a United States Open Championship, so we tried to strike a middle ground,” said Jeff Hall, managing director of rules and open championships for the USGA. “We try to provide the ultimate test of golf for the best players in the world. By changing the tee locations of 10 tees, we have added a key element required to win a major championship, driving accuracy.”
Hall continued: “Shinnecock Hills is neighbor to another historic golf club, National Golf Links of America. From the newly located third tee, which requires a pinpoint drive, the ball will actually travel over National Golf Links airspace for a few seconds.”
Sixteen of the 18 holes are now visible from the clubhouse as a result of the removal of many trees. When asked how many were removed, no definitive answer could be extracted from the USGA or club officials. They referred to it as “deforesting,” adding that much underbrush was also removed.
On the final day of the 2004 U.S. Open, held at Shinnecock, Mother Nature created a situation many still recall. With a howling wind coming out of the southwest, the course quickly dried out, especially the green on the par-3 seventh hole which had to be watered during play.
“You don’t want to be remembered for something that is perceived as negative,” said Darin Bevard, director of agronomy for the USGA. “I get around, and when we talk about Shinnecock, it’s the same question: ‘Oh, you’re not going to have what happened in 2004?’ No, we will not.” Hall added, “That will not happen again,” mentioning a device by TruFirm that measures green firmness and was developed after the 2004 tournament. “If we don’t get all 72 holes of the championship right, we haven’t done our job.”
USGA chief executive officer Mike Davis said: “What really happened was just a lack of water. There just wasn’t enough water and the grass went dormant. It was a bogey last time, maybe a double bogey.”
Bevard said the removal of trees has provided good sunlight and air movement, resulting in less maintenance to the grass, keeping it “healthy and happy.”
“Shinnecock Hills is one of the original five charter member clubs of the USGA,” Pete Kowalski, director of USGA communications, said. “The U.S. Open is our Super Bowl.”
Davis called Shinnecock a national golf treasure. “It is one of the most important places of golf in the United States,” he said.
Tournament general chairman and longtime club member Jack Curtin said it best: “This is sacred land in the world of golf. We treat it with great respect.”
How to get there. If you plan to attend the U.S. Open, be aware there will not be any public parking at the golf course. Attendees can take the Hampton Jitney from Manhattan. Public parking will be available at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, with shuttle buses running to Shinnecock Hills. The Long Island Railroad will provide increased service on the Montauk line the week of the tournament. Schedules can be found at mta.info/lirr as well as usopen.com.
Photo caption: Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton.