6,530 yards, 134 slope from the Green tees
It was the kind of cold that you didn’t realize just how cold until the warm comfort of inside began to lightly defrost you. As we finished up and came into the clubhouse, a quiet fire lapping away in the corner, it dawned on me it was amusingly cold. Just enough to feel accomplished when outside for some spell of time. We sat down at a table by the windows and were waited on. It was quiet, only a couple tables occupied. So quiet that you could hear the charming croak of wood as those walked from this room to that. While we began to talk about our foray that morning, my gaze was drawn to the distance of the horizon. The sounds of those speaking faded away. The auburn fescue dancing delightfully amongst the rich green and beachy sand while National Golf Links came into view, then the bay behind. Then the sky with its vast foamy clouds floating with purpose to who knows where. The beauty was intoxicating, has been this way for centuries, millenniums really. My mind began to wander as my brief moment with such splendor went on. Those that came before, those custodians, ensuring all of this remains for us and those after us. The fescue danced on as my thoughts drifted to the brilliance beyond.
The Shinnecock Indian Nation long ago inhabited the hills that sit just inland, beset on either side by Peconic Bay to the North and (the now named) Shinnecock Bay to the South. The hills provided shelter from the wind that would run through and over the area while the bays and tidal pools were an ample food source. The “people of the stony shore” realized the value this land held back then, as well as the waterways. Many of them were sailors and fishermen. Some, heroes. In 1876, ten of the Shinnecock died while trying to save a sinking ship off East Hampton.
The Nation helped build this golf course and in tribute, it is named after them while its emblem is that of a Shinnecock Chief.
The course initially opened in 1891 as twelve holes designed by Willie Davis, who was the club professional from Royal Montreal at that time. Davis convinced the founders that the land in the hills away from the sea was better for links as opposed to that closer to the water. The Shinnecock Indian Nation helped build it and within a few months, the course was completed. Much different than what we see today, it was rigidly geometric and utilitarian with its holes. It was heralded as innovative at the time for how it was built and its features. Interestingly, a windmill was placed just beside the line of play at the First.
Much of the history of the course here is from “The Nature Faker,” which is a very well written and comprehensive look at William Flynn and his work by Wayne Morrison. The book shows just how influential Flynn was and far-reaching his work became and I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in golf course design for its wealth of insight.
1892 was also when the clubhouse was designed by Stanford White. It still stands today and is the oldest clubhouse in the United States. In 1893, a nine-hole women’s golf course was built, which was the first in America. Women have always been welcome at the club.
In 1894, Willie Dunn added six more holes to Davis’ twelve to round it out to eighteen. Dunn was an English professional golfer responsible for courses such as Springdale (Princeton’s course but his iteration is NLE), Apawamis, Royal Montreal, Philadelphia Country Club and the Shinnecock Ladies Course. Dunn then went on to win the first but unofficial U.S. Open at the newly completed course that he helped renovate the very same year he did this work. Dunn followed the style started by Davis, which stood in stark contrast to the surrounding terrain. In 1896, the first official U.S. Open events were held here; the Open and Amateur. Among the competitors of the Amateur was John Shippen, the first player of color to compete in a U.S. Open event, who finished Fifth. His mother was a Shinnecock Indian. Shippen is also believed to be the first U.S. born golf professional. The lower scores of these events prompted the membership to decide on wholesale changes to the course to make it more challenging. These changes, which included lengthening, were completed in 1897.
The club is one of the five founding members of the USGA. It is the only club to host a U.S. Open in each century since the Nineteenth (1896, 1986, 1995, 2004, 2018).
The course remained in the limelight through the turn of the century. Towards the close of the first decade of that new century, however, the greens and fairways of the National Golf Links of America began to take form, which opened in 1908. No longer the only kid on the block, it only took a few years for membership to hire C.B. Macdonald to impart substantial changes to the course, with Seth Raynor implementing his engineering expertise. Macdonald was a member of Shinnecock Hills anyways, so was involved in the club’s internal discussions and evaluations of where the work should take them. This included obtaining new land and abandoning existing holes near some railroad tracks. Ultimately, five of the original holes were retained while Macdonald designed thirteen new ones. The work was completed in 1916, opening for play in 1917.
The Macdonald iteration of the course included several template holes including the Short, Biarritz, Eden, Redan, Cape and Road holes. This iteration remained for about ten years until it was learned that a new highway was being constructed in conflict with the course. Additional land was purchased in anticipation of the highway while the design firm of Toomey & Flynn was retained to undergo yet another substantial re-design of the course.
It’s worth noting at this point how many completely different versions this course had undergone even in its first twenty years of existence. On different parcels of land, with different designers and in different styles. It’s really a remarkable journey that shows how significant design evolution can be, and some times how necessary it can be to move on from original design intent.
One of the conditions of the project was that eighteen holes would always be open for play during construction. That meant Flynn would work on the holes in clusters. He started with twelve new holes on the new land, which include the current existing back nine. Ensuring there was a fusion of new and existing holes in play, Flynn then started in on his re-design of Macdonald’s holes, which included most on the front nine as well as the Eighteenth. It’s interesting to note that the club had Flynn’s re-design plans evaluated by Charles Hugh Alison to achieve an endorsement of sorts. The written evaluation is fascinating for its straightforward analysis, unencumbered by any concerns usually reserved for writings published to the public. Alison ultimately concluded that Flynn’s plans, “are as good as can be made on this site and that the proposed course will prove to the of the first order.”
Flynn’s design is what perseveres today. His use of the land and its elements was meticulous and nothing short of brilliant. That land, which was mesmerizing me at lunch, consists of varied hills each with their own identity with assorted knolls and slopes transitioning the higher areas with the low. The sandy terrain has been shaped this way by those winds, which have rushed about these lands for thousands of years. Flynn recognized the prevalence of the wind and assured that the holes were set in varying directions against it by triangulation, which grouped the holes in sets of three. The triangulated holes faced the prevailing wind in different configurations so that it would affect each hole in the group in a particular way. While Seth Raynor would eventually include triangulation in his designs and land restrictions may have limited him here, this design concept was introduced by Flynn during his work here. Flynn also emphasized bolder dog legs by creating risk reward decisions off the tee and in some instances sharpened the turn and/or moved the tees more to one side or the other. The turns also added more variety to the wind directions of each individual hole and essentially ensures the golfer needs to evaluate it at each shot. As it related to tee shots, Flynn implemented a variety of scenarios off the tee, from elevated down to the low lying floor below, to those gently climbing back up one or more of the hills. A design accounting for all of the area’s natural elements; the wind, the hills, the rolling land – was finally in place.
The course features undulating fairways of fescue that have the ball running about and emphasize the importance of placing the shot off the tee. There are no trees really, which adds to the links style and subjects each shot to the whims of the wind. What stood out is how many ways the golfer can play each hole, whether by air or ground and in a multitude of lines and angles. The wind ensures a vast array of shots and clubs are needed to negotiate the hills and slopes. The front nine is mainly set on the lower lying land, which is more subtle and only the more experienced will know where the strength of movement is on the fairways and greens. The back nine contrasts nicely in the hills, where a higher degree of exaltation and despair await, with more decisions and temptation to take on hazards and angles the golfer should perhaps reconsider. It exuded links but with the hills and terrain, was refined in its own distinct style as great courses are wont to do. Ben Hogan said of Shinnecock, “Each hole is different and requires a general amount of skill to play properly. You know exactly where to shoot and the distance is easy to read. All in all, I think Shinnecock is one of the finest courses I have played.”
I was not ready for the sophistication of the challenge, how subtle it was amidst some very forthright visuals of the hills and bunkers. A strong wind met us the entire round and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Very much a links play in classic American prose, the club reached that deeper shade of soul that makes me sleep better from here on. There will be times when the golfer is at his ball on what seems like a harmless enough area and lie, or even on a spot of the green, only to realize they are completely dead as their ball lands and darts away, getting lost forever in the hills. I mentioned above it’s American links in the finest sense and the push and pull between direct presentation with complex undertones was nothing short of moving.
Without outright commanding you to do so, Shinnecock requires the best of you. The golfer learns a lot about himself out there as he begins to understand there will be times he either hits the shot at hand or he will suffer defeat. Never by intimidation or fear; that would be too direct and really, uncivil. I was able to rise to the occasion when needed, a culmination of my journey finally seizing upon the opportunity for glory. Some of the best shots I ever hit in fact. And if those shots were not hit, disaster was likely the alternative, which certainly greeted me a couple times during the round for good measure. The presentation of the challenge is something I’ve never encountered before. Instead of sheer intensity and perspicuous terms, the course strings you along, so as the golfer reaches his own conclusions, avoiding any untoward imposition on the matter.
The vibrancy of the hills, the contrast between fairway and auburn fescue, the splendid clubhouse lulling with comfort, resting on the hill in peaceful refinement, with the genius of the course every where; it was the highlight of the season and certainly a moment of spiritual zenith in my golfing crusade.
We were the first tee time of the morning so it was early as I drove over to the course. Finally on the road that ultimately led to Flynn’s re-design, there was a surprising amount of traffic on it as the line of cars behind me were all waiting to go much faster than I was. This caused me to miss the turn for the club and drive down the hill, where the course is on either side. I was almost glad for this glimpse of the hills as I finally turned around and made my way back up the hill. It seemed to make its own introduction, as if to say “cannot wait to make your acquaintance.” A while later on the First tee with the course stretched out below I silently acknowledged back, “me as well.” I then topped my tee shot.
The First is a 388 yard par 4 (from the Green tees). “Westward Ho.” The opening tee is a grand entrance, the course set out before the golfer as his tee shot bounds high above it before coming down gently to the fairway. A dog leg right with a few bunkers set along the right up to the green, the fairway flows right into the green. A simple enough presentation yet the tee shot is the first of many decisions in figuring out how much of the turn to take on. Then at the approach, the movement of the green takes hold of the ball swiftly. The green was installed by Flynn, who also changed the hole shape from straight on into a dog leg.
The Second is a 197 yard par 3. “Plateau.” A longer uphill par 3 confounded by how the wind is running. Bunkers short left signal a bail out short right while a bunker further on to the right suggests a straight shot to the green or shaping over the bunkers on either side. It’s a hearty shot early on that shakes the golfer to his senses. It is time.
The Third is a 440 yard par 4. “Peconic.” The tees we played were set to the left of the fairway while I believe those forward of us are more to center. Our tees were installed by Flynn that incorporated more of an angle into this fairway, where a hoard of bunkers short left will need to be carried to reach. Selecting the right line off the tee is always a careful decision, even more so when I noticed the front right portion of the fairway has a hidden swale that arrests balls in place. The fairway gently climbs to the green, mostly all of it transitioning over. A ground based approach seemed natural here as the green moves right to left.
The Fourth is a 378 yard par 4. “Pump House.” As we turn around, the clubhouse comes into view and becomes a welcome guiding post throughout the round. We head back in its direction, a wide open fairway straight out, bunkers on the right. A hard dog leg right, getting as close to those bunkers with the tee shot allows an ideal approach, as a quartet of bunkers is to the left of the green and come into play the more left the tee shot. The green location so far off to the right with the bunker placement close to the green invites an assortment of approaches in, which is further determined by the wind. Where the ball will go after it lands on the approach is vital. As Morrison puts it, “the green is elevated with a complexity of slopes that puts a premium on experience or an ability to read subtle greens.”
The Fifth is a 500 yard par 5. “Montauk.” The first par 5 features a choice of fairways off the tee. The right is the shorter, safer option while the left continues to the green and provides a more clear cut second shot. Bunkers surround the start of the left fairway short and both sides, all of which must be avoided to reach the fairway from the tee. A large bunker on the right complicates the second and approach shots as it narrows the fairway leading to the green. Once we move past it, however, the green complex opens up, slightly raised and sloping down on all sides with a sole green side bunker front right. So long as the wind is right, one can get in the proximity of the green and deal with the slopes and terrain movement for the third while others may be satisfied to pace their shots for a manageable shot in.
The Sixth is a 418 yard par 4. “Pond.” Another dual fairway option off the tee, this time the left side is more conservative while the right must carry native space then a large waste area before reaching the fairway. As a par 4 you don’t have the extra shot you did on the hole prior so whatever choice off the tee dramatically impacts the approach. Those opting for an easier tee shot will be left with a longer approach that must carry bunkers and water, which resides a little under 100 yards from the right to the right of the fairway. The fairway sweeps around this water perpendicular to the green, providing a bail out short of the green for those out of position. The green falls off in the front so the approach must be assured while a larger bunker below and left of the green is in wait.
The Seventh is a 178 yard par 3. “Redan.” The green lies there sleek and smooth, moving from right to left, cavernous bunkers at the front right and front left. The front is left open but slopes steeply to the green. The high right side is clearly the desired landing spot. I watched as my shot turned and landed into the left bunker but my caddie assured me that was actually a good spot to be. He wasn’t wrong. I was able to get out, then watch as my shot tracked back towards the hole for a manageable putt for par. I watched as others in my group landed on the green yet above the pin struggled to get the ball close to the hole. Some Redan holes have large sloping side bars that the golfer can throw their ball against and see what may. Others require a much higher degree of precision and care in managing the terrain in fascinating complexion. This is the latter. Alison’s comment on this hole is rather apt, “Quite a difficult hole, and unlike the other three.”
The Eighth is a 354 yard par 4. “Lowlands.” We have looped around the lower part of the course and start our final approach to the clubhouse to close out the front nine. Like the Fourth that likewise runs towards the clubhouse, there are bunkers to the right that the tee shot is rewarded for getting as close as possible to with a shorter approach in. I actually liked the approach angle from the left instead, however, because it’s away from the bunkers albeit a little longer. The green is set to the right and there’s a wide entry point as the green is raised a bit from the fairway.
The Ninth is a 410 yard par 4. “Ben Nevis.” The clubhouse, that Northern star, is now closer. From the tee, the fairway heads straight out before seemingly branching off to the left and right. The right side is more of a spill off area while the left side is the path to the green. Teasing up the hill upon which the clubhouse sits, our attention finally drifts upward to finally notice the green, high above. Bunkers are within the hillside to collect those approaches that have fallen short. Having to hit a recovery shot for my second, my ball rested at the foot of the hill while the sun shined down on the pin. I confidently hit my wedge up the hill to a few feet for an up and down par. My caddie seemed impressed. That made two of us.
The green site is a spectacular finish to the front nine and makes for one of the more harrowing approaches on the course up that hill.
The front nine lingers about the lower land before coming back up to the clubhouse a few paces from the opening tee. Every hole shined while the greens were their own game of wits. My ranking of them would be 7, 2, 9, 5, 3, 4, 6, 1, 8.
As we walked off the Ninth green, my caddie remarked, “now the fun begins.” I couldn’t wait, as I was already having a blast.
The back nine starts with the 406 yard par 4 Tenth. “Eastward Ho.” Teeing off on the other side of the clubhouse across Tuckahoe Road, it used to be the First hole until the nines were reversed. The tee shot is one of the rare blind shots as the golfer hits its over the ridge in view at which point the ball moves to parts unknown. Down and to the right is the likely pattern as the fairway sweeps in that direction before climbing back up to the green. While the first bunkers on either side collect errant tee shots, the other bunkers seem to be placed more for shots that run into them as opposed to fly in, positioned among the terrain accordingly. The green site is on top of the hill with a lot of short grass behind it. My approach was well hit but released off and on to this rear area, leaving me with a precarious shot that if overdone, would end up off the front of the green and down the hill. I was able to get it to a few feet for par, once again summoning whatever pittance of skills are rattling around in my game and using it at the right time. It’s indeed a tough green to hold, emphasizing the sleekness of the terrain that becomes more prevalent on the back nine.
The Eleventh is a 150 yard par 3. “Hill Head.” The shortest hole on the course is upon us but plays longer based on being above the tee and of course however the wind is blowing. Bunkers are to the right of the green as well as one short left. The green is on the smaller side and I found to be one of the quicker out there. As you crest the hill upon which it sits, the wind greets you forcefully, which adds to the drama of the putt. Widely considered one of the best shorter par 3’s in the world and one I was looking forward to playing, it requires deftness of touch and harmony with the elements.
The Twelfth is a 427 yard par 4. “Tuckahoe.” The views from the tee are glorious. A moment of exhilaration to enjoy before moving on. The fairway begins down the hill to the left while bunkers on the right must be carried to reach the fairway down below on that side while it’s the same on the left. It’s a testy tee shot but must be pulled off for a manageable approach. That approach crosses over Tuckahoe Road, which is part of the course I saw on the drive prior to the round. There are an array of bunkers on either side after the road leading up to the green, all of it ramping up from the fairway. My approach ended up short and a low running shot in was in order, which seemed receipting before trailing off a bit in another direction, victim to the wonderful movement of the green.
The Thirteenth is a 360 yard par 4. “Road Side.” The tee shot goes back over Tuckahoe Road to an angles fairway that runs from left to right. There are fairway bunkers that must be contended with from the tee. The golfer can decide how much of them to take on or steer away from them to the left, which will leave a long approach in. Those bolder off the tee that find the fairway will have a shorter approach. With the movement of the green, coming in from the right side seems preferable because the falls off to the right, so approaches from the left could release and find their way off and down into a collection area. So there is good reason to take on the bunkers from the tee and get as right as possible for the approach. Long is no good here, with the road, bushes and everything else.
The Fourteenth is a 445 yard par 4. “Thom’s Elbow.” The rear tees were next to the old pro shop where Charlie Thom worked as the pro for 55 years. The first four holes of the back are a nice loop back to the clubhouse but now we head away from it again. The hillside on the right comes down and meets the fairway and along with the bunkering on that side, the golfer must once again figure out his ideal angle off the tee to move over it to the fairway. The left side is more visible but a short left bunker makes a shorter tee shot less desirable than on the hole prior.
The hole brought a transition of sorts to the course in my mind. Perhaps it was the hillside on the right above us being one of the first times I could remember being encumbered to some extent from the horizon but it’s likely that I felt the movement from the higher hills back down to lower terrain and the fairway within a natural valley. A bridge of sorts from one to the other. The green is that of a saucer tilted towards the fairway, which encouraged running shots in for those so inclined.
The Fifteenth is a 400 yard par 4. “Sebonac.” Now moving in the same direction as the Twelfth, the tee shot is likewise elevated to the fairway with a clear demarcation of an easier landing area, although many will opt for a bit further to hit the ridge and get the ball to descend from it. The fairway bunkers on the right can also be taken on in this regard. Turning down and to the right, the fairway narrows as it swirls back to the left where it surrounds the green while bunkers flank its front and left. Most approaches will need to be aerial over the bunkers while those out of position on the right may be able to take advantage of the entry point on that side for an easier pitch to the hole.
The Sixteenth is a 512 yard par 5. “Shinnecock.” The fairway S curves to and fro on its way to the green while bunkers cover every turn. The terrain tilts in different directions in accordance with the turns, seemingly towards the bunkers. The shots up to the green are cantankerously bounce and scatter about, defiantly darting into the comfort of one bunker or the other. Bunkers then seem to strengthen their numbers at the green, most of them short and left. Like the hole prior, the fairway curls around the green so there’s room at the rear, which also allows balls to fall off on that side. A bit uphill all the way, it’s a true three-shotter.
The Seventeenth is a 167 yard par 3. “Eden.” The deep angled green is framed on either side by bunkers. The entry point is refuge from them, at which point the second shot will need to run some more to the pin. Wind dictates how to go about the tee shot and negotiating those bunkers to get to the meat of the green. This finishes the set of par 3’s, which are all distinct from the other. Here, the distance is inviting while the angles and configuration of bunkers are more subtle in their challenge than the other three.
The Eighteenth is a 400 yard par 4. “Home.” A dog leg left, bunkers are along the left until the Ninth fairway on the right merges in, similar to the arm of the First branching in to the left side of the Ninth. At that point there are bunkers are at the elbow of the turn on the right side, which is close to the green. The dog leg is really at this point as the turn left is strong. The green sits in a hollow and is fairly flat yet brimming with subtle undulations and a general right to left, back to front overtone. It’s a restful site for a final hole, remarkable for how complete the round feels as the golfers stalk their closing shots.
The back nine is an instant favorite. In how the routing presents and sequentializes the terrain, in how the green sites vary from one to the other and in how comprehensive the demands are on the golfer. My ranking of them is 10, 11, 14, 18, 16, 17, 12, 13, 15.
Generally, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club is one of the finest renditions of a golf course that can be found. The consummate incorporation of every natural element in a setting ideal for the game provides exceptional character and utopia for the soul of sport.
Eventually my gaze upon the land lifted and my attention was brought back into the room with the others. Affirmed and at peace, fortunate for a life with days like this. And then, I dived into a dissertation with my group defending the necessity of that topped tee shot on the First.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The clubhouse is a marvel unto itself. It sits atop the hills in just the right cadence of enhancing the charm of the natural surrounds while a beacon of guidance and tradition to the golfer on the course and off. The pro shop is being updated and remodeled, which I believe will be opened this season.
Practice area: Just as it should be.