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Friday, June 11, 2004
Updated: June 14, 2:35 PM ET
Shinnecock Hills has its own qualities

By Dave Anderson
Golf Digest

As you drive "out East," as Long Islanders say, on Montauk Highway toward Southampton, you can't miss it. Suddenly it's up there at the top of the hill to the left, all by itself against the horizon -- Shinnecock Hills' white-trimmed, cedar-shingled clubhouse, its American and club flags flapping in the wind that dictates the difficulty of the golf course.

Knowing the 18 holes are somewhere beyond the clubhouse enhances the Shinnecock mystique that warns strangers: Keep your distance. You can look, but don't touch.

The United States Open is coming to Shinnecock for the fourth time, June 17-20, and everybody in golf knows what an exacting exam the course provides for the world's best golfers. It has been ranked by Golf Digest as high as No. 3 among America's 100 Greatest Courses (presently sixth). But like the teenager with a crush on classmate Charlize Theron, I knew Shinnecock was special long before it was famous.

Shinnecock Hills
Greg Norman trailed by a stroke in the 1995 U.S. Open but found a bunker and bogeyed the par-3 17th, now 179 yards.

We were introduced by, of all things, tennis. Half a century ago, before open tennis tournaments, I was covering what was known as the Eastern grass-court circuit for so-called amateurs. They didn't get prize money, but they were housed, fed and slipped envelopes containing $100 bills. One event was at the Meadow Club in Southampton, where the Fords and the Firestones spent the Summer.

This was a pleasant annual assignment, especially in those quieter years before the Hamptons were invaded by gossip-column celebrities. But as an avid golfer, in my travels along Montauk Highway while covering the tennis tournament, I was more interested in what was up there beyond that clubhouse with its high-society members.

I knew Shinnecock's history -- one of five clubs that in 1894 founded the United States Golf Association, the site in 1896 of the second U.S. Open and the second U.S. Amateur, the first incorporated golf club in America, the first with a waiting list, the first with a clubhouse. And not just any clubhouse -- a stylishly simple structure designed by Stanford White, the dashing architect who, in a 1906 page-one scandal, was shot to death by Harry Thaw, the husband of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" who White was romancing.

But for all its history and hauteur, Shinnecock Hills was so "private, members only," it seemed as if it were hidden up there behind swaying drapes of long brown fescue grass.

To penetrate that privacy, I wangled a magazine assignment to write about Charlie Thom, since 1908 the Shinnecock pro. He had come to America in 1899 from Montrose, Scotland, north of Carnoustie. At last, I was up there atop the hill, surveying the course with the Old Man of the Hills, as he called himself.

"There's nothing finer in this country," he burred. With a backward glance toward the nearby 10th tee and then looking toward the windmill at the adjacent National Golf Links of America and beyond to the blue waters of Peconic Bay, you can see at least a portion of 15 holes. You can't do that at many courses. Only 11, 12 and 13 are out of sight beyond high hedges.

"And 14 over here, the par-4 dogleg, that's my hole," the gnarled old pro said. "Thom's Elbow, they call it."

He talked about how, in his prime, he "outhit Harry Vardon; I could paste it," but now he lived with his wife, Buntie, in a little cottage behind the hedge near the ninth green where every morning he fed a sea gull he named Bill. Then in his 80s, Thom surveyed the land where, on the original course built by Shinnecock Indians, he shot 66 in auditioning for the pro's job decades before the architect William Flynn redesigned the course in 1931.

I walked with Charlie Thom that morning as he gave a playing lesson to a 12-year-old boy who is now probably a CEO somewhere. When the youngster pushed his tee shot into the deep fescue on the par-5 16th hole, the old pro scolded, "This isn't the golf course," and pointed to the fairway. "That's the golf course, over where the grass is green." On the next hole, the youngster walloped a 3-wood that drifted into a bunker.

"I hit a good shot there, Mr. Thom," the boy said.

"If it's in the bunker, lad, it's not a good shot."

Charlie Thom retired in 1961 but remained as the pro emeritus until his death nearly two decades later; Don McDougall has been the club pro ever since. Famous pros also played Shinnecock every so often, and raved about it, as Ben Hogan did almost half a century ago in a thank-you note to member Paul Shields: "Each hole has complete definition. You know exactly where to shoot, and the distance is easy to read. All in all, I think it is one of the finest courses I have ever played." But mostly, only the members and their wives, children and guests played it. And if they talked about it, it was usually to each other.

When Golf Digest first ranked America's top 200 courses by states in 1966, Shinnecock was not even listed among New York's top 14. The next year, it was included among New York's 16 "most difficult." In the magazine's 1969 list of America's "most testing" courses, Shinnecock was grouped in the third 10. In 1973 it advanced to the second 10 about the time that Ben Crenshaw stopped by with two friends. As a devoted golf historian who then was a PGA Tour rookie, Crenshaw wanted to see for himself the buried treasure of American golf. When he shot 65, he was told he had set a course record.

Shinnecock Hills
Phil Mickelson played the par-5 16th in six over par in the '95 Open, when he finished four strokes behind Corey Pavin.

"No, it can't count for the course record," Crenshaw said. "I hit two balls off the first tee."

(For the record, the course record today is 64 set by Raymond Floyd, now a member at Shinnecock after winning the Open there in 1986.)

When the 1977 Walker Cup matches were awarded to Shinnecock, Frank Hannigan, later the U.S. Golf Association's senior executive director but then a freelance writer, asked Crenshaw if a U.S. Open could be played there. "It would be great," Crenshaw said. "And there should be no television towers; a U.S. Open from Shinnecock should be on radio."

Missing a chance to become a member

By then, I had been fortunate enough to have played a few rounds there, and when I was told of Shinnecock's nonresident membership, I knew that I qualified as a New Jersey resident, and that for $500 it was golf's ultimate bargain. But when I called Virgil Sherrill, the club president at the time, I was told that the nonresident membership had just been eliminated for newcomers. I was crushed, but my wife, Maureen, couldn't understand why.

"It would look great in my obituary," I said. "He was a member of Shinnecock Hills."

By serving as the site of the Walker Cup matches, Shinnecock had gone public. The galleries were small, but the exposure made a difference. Harry Easterly Jr., then the USGA senior executive director, asked Hannigan if the U.S. Open of 1986, the 90th anniversary of the 1896 Open at Shinnecock, could be played there.

"There was unanimity on the golf course itself," Hannigan recalls, "but there were several logistical questions."

Although Shinnecock Hills was awarded a $400,000 rental fee and new back tees were added on the ninth and 18th holes, its seasonal members were unable to staff the Open committees usually provided by the host club. But the USGA made do with fewer volunteers. To ease the traffic problem, the USGA put up a temporary footbridge over Montauk Highway and rented parking areas at Southampton College and the nearby Shinnecock Indian reservation.

"As for housing," Hannigan says, "with no major hotels in the area, we just figured we'd do the best we could."

The best was good enough at the 1986 Open, when the wind blew from a different direction each of the four days. With the wind howling from the northeast in a steady rain on the 472-yard 12th hole on Thursday, the world's best pros needed a driver and a 3-wood to get to the green, and some didn't get there. When the wind blew from the southwest on Friday, they got there with a driver and an 8-iron.

"If there's a different wind each day," Alex White, then the 76-year-old caddiemaster, said during that Open, "they'll be playing a different course each day."

Derailing Nicklaus and Woods

All four were Open tough. Raymond Floyd won that Open at one under par, and Corey Pavin won in 1995 at even par. But proof of Shinnecock's toughness in those Opens involved the two best golfers of the last half century -- Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Shinnecock Hills
The Shinnecock clubhouse was designed in 1892 by Stanford White, who has an early version of Madison Square Garden among his credits.

During the first round in 1986, Nicklaus, who would tie for eighth just two months after his sixth Masters victory, pushed his tee shot on the 10th hole into the high fescue. It might still be there.

"The only other time I remember losing a ball in competition," he said later that day after a 77, "was in the 1959 British Amateur."

During the second round in 1995, Woods, then a 19-year-old amateur, hooked a 1-iron off the tee on the third hole into the high fescue to the left of the fairway. Hitting a wedge to escape, he jammed his left wrist. He kept playing, but after hitting his tee shot on the sixth, he had to withdraw.

"That's what happens," Woods said, "when you hit the ball in the long grass here."

And as Tiger Woods and the world's best golfers gather, Shinnecock Hills is no longer buried treasure. It's on display again in the Tiffany window of golf, the U.S. Open, but I knew it was special long before it was famous.

Golf Digest Contributing Editor Dave Anderson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times. He has covered the U.S. Open since 1967.

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