Don’t Mess This Up


Golf Digest Middle East - - Contents - BY GUY YOCOM

It’s cru­cial that the USGA gets it right at Shin­necock. BY GUY YOCOM

ray­mond floyd, who won the U.S. Open at Shin­necock Hills in 1986 and is a long­time mem­ber there, placed a phone call to Mike Davis, the USGA’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, shortly af­ter last year’s Open at Erin Hills. Fac­ing Erin’s 7,800-plus yards but mas­sively wide fair­ways—60 yards in some cases—play­ers whaled away with im­punity when typ­i­cal winds failed to blow. In the fi­nal round, win­ner Brooks Koepka hit his tee shot on the 18th hole 379 yards—with a 3-wood. Floyd, a close ob­server of a Shin­necock Hills that in re­cent years had be­come con­sid­er­ably wider than in Opens played in ’86, ’95 and 2004—and planned that way for 2018—was aghast. ▶ “I said, ‘Mike, we need to have a chat,’ ” re­calls Floyd, at age 75 re­tired but still an in­flu­en­tial voice.“I asked him, ‘Were you happy with the [fair­way widths] at Erin Hills? I don’t think you were.’ Mike told me he ab­so­lutely was not. I said, ‘Well, it’s go­ing to be on steroids at Shin­necock, be­cause it doesn’t move and flow as much. You’ve got it dead wide, and we’ve had three re­ally good U.S. Opens here with it tight and nar­row.’ ”

The alert from Floyd, com­bined with con­ver­sa­tions Davis had with smart peo­ple in golf, must have set off in­ter­nal alarms. His re­ac­tion, ex­pressed in ac­tion more than words, was al­most im­me­di­ate. Within weeks, the USGA un­der­took dra­matic al­ter­ations to Shin­necock Hills. It was highly un­usual, be­cause the changes were per­formed so close to the cham­pi­onship and not long af­ter a three-year Bill Coore-Ben Cren­shaw restora­tion had con­cluded with the USGA and Shin­necock feel­ing more than sat­is­fied.

The tale of what hap­pened, and why, is il­lus­tra­tive of the USGA’s will­ing­ness to act in re­sponse to the chang­ing char­ac­ter of the mod­ern game. It also points up the need for the USGA to get this U.S. Open right. Stung by a long roll call of con­tro­ver­sies and mis­steps in U.S. Opens, its lead­er­ship on the equip­ment front con­stantly un­der fire, and with crit­i­cal eyes riv­eted on a mod­ernised

rolling out in 2019, it’s im­per­a­tive that USGA of­fi­cials de­liver a na­tional cham­pi­onship we’ll re­mem­ber for the right rea­sons. To put it bluntly, it’s im­por­tant that they not mess this up.

The re­turn to Shin­necock Hills in­ten­si­fies the ur­gency. This U.S. Open is no bold, happy ex­per­i­ment, as was the case when the U.S. Open went to Beth­page, a pub­lic course, in 2002. It’s not an ef­fort to prove that a his­toric but short course could hold a U.S. Open, a key sub­text when it was played at Me­rion in 2013. Nor is it a pop­ulist ef­fort to take a U.S. Open to newish cour­ses and lo­cales, as was the case with Cham­bers Bay in 2015 and Erin Hills last year. Shin­necock Hills is the real deal, hal­lowed ground not only to the USGA but stu­dents of the game and en­ti­ties the USGA needs to have in its cor­ner. Not unim­por­tant are the com­mer­cial in­ter­ests, in­clud­ing Fox Sports, now in its fourth year of tele­vis­ing the U.S. Open. The events of a mini- dis­as­ter at Shin­necock dur­ing its last host­ing in 2004 not­with­stand­ing, this is the last place where a se­ri­ous mis­step should elicit from the USGA the light- sound­ing phrase, “We de­serve a bo­gey on that one.”

a glo­ried past, but a stum­ble in 2004

Un­sur­passed as a U.S. Open test, Shin­necock is one of five found­ing-mem­ber clubs of the USGA. It opened in 1891, and in 1896, the sec­ond U.S. Open ever was played there. Its early de­sign it­er­a­tions were com­pletely re­done by Wil­liam Flynn in 1931. Af­ter many care­free decades as a hid­den but re­spected gem—the club is sea­sonal, teem­ing with wealth and not par­tic­u­larly am­bi­tious about be­ing in the spotlight—Shin­necock burst to promi­nence in the 1986 U.S. Open, when Floyd tri­umphed be­fore a thrilled lo­cal and na­tional au­di­ence. The cham­pion-



ship re­turned in 1995 with Corey Pavin the win­ner, then again in 2004 when Retief Goosen pre­vailed over Phil Mick­el­son. The 2004 tour­na­ment was tainted be­cause of dread­ful, rock-hard con­di­tions in the fi­nal round, a USGA-per­pe­trated er­ror that Pavin calls “a mini- dis­as­ter, maybe a ma­jor one.” But Shin­necock emerged in­tact. The 2017-’18 edi­tion of Golf Digest’s 100 Great­est Cour­ses in Amer­ica rank­ing has it be­hind only Pine Val­ley, Au­gusta Na­tional and Cy­press Point.

Shin­necock is unique. Play­ing to a par of 70, the course at its best is stark, mostly ex­posed and a bit wild, in mid-sum­mer a gold and pale-green throw­back to sea­side golf at its most orig­i­nal. Its fair­ways, no two of which run par­al­lel, are a mix of flat­tish, bend­ing runs and sub­tle roller coast­ers. Its many bunkers, some there for beauty but most strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned, are a lit­tle evil. The course is sand-based and bouncy, nat­u­rally fast and firm, and al­most al­ways wind-swept. Its four par 3s are stag­ger­ingly di­verse. As a U.S. Open test it is in­sanely hard but fair. Look­ing down from the in­cred­i­ble Stan­ford White club­house, which sum­mons images from a P.G. Wode­house golf story, you see a course that is rough around the edges but pure within. Ev­ery­thing about it con­veys a sort of fru­gal op­u­lence, much like the old-world legacy in­di­vid­u­als you might en­counter on New York’s eastern Long Is­land. The de­sign, time­less and fiendishly cre­ative, de­fies at­tempts by the player to over­whelm it. Get out of line, and Shin­necock, like an 1890s parochial-school head­mas­ter, will take a ruler to your knuck­les.

Pavin, his lan­guage as in­ven­tive as his shot-mak­ing, calls the look, “Shin­necock­ian. . . . It’s dis­tinc­tive in the way it looks and plays. In 1995, there was just enough mois­ture to hold a slightly green colour. I’d played a lot of cour­ses by that point and had seen cour­ses that were some­what Shin­necock­ian, but there was noth­ing like Shin­necock.”


changes add 449 yards

Like all cour­ses its age, Shin­necock has re­quired up­keep and some up­dat­ing. The most dra­matic work oc­curred be­gin­ning in 2012, when Coore and Cren­shaw were called in to per­form a restora­tion the club felt was nec­es­sary to keep the course faith­ful to Flynn’s de­sign. With the USGA and board mem­bers at Shin­necock mon­i­tor­ing closely, Coore re­stored lines and an­gles to the fair­ways from 10 new tees, cho­sen by Mike Davis. Bunkers and other Flynn fea­tures that had be­come ob­so­lete in the face of driv­ing- dis­tance in­creases were back in play. The tees, on holes 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 14, 16 and 18, stretched the cham­pi­onship yardage to 7,445 yards, well up from 6,996 yards in 2004. Trees and un­der­brush were re­moved, mak­ing the open ter­rain even airier. Ev­ery green was ex­panded, the orig­i­nal con­tours left in­tact, but the shapes more closely du­pli­cat­ing Flynn’s greens as seen in aerial pho­tos from 1938.

“I wouldn’t call it a restora­tion,” Coore says. “We made very mi­nor al­ter­ations, not nearly on the or­der as what we did at Pine­hurst, Maid­stone and Old Town. We mainly pol­ished, tried to en­sure that align­ments worked well from the tees. We did do sig­nif­i­cant work on the right side of the [par- 4] sixth hole. It’s at a low point, and the veg­e­ta­tion there had be­come pro­hib­i­tively thick. We re­stored it to a more sandy char­ac­ter. But to be hon­est, I don’t think we’re even a foot­note to the story there.”

Coore’s low-key sum­ma­tion is un­der­stand­able, in view of what came next. Af­ter Davis spoke with Floyd and other golf-savvy in­di­vid­u­als he chooses not to name, a sub­stan­tial nar­row­ing of the fair­ways oc­curred, in golf terms, al­most overnight. Un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Shin­necock’s su­per­in­ten­dent, Jon Jen­nings, a crew of 75 work­ers, toil­ing 15 hours per day from Sept. 17-25, re­moved an es­ti­mated 200,000 square feet of turf— al­most five acres—from the sides of fair­ways and re­placed it with strips of fes­cue sod sheared from Shin­necock’s nine-hole par-3 course and un­used ar­eas on the main course. It also was seeded with a fes­cue strain as

close to Shin­necock’s as they could find. The tar­get ar­eas for nar­row­ing pri­mar­ily were the an­tic­i­pated land­ing ar­eas for pros, 275 to 325 yards from the tees on the longer holes. For the U.S. Open June 14-17, the fair­ways tran­si­tion to a band of fine fes­cue, fol­lowed by the wild stuff—the knee-high fes­cue and bluestem grass.

It was quite an ad­just­ment, and Davis ac­knowl­edges that what he’d seen in Wis­con­sin last June played no small role in the de­ci­sion. “Did Erin Hills in­flu­ence us? Ab­so­lutely,” he says. “We went into Erin Hills an­tic­i­pat­ing wind, and with the firm­ness there, felt we had to present more width so play­ers could keep balls in the fair­way. Look­ing back, there wasn’t enough of a premium on ac­cu­racy.”

Davis points out that the nar­row­ing is not es­pe­cially dra­co­nian. “The av­er­age fair­way width [at Shin­necock] in 2004 was 26.6 yards, the nar­row­est 25 yards, the widest 30 yards,” he says. “The av­er­age now is 41.6 yards. That’s 15 yards wider, a full 50 per­cent. On the other hand, it’s sub­stan­tially nar­rower than what Bill Coore and the club had. We felt if we didn’t nar­row it some, the one el­e­ment the course wouldn’t have was ac­cu­racy. I’d just point out that it will be the widest of the Shin­necock U.S. Opens.”

Coore says Davis’ nar­row­ing wasn’t a re­buke of his pre­vi­ous work. “I don’t view it in a neg­a­tive light at all,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any ques­tion that the last cou­ple of U.S. Opens showed Mike some things that made them feel fur­ther al­ter­ations were nec­es­sary. The game is a learn­ing curve that never stops.”

The par- 4 18th hole, where Pavin clinched his ti­tle in 1995 with a 4-wood shot to the fi­nal green, might be the best ex­am­ple of how Shin­necock’s width has evolved. In a walk­ing tour of the course last fall, Jeff Hall, the USGA’s manag­ing di­rec­tor of rules and cham­pi­onships, said that the fair­way in 2004 was 30 yards wide. Af­ter the CooreCren­shaw restora­tion, it bal­looned to 52. Today, it’s 42. Says Davis: “A learned per­son could make the ar­gu­ment that there’s still too much width at Shin­necock. Time will tell on that, but given what we know about the weather and our ex­pe­ri­ences there over the years, it should be an in­cred­i­ble test of golf.”

The nar­row­ing is only one of sev­eral steps the USGA and the club have taken that seem to have made Shin­necock im­mune from setup er­rors. The ad­di­tional 449 yards, com­bined with its nar­row­ness, are po­tent weapons that will pre­vent longer hit­ters from ham­mer­ing the course into sub­mis­sion—Floyd’s fear.

“I played Shin­necock with a mem­ber two years ago, and the new tees are so far back, I didn’t know im­me­di­ately which holes they were in­tended for,” says David Eger, who was the USGA’s se­nior di­rec­tor of rules and com­pe­ti­tions for the 1995 U.S. Open. “Trust me, the course is plenty long.” The rough, ac­cord­ing to Davis, will be four inches long, “I have no con­cern about that,” he says.

Then there are the green com­plexes, the


source of the night­mare in 2004. De­spite the course al­ready be­ing on the edge that year, the greens were rolled on Satur­day night, de­prived of water and, with a dry wind erupt­ing Sun­day from the north­west—the pre­vail­ing winds are off the At­lantic Ocean from the south­east— sev­eral greens went over the edge. “I re­mem­ber hit­ting a short pitch to the first hole that year,” Pavin says. “I struck it cleanly, yet the ball took one huge bounce, then went off the back of the green. It was shock­ing.”

The 189-yard sev­enth green was the most no­to­ri­ous. Less than one tee shot in five held the green. The first two play­ers to come through, J.J. Henry and Kevin Stadler, both made triple bo­geys. Billy May­fair, in the sec­ond pair­ing, putted into a bunker. The USGA hand-wa­tered greens be­tween groups, the first time it had ever done so to al­low play to con­tinue. This was viewed as un­fair to the early groups that had suf­fered the worst of it. Syring­ing dur­ing play has been done for the health of the greens (for­mer USGA ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor David Fay points to South­ern Hills in 2001). But to sim­ply al­low the com­pe­ti­tion to con­tinue, no.

“That was at the height of the USGA’s in­fat­u­a­tion with firm and fast,” says Fay, who in 2004 had the job Davis holds now. “We learned that there were lim­its to firm and fast. We learned the hard way, and it wasn’t pretty. There was a lot of fin­ger-point­ing, our ver­sion of the Grassy Knoll.”

Not that there wasn’t room for some dark hu­mour. On the sev­enth tee, Fred Funk and his cad­die, Mark Long, watched Mick­el­son de­lib­er­ately hit into a green­side bunker, which, in­cred­i­bly, seemed to pro­vide the best chance at mak­ing par. “I said to Fred, ‘ That’s def­i­nitely the play,’ ” Long re­calls. Funk nod­ded, but as he got ready to play, he walked back to the bag. “Fred whis­pered, ‘I just can’t make my­self aim at sand on a par 3,’ ” Long says. Funk wound up play­ing the hole con­ven­tion­ally and made a dou­ble bo­gey. Mick­el­son, af­ter play­ing the sim­plest of bunker shots, made par.

It wasn’t only the greens. Shots that came up short on the par- 4 10th hole rolled ab­surdly back down the fair­way, a bad car­i­ca­ture of the ninth at Au­gusta. A cad­die for one of the con­tenders that year re­calls the player try­ing to tee a ball on the prac­tice range, only to have the tee snap in half. “He said, ‘ You know you’re in trou­ble when they lose con­trol of the range,’ ” the cad­die laughs.

It’s all but im­pos­si­ble for a course-setup dis­as­ter like that one to oc­cur today. The sev­enth green, like all at Shin­necock, is larger now, al­low­ing for chal­leng­ing hole lo­ca­tions but few apoc­a­lypse-in­duc­ing ones, such as oc­curred there 2004, as well as at the 18th greens at Olympic in 1998 and the poor choice at No. 18 at South­ern Hills in 2001 (also won by Goosen). “Trou­ble his­tor­i­cally al­most al­ways can be traced to hole lo­ca­tions,” Fay says. “Given a choice, it’s prob­a­bly best to go with the lo­ca­tion that is more be­nign. No­body will ever go down in in­famy for set­ting a ho-hum spot. . . . It’s a strange thresh­old, but you want to avoid cut­ting a hole that can wind up on a video. So­cial me­dia is not al­ways kind that way.”

It’s not lost on Eger that some peo­ple ac­tu­ally root for a setup fea­ture to go over the edge. “Three fac­tions ex­pect mis­takes,” he says. “The play­ers, who aren’t fa­mil­iar with the rules of­fi­cials, vol­un­teers and staff, have a sen­si­tive eye for things not done just right. They’ll al­ways be mad about some­thing; it’s just a mat­ter of the noise level. There’s the me­dia, which ac­tu­ally roots for some­thing to go wrong so they have some­thing to write about. Then there’s the pub­lic. They in gen­eral like to see play­ers strug­gle, to be kicked around like they are at their home course.”

But other safe­guards al­ready are in place. Although most of Shin­necock’s greens will have roll- off ar­eas sug­ges­tive of Pine­hurst, the sev­enth green and three oth­ers (3, 8 and 12) will fea­ture col­lars of mod­er­ate length to pre­vent balls from rolling into bunkers and other crazy in­stances where pun­ish­ments out­weigh the crime.

Per­haps most im­por­tant, agron­omy and main­te­nance prac­tices have ad­vanced ex­po­nen­tially since 2004. The ad­vent of the TruFirm de­vice that mea­sures firm­ness, an­other in­stru­ment that mea­sures soil mois­ture and yet an­other that mon­i­tors evap­o­ra­tion, are re­mark­able tools. These, in com­bi­na­tion with im­proved weather fore­cast­ing, will al­low su­per­in­ten­dent Jen­nings, al­ready re­garded as a wiz­ard, and Darin Be­vard, the USGA’s di­rec­tor of cham­pi­onship agron­omy, to con­trol con­di­tions with pre­ci­sion.

But Shin­necock is not Au­gusta Na­tional, which has far more in­ti­mate knowl­edge and con­trol of its course than the USGA does as a vis­i­tor. Davis at one point in our con­ver­sa­tion noted, “We don’t own the golf course, and cer­tainly we’re not architects.” But science, in con­cert with ex­pe­ri­ence and a solid work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Shin­necock in place since the 2018 U.S. Open was an­nounced in 2011, should en­sure a safe pas­sage.

Could any­thing else go wrong? Of course. Rules ad­min­is­tra­tion must be swift and ac­cu­rate, in the event of a quirky episode such as Dustin John­son’s ball mov­ing on the green as he stood near it pre­par­ing to putt at Oak­mont in 2016. John­son was deemed to have caused the ball to move and re­ceived a one-stroke penalty that, un­der rules now in ef­fect, wouldn’t re­sult in a penalty at all. It wasn’t just the ap­par­ent sub­jec­tiv­ity of the rule that was at is­sue, but the USGA of­fi­cials’ un­cer­tainty and de­lay in en­forc­ing it. Would they ad­min­is­ter more ef­fi­ciently now? The USGA and Shin­necock also need to be wary of ar­eas that could loom as hot spots, such as an an­cient, waste-like bunker short and to the left of the green at the par-5 fifth hole. A photo of it in­di­cates it be­ing nei­ther fish nor fowl, bunker-wise. Dustin John­son again comes to mind, with that aw­ful in­stance on the fi­nal hole at Whistling Straits in the 2010 PGA Cham­pi­onship. How to han­dle weather warn­ings if a nasty sum­mer thunderstorm rum­bles in? Still there as a re­minder is the 1991 U.S. Open at Hazel­tine, when a spec­ta­tor was killed by a light­ning strike.

All of these is­sues don’t seem to have got­ten the bet­ter of Davis, who has been with the USGA in dif­fer­ent hands- on ca­pac­i­ties since 1990. He seems ex­hil­a­rated by the re­turn to Shin­necock. “I feel no tense­ness about ev­ery­thing com­ing off per­fectly,” he says. “I’m com­pletely hon­est on that. These great golf cour­ses are like chil­dren. I love them all, but I con­fess to be­ing es­pe­cially fond of this one. I love Shin­necock’s his­tory and ar­chi­tec­ture, and I’m pray­ing that what­ever is left over from 2004 can be put to rest.”

When pre­sented with the idea that a lapse of some kind at Shin­necock could cost the USGA on the other ar­eas it over­sees—rules and equip­ment be­ing the most high-pro­file— Davis said, “If we per­form re­ally well here, it can have a pos­i­tive ef­fect on how well we do in other ar­eas. Con­versely, if we err in an area of gov­er­nance, it de­tracts from what we do at our cham­pi­onships. Our mis­sion—our North Star—is to make the game bet­ter.”

In a per­fect world, we see an un­for­get­table con­clu­sion to the U.S. Open at grand old Shin­necock Hills, capped per­haps by Davis putting in a call to Ray­mond Floyd on Sun­day even­ing with the greet­ing, “So how’d we do?” Know­ing in ad­vance that the re­ply will be a hearty, “Well done.”

golfdi­gestme. com june 2018 Pho­to­graph by First Last­name

Pho­to­graph by First Last­name

the par- 4 10th, now slightly longer at 415 yards, was the hard­est hole in the fi­nal round of the 2004 open, when the field av­er­aged 5.03 strokes.

Pho­to­graph by First Last­name

Pho­to­graph by First Last­name

the par- 5 16th was the eas­i­est hole in the fi­nal round of the 2004 u. s. open ( 4.803 stroke av­er­age), but it’s 616 yards today ver­sus 540 yards then.

Pho­to­graph by First Last­name

in this view look­ing north, you can see the front nine on the left and the back nine on the right.

shin­necock is 7,445 yards, up from 6,996 in 2004, but af­ter last year’s u. s. open, the fair­ways were pinched even tighter.

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