The story of Shinnecock Hills is a com­pli­cated tale mired in myth and mis­in­for­ma­tion. Tony Dear heads back 150 years to un­ravel the story.

Golf World (UK) - - CONTENTS -

The long and com­pli­cated his­tory of Shinnecock Hills, host of this month’s US Open.

When ex­am­in­ing the early his­tory of the ven­er­a­ble Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island, New York, venue for the 118th US Open, the words ‘tan­gled’ and ‘web’ come quickly to mind. In truth, what cen­tury-old story isn’t mired some­where in con­fu­sion and doubt, the re­sult of facts be­ing em­bel­lished, for­got­ten, or per­haps con­sciously re­moved or al­tered to pro­mote a par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive or agenda?

In the case of Shinnecock Hills, the some­what mis­lead­ing rem­i­nis­cences of founders and other fig­ures in­volved with the club in its for­ma­tive years have made it dif­fi­cult to say ex­actly when its first golf course was built, who built it, and even how many holes there were. The mem­bers don’t lose any sleep over that. This is a club with no de­sire to make its par­tic­u­lars known to the wider world.

It would be disin­gen­u­ous to la­bel this the ‘un­told story of Shinnecock Hills’. They may not have sold boat-loads of copies, be known out­side a fairly con­fined cir­cle of golf his­to­ri­ans, or even have been made avail­able to the gen­eral pub­lic, but books on the very pri­vate Shinnecock Hills GC do ex­ist.

Its most re­cent of­fi­cial his­tory is David God­dard’s The His­tory of Shinnecock Hills, pub­lished in 1999. An ex­tra­or­di­nary vol­ume con­sid­ered by many the fi­nal word on the club’s past, it was able to cor­rect a few in­ac­cu­ra­cies from the pre­vi­ous his­tory – writ­ten by Golf Di­gest’s Ross Good­ner in 1966 for the club’s 75th an­niver­sary.

Since God­dard’s book was com­pleted, how­ever, ar­chiv­ing has al­lowed news­pa­pers to store tens of thou­sands of is­sues on­line, giv­ing re­searchers ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion not eas­ily avail­able be­fore. So while Good­ner’s book stated that Wil­lie Dunn built Shinnecock’s first golf course, we can now be fairly cer­tain that wasn’t the case.

It’s easy to see why Good­ner thought Dunn was the man. In the Septem­ber 1934 edi­tion of Golf Il­lus­trated, Dunn penned an ar­ti­cle ti­tled ‘Early Cour­ses of the United States’ in which he de­clared he had de­signed the course. He de­scribed an en­counter he’d had with three Amer­i­can vis­i­tors in Biar­ritz – Messrs. Van­der­bilt, Mead, and Cry­der. “I re­mem­ber the first demon­stra­tion I gave them,” he wrote. “We chose the fa­mous Chasm hole – about 225 yards and fea­tur­ing a deep canyon cleared with the tee shot. I teed up sev­eral balls and laid them all on the green, close to the flag. Van­der­bilt turned to his friends and said, ‘Gentle­men, this beats ri­fle shoot­ing dis­tance and ac­cu­racy’.”

Dunn says the men in­vited him to Amer­ica to build them a golf course in the vil­lage of Southamp­ton, near New York City. “I ar­rived in March of 1890, and Van­der­bilt took me out to Long Island to the site of the pro­posed course,” Dunn ex­plained. “The land was rolling and sandy, with thick growths of blue­berry bushes in some places. I laid out plans for 12 holes and started work with 150 In­di­ans from the Shinnecock reser­va­tion, the only avail­able la­bor.”

Dunn then de­scribed the course and its

de­sign in great de­tail, at one point say­ing the land was “dot­ted with In­dian burial mounds”, which he “left as bunkers in front of the holes”.

The club’s first mem­bers, he re­called, were a group of New York­ers: “Gen­eral Thomas H. Bar­ber was the pres­i­dent, and Sa­muel L. Par­rish, the first sec­re­tary.” Par­rish, a lawyer from Philadel­phia who had moved north to New York in 1877 and be­come a very ac­tive mem­ber of the com­mu­nity in Southamp­ton, also iden­ti­fied Dunn as the club’s first de­signer.

In 1923 or there­abouts, the Pres­i­dent of Shinnecock Hills GC – De Lancey Kountze – asked Par­rish for his rec­ol­lec­tions of the ori­gins of golf in Amer­ica, and specif­i­cally Shinnecock Hills. Par­rish, then in his early 70s, claimed he had re­ceived a let­ter in 1891 from his friend Edward Mead who was vis­it­ing Biar­ritz, de­scrib­ing this game called golf which might be “suc­cess­fully in­tro­duced at Southamp­ton, and played pos­si­bly on the Shinnecock Hills”.

When they met back in Southamp­ton that sum­mer, Mead com­mu­ni­cated his en­thu­si­asm for the game so con­vinc­ingly that they asked an­other friend – rail­road lawyer Charles At­ter­bury – to visit the Royal Mon­treal GC while he was in Canada on busi­ness to con­nect with the club’s of­fi­cials with a view to bring­ing their club pro­fes­sional to Southamp­ton and lay­ing out a course.

The meet­ing was men­tioned in the book Golf in Canada, writ­ten by Royal Mon­treal’s sec­re­tary J. Hut­ton Bal­four. “The next re­quest we had was from sev­eral gentle­men in Long Island, New York, that we would per­mit our pro­fes­sional to go there for a month to lay out a green and in­struct them; this we gladly did”.

As the re­sult of this interview, Par­rish wrote, “the Scotch-Canadian pro­fes­sional, Wil­lie Dunn by name, ar­rived at Southamp­ton with clubs and balls in the early part of July, 1891, con­signed to me.”

The pair drove out to Shinnecock to view the site. Par­rish says Dunn was unim­pressed with the land and re­marked that “no golf course could be built on land of that char­ac­ter”. As they turned to leave, Par­rish asked Dunn what sort of land would be suit­able, to which he replied “ground ca­pa­ble of be­ing turned into some sort of turf was nec­es­sary”. Par­rish, very fa­mil­iar with the 4,000 acres of the Shinnecock Hills, hav­ing rid­den horses and cy­cled all over them, knew a spot with sandy soil that might work. Show­ing it to Dunn, the pro­fes­sional seemed to agree, tee­ing up a ball for Par­rish to hit. Struck solidly over the rail­road tracks, it was the first shot ever struck at Shinnecock.

He re­lated his ex­pe­ri­ence to Mead and to­gether they, along with oth­ers who had be­come quickly en­am­oured with hit­ting a ball with a stick, pledged to raise suf­fi­cient money for the course and a club­house.


On Septem­ber 5, 1891, the club pur­chased 75 to 80 acres of land – on which the course had al­ready been laid out – from the Long Island Im­prove­ment Co. for $2,500. Two days later, with in­ter­est in club membership hav­ing far ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions, it was de­cided to pro­ceed with plans for a club­house far larger than orig­i­nally planned – the new build­ing de­signed by the ar­chi­tect Stan­ford White (see side­bar). Par­rish noted the orig­i­nal course, ‘as laid out by Wil­lie Dunn in the sum­mer of 1891’, con­sisted of 12 holes.

So Par­rish and Dunn both stated in writ­ing that Dunn had built the club’s first 12 holes in July 1891. But how could this be? For starters Dunn wasn’t the pro at Royal Mon­treal when Charles At­ter­bury vis­ited in June 1891. In fact, Dunn was never the pro at Mon­treal.

Dunn also said it was WK Van­der­bilt who first showed him the site when nu­mer­ous re­ports show it was Par­rish, and you prob­a­bly no­ticed the con­flict­ing dates sur­round­ing Dunn’s ar­rival in Southamp­ton. In his 1934 Golf Il­lus­trated ar­ti­cle, the Scots­man said he was there in March of 1890. Par­rish says he turned up in July 1891. How­ever, news­pa­per re­ports don’t make any men­tion of Dunn in Amer­ica un­til 1893 and David God­dard has him in Southamp­ton in 1894.

Los An­ge­les-based re­searcher David Mo­ri­arty, a semi-re­tired at­tor­ney whose hobby it is ex­am­in­ing golf club ar­chives, says no travel man­i­fest for a Wil­lie Dunn trav­el­ling from Bri­tain of France to Amer­ica prior to 1893 has been found.


And The Golf Book of East Loth­ian, writ­ten by the ap­par­ently fas­tid­i­ous Rev­erend John Kerr and pub­lished in 1896, states that: “He (Dunn) left Eng­land for Amer­ica in 1893, to act as pro­fes­sional to Shinnecock Golf Club, the most im­por­tant among the new clubs started in Amer­ica.”

Mo­ri­arty says he found no in­di­ca­tion what­so­ever that Dunn ar­rived in Amer­ica be­fore 1893. He be­lieves Dunn may have em­bel­lished the truth and that Par­rish may sim­ply have been con­fused.

It is far more likely, then, that Wil­lie Davis laid out Shinnecock’s first rudi­men­tary holes. A New York Times ar­ti­cle from March 8, 1896 re­counts the story of Par­rish’s first meet­ing with Davis. Insert the name Davis for Dunn and it reads much the same as Par­rish’s own rec­ol­lec­tions. Par­rish told the au­thor of the Her­ald re­port that he had anx­iously asked Davis what he thought. “With a sad voice and trou­bled look, Wil­lie Davis replied, ‘Well Sir, I don’t think you can make golf links out of this sort of thing’.” When they moved to an en­tirely dif­fer­ent area of the Shinnecock Hills, Davis’ eyes ap­par­ently widened and he said “Yes, this is much more like it.”

A New York Times ar­ti­cle from March 1896 also lists Davis as the cre­ator of Shinnecock’s first course, as does the club’s own web­site. In fact, the club makes no men­tion of Dunn at all in its his­tor­i­cal over­view, even though Dunn cer­tainly played a ma­jor role in the devel­op­ment of the golf course af­ter Davis’ ini­tial ef­fort.


Un­cer­tainty over who cre­ated Shinnecock Hills is matched by un­cer­tainty over how many holes he first cre­ated. The club’s web­site says, “The orig­i­nal twelve-hole golf course was de­signed by Wil­lie Davis”, while Golf Di­gest says, “The orig­i­nal 12hole course of Shinnecock Hills was de­signed in 1891 by Wil­lie Davis.” David God­dard said it was 12 in The Story of Shinnecock Hills, as did Sa­muel Par­rish.

Yet David Mo­ri­arty’s ex­haus­tive re­search sug­gests they were all out by three. “W.D. Davis came to Southamp­ton in July 1891,” he wrote. “While in Southamp­ton, he gave lessons and laid out two golf cour­ses (men’s and ladies’).”

Mo­ri­arty’s source was a New York Her­ald ar­ti­cle dated Au­gust 30, 1891, which in­cludes a di­a­gram of the lay­out clearly show­ing nine holes. So why do so many peo­ple cling to the no­tion that the first course at Shinnecock Hills had 12 holes?

“It’s hard to say,” says Mo­ri­arty now, “but I as­sume it’s be­cause of what Sa­muel Par­rish wrote in 1923 and what Wil­lie

Dunn claimed in 1934. When Dunn said he built the 12-hole course, which is true, he failed to men­tion Davis’ nine-hole lay­out was al­ready there.”

There is no doubt that the orig­i­nal course in 1891 was nine holes, Mo­ri­arty in­sists. “And in ad­di­tion to the map, the au­thor of the Her­ald ar­ti­cle de­scribes play­ing the nine holes with Davis present. There are press ac­counts from 1892 which also list a nine-hole course. The first ev­i­dence of the 12-hole course comes in 1893.” So why does the 12-hole story per­sist? “Old leg­ends tend to linger,” says Mo­ri­arty. “Or maybe no one cares enough to bother to cor­rect it.”

Shortly af­ter lay­ing out those first nine holes, Davis cre­ated a nine-hole ladies course. In Golf in Canada, J. Hut­ton Bal­four noted a “good eigh­teen holes have been laid out” at Shinnecock, nine for the men, nine for ladies. If true, it fol­lows that Shinnecock Hills was the first golf club in the United States with 18 holes, even if they weren’t all part of the same course.


Ev­i­dence sug­gests Wil­lie Dunn first set foot in Southamp­ton in the spring of 1893, by which time mem­bers of the club formed in Au­gust 1891 had been play­ing over Wil­lie Davis’ lay­outs for more than 18 months. Davis is thought to have re­mained at Shinnecock for five weeks then re­turned to Mon­treal be­fore reap­pear­ing in the US in Novem­ber 1892, in New­port, Rhode Island. There he laid out nine holes for the New­port Coun­try Club which was one of the five clubs – Shinnecock Hills, Saint An­drew’s in Yonkers, Chicago and the Coun­try Club in sub­ur­ban Bos­ton the oth­ers – that formed the Am­a­teur Golf As­so­ci­a­tion in De­cem­ber 1894, be­com­ing the United States Golf As­so­ci­a­tion soon af­ter.

It is thought Dunn was hired pri­mar­ily as a green­keeper and in­struc­tor, but he is also be­lieved to have de­vel­oped Davis’ lay­out, adding three holes to form the 12-hole course many still be­lieve was Shinnecock’s first. It was the ‘White Course’, the ladies’ called ‘The Red’.

It is only now that his­to­ri­ans seem to col­lec­tively ac­knowl­edge it was Dunn who turned those 12 holes into 18 dur­ing the spring of 1895, when he also re­placed The Red with an­other nine-hole ladies course well to the north of its orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion. “The Shinnecock Hills Club has two cour­ses,” re­ported the New York Post in June 1895, “a nine-hole links near the club­house on which the play is chiefly in the open and which is used by the women, and the ‘White Course’ – a play­ful al­lu­sion to the out­crop­ping sand bunkers, which is for the men.”

The White Course had 18 holes, the new six hav­ing been added in the spring, so as to bring ‘Ben Ne­vis’ into play. This point was the high­est of the Shinnecock Hills and named af­ter Scot­land’s high­est moun­tain. “The hole (9th) is on the very top of Ben Ne­vis,” the Post re­ported, “and as a re­ward for the up­hill strug­gle to reach it... the player has a glo­ri­ous panorama of the dark and deep blue ocean and, on the land side, the sil­very wa­ters of the bay backed by the green clad hills.”

Shinnecock Hills now en­joyed a decade of rel­a­tive peace and pros­per­ity, but it felt forced to up­date the course in 1916. Con­cerns re­mained over part of the lay­out still lo­cated on the south side of the Long Island Rail­road, and a look at the 1895 map of Dunn’s 18-hole course shows the rout­ing re­ally wasn’t ter­ri­bly ex­cit­ing. A big­ger con­cern though was the ar­rival of


an­other golf club im­me­di­ately to the north. Na­tional Golf Links of Amer­ica (NGLA) opened in 1910 and was de­signed by Charles Blair Mac­don­ald who grew up in Chicago, at­tended St. An­drews Univer­sity, took lessons from Old Tom Mor­ris and be­came a stock­bro­ker on his re­turn to the US. He formed the Chicago Golf Club in 1892 be­fore re­lo­cat­ing to New York in 1900, work­ing on Wall Street, play­ing golf when­ever pos­si­ble and mak­ing an­nual trips to Europe to play and study the great cour­ses.

Mac­don­ald was de­ter­mined to find suit­able land on which to build his own mas­ter­piece fea­tur­ing all the best char­ac­ter­is­tics of cour­ses he’d played in Bri­tain. He wanted sandy soil and enough move­ment in the ground to en­sure in­ter­est­ing play, and scoured Long Island for his dream patch. In 1906, he set­tled on prop­erty ad­ja­cent to Shinnecock Hills. Sev­enty friends put in $1,000 to be­come found­ing mem­bers and en­able him to pur­chase the land and build the course.

The area in ques­tion had been un­der con­sid­er­a­tion for sev­eral years by Shinnecock mem­bers who wanted to de­velop it. They’d had very lit­tle suc­cess,

how­ever, and fol­low­ing the 1907 ‘Bankers’ Panic’ in which the New York Stock Ex­change plum­meted by al­most 50 per­cent from its 1906 peak, there was a feel­ing among Shinnecock mem­bers that Mac­don­ald’s plan was ill-fated.

In­ter­est­ingly, Mac­don­ald him­self was a mem­ber at Shinnecock Hills and must have been privy to his fel­low mem­bers’ pes­simism re­gard­ing his project next door. In his bi­og­ra­phy of Mac­don­ald – The Evan­ge­list of Golf – au­thor Ge­orge Bahto men­tions a lunch at Shinnecock Hills hosted by Mac­don­ald at which a few of his friends were present. Ap­par­ently, as Mac­don­ald was ex­claim­ing the virtues of the land and de­sign at NGLA, one of his guests had to leave the ta­ble as he was close to tears, be­liev­ing his friend’s grand plan was doomed to fail.

But Na­tional Golf Links of Amer­ica was a roar­ing suc­cess. In a 1999 interview, Bahto said the course was vastly su­pe­rior to Shinnecock Hills. “Af­ter NGLA opened, Shinnecock paled by com­par­i­son – in rout­ing, de­sign, and length,” he said. “It had no weak links, and was a ma­jor move away from pe­nal ar­chi­tec­ture with a wonderful mix of strate­gic and heroic golf.” You might think that when Shinnecock Hills de­cided to up­date its Dunn-de­signed course, it would have been dis­in­clined to ap­proach Mac­don­ald, and that such an ex­change would have been ex­cru­ci­at­ing for the club. Bahto saw it dif­fer­ently. “Char­lie (Mac­don­ald) was a mem­ber at Shinnecock, and it was only nat­u­ral that he was asked to re­design the course,” he said.

Mac­don­ald worked closely with his pro­tégé Seth Raynor, us­ing new land to the north­west of the ex­ist­ing course and build­ing a par 70 of 6,108 yards. In­cluded were the tem­plate holes Mac­don­ald mod­elled on great holes he’d played on his trips to Bri­tain and Europe and which he deemed to have ar­chi­tec­tural merit. He and Raynor had built many of them at NGLA. At Shinnecock, where five of Dunn’s holes were re­tained, there was a ver­sion of the Old Course’s Road Hole, and the four par 3s were all adap­ta­tions of Mac­don­ald’s favoured short holes – ‘Short’ (in­spired by the then 5th at Bran­caster in Nor­folk), ‘Eden’ (11th on the Old Course), ‘Biar­ritz’ (a fea­ture at Biar­ritz le Phare in France on a hole that was lost decades ago), and Redan (15th at North Ber­wick).

The re­design was well re­ceived and, some­what un­ex­pect­edly, the neigh­bour­ing clubs ac­tu­ally en­joyed a cor­dial re­la­tion­ship with Shinnecock open­ing its fa­cil­i­ties to NGLA mem­bers be­fore the

new course had its own club­house, and the two shar­ing a pro­fes­sional/green­keeper dur­ing the first world war.


Mac­don­ald and Raynor’s Shinnecock course lasted a dozen years be­fore, in 1928, the New York State Route 27 was routed through the course’s south­ern holes. The Pres­i­dent of the club at the time was Lu­cien Tyng, a fi­nancier and pub­lic util­i­ties ex­ec­u­tive, who bought a sub­stan­tial chunk of land to the east of the club­house on which to build new holes that he chose Wil­liam Flynn to de­sign.

Flynn was a very highly-re­garded golf course ar­chi­tect who had played sig­nif­i­cant roles in the cre­ation of Pine Val­ley and Me­rion GC’s fa­mous East Course in sub­ur­ban Philadel­phia. Tyng most prob­a­bly knew of Flynn through fi­nance and util­i­ties con­nec­tions, and had heard that not only was he a tal­ented de­signer but that he also knew more about agron­omy and tur­f­grass than any other ar­chi­tect around at the time.

When look­ing into his work at Shinnecock, or any­where for that mat­ter, it’s a good idea to talk with Wayne Mor­ri­son, a largely un­chal­lenged Flynn ex­pert who, since 2000, has been gath­er­ing a trove of maps, es­says, di­a­grams, pho­to­graphs and manuscripts – a 2,500page work he has ti­tled The Na­ture Faker. Mor­ri­son says Flynn’s rout­ing of Shinnecock Hills was far more so­phis­ti­cated than Mac­don­ald’s, tak­ing into ac­count sum­mer and win­ter’s op­po­site pre­vail­ing winds, and util­is­ing a rout­ing con­cept he called ‘tri­an­gu­la­tion’. “Flynn used tri­an­gu­la­tion on 10 holes in three sep­a­rate sets – 5th-7th, 10th-13th and 14th-16th,” he says (the holes were num­bered dif­fer­ently at the time, as the nines were later re­versed), and he made much more in­ter­est­ing use of doglegs. Flynn was mas­ter at rout­ing cour­ses.”

While Flynn de­signed the new course on which he re­tained only three of Mac­don­ald’s holes – the 3rd, the 7th (the fa­mous Redan), and the 9th – his busi­ness part­ner Howard Toomey built it, along with young as­so­ciates Dick Wil­son, Robert ‘Red’ Lawrence and Wil­liam Gor­don.

The qual­ity of Flynn’s de­sign has al­lowed Shinnecock Hills to re­main largely un­al­tered since the early 1930s. Of course, mi­nor changes have oc­curred and a ma­jor restora­tion, led by Mor­ri­son and his col­league Tom Paul, has been on­go­ing since 2005, since when much of Flynn’s strat­egy has been bought back and his greens ex­panded to their orig­i­nal sizes. Bill Coore and Ben Cren­shaw also contributed to that restora­tion which is now su­per­vised by the course’s su­per­in­ten­dent, Jon Jen­nings, who worked at Chicago GC for 12 years be­fore com­ing to Shinnecock Hills six years ago.

A ma­jor part of prepa­ra­tion for this year’s US Open hap­pened last Septem­ber when seven acres of turf from the edges of the fair­ways were rolled up and trucked away be­fore be­ing sub­sti­tuted by fes­cue from the club’s tiny par 3 course. “Our fair­way turf is com­prised of poa, rye­grass and bent­grass,” says Jen­nings. “When it grows above an inch, it is too dense (think un­playable) and doesn’t pro­vide the play­ing or vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ence we de­sired. Fes­cue is the ex­ist­ing grass be­yond the mowed rough and we wanted to have that be the turf fram­ing each hole.

“The club and the USGA want the course to play as close to Flynn’s ideal as pos­si­ble – wider than in re­cent years and more strate­gic,” he adds. “We did nar­row some fair­ways and put in the fes­cue rough to put a greater em­pha­sis on ac­cu­racy, but they’ll still be some of the widest fair­ways – 35-40 yards – ever at a US Open.”

Wayne Mor­ri­son’s hope now is that when the 118th US Open ar­rives, Wil­liam Flynn’s mag­nif­i­cent, en­dur­ing de­sign will get the recog­ni­tion it de­serves. “We want ev­ery­one that vis­its the US Open, or watches on TV, to ap­pre­ci­ate the golf club’s ef­forts to re­store the work of one of the game’s best ar­chi­tects on one of the world’s great cour­ses.”


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