WHO CAN (AND CAN’T) WIN THE US OPEN
SShinnecock Hills is the only course to host the US Open in three different centuries and is rightly regarded as one of the championship’s great venues. Its first US Open, in 1896, was conducted over a course measuring just 4,423 yards made up of holes laid out by Willie Davis in 1891 and Tom Dunn in 1895.
Obviously, nothing can be gleaned from its first US Open as to what type of player Shinnecock might favour today, nor does its most recent staging of the event tell us much.
After 36 holes of the 2004 US Open, 11 players were under par, with Phil Mickelson and Shigeki Maruyama tied for the lead at sixunder. The USGA probably didn’t much care for the fact that many players had shot sub-140 for the first two rounds, so it beefed up the challenge for Saturday when the 66 players remaining could average no better than 74.6.
Saturday’s test paled against that of Sunday, however. Warm winds dried out the course to the point where green staff had to repeatedly hose the par-3 7th green to prevent every single tee shot from sliding off the putting surface. At the end of the day, the best golfers in the world had stumbled to a scoring average of 78.7, and all bar Retief Goosen, who won his second US Open in three years, went home cursing the USGA and its granite-top greens.
The 2018 version of Shinnecock Hills will be very different to that of 14 years ago. For starters, the greens will be green, and the grass on them alive. “We are mindful of what happened in 2004,” Mike Davis said during last year’s championship at Erin Hills. “That will not happen again. If it does, I’m retiring.”
At 7,445 yards, the course will be also almost 500 yards longer than in 2004. And, thanks to some tweaks by consulting architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Shinnecock will play close to architect William Flynn’s original intentions (see main feature).
Working with the membership and the USGA to modernise the course while retaining the flavour of Flynn’s layout, Coore and Crenshaw added 10 new back tees, widened the fairways to 40-45 yards in places, re-edged the bunkers, expanded greens that had lost their size and shape over the decades, removed trees, and replaced the thick-bladed rye grass in the rough with fescue. They also took out the mass of thick rough to the right of the 6th fairway where water tended to collect, replacing the top soil with sand to recreate the more natural linksy look from Flynn’s era. Which gets us to where we are now and the key questions.
Whose game is best-suited to Shinnecock?
Asked to predict a winner, or at least describe the sort of player the new-look Shinnecock might favour, Coore mentions says Flynn did such a masterful job that no one is automatically eliminated. “It’s just a great course that sets a stern examination,” he says. “The players will definitely need to think their way around, and wind will probably be a factor. Long hitters will have an advantage certainly, but I don’t think it will be as pronounced as at other courses.” Shinnecock Hills, Coore adds, really is a complete test that will expose any weaknesses, and where only the player in total control of all parts of his game can prevail.
What does history tell us?
The winners of Shinnecock’s three US Opens since 1986 were Ray Floyd, Corey Pavin, and Goosen. Floyd was an all-rounder combining both power and touch. His and Pavin’s short games were among the best of their day, while Goosen is/was known primarily as a great ball-striker.
It’s hard to identify a common characteristic besides the fact they were all well above the average age for a major winner. Before 2015, the average age for champions of Grand Slam events was 32. From 2015-2017, that dropped to 29.6 thanks largely to Jordan Spieth’s exploits.
It’s a small sample size, but the fact Floyd, Pavin and Goosen’s average age was 37.6 hints that Shinnecock Hills demands an elevated level of maturity, experience, and know-how.
How will the set-up affect the leaderboard?
While Coore and Crenshaw expanded Shinnecock’s fairways for the members, it’s unlikely the USGA will allow them to remain so wide for the US Open, especially after they received criticism for the width of the fairways at Erin Hills in 2017. The word is fairway landing areas will be between 28 and 34 yards wide – more generous than in ’86, ’95, and ’04, but not quite as charitable as they were last year when Brooks Koepka battered windless Erin Hills into submission. Mike Davis has said he wants accuracy off the tee to be a big part of the US Open, but it appears he’s still giving the players a little wiggle room. If the wind doesn’t blow and there is a little moisture in the ground, expect plenty of rounds in the 60s. If the wind rises, and the same warm winds that impacted 2004’s final round arrive, level par will be a good score and patience will be rewarded.
Taking all that into account, overleaf we narrow the field down to the 12 men who should be in the conversation at Shinnecock Hills.