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Shinnecock Hills has its own qualities

6/14/2004

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.

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.

"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.

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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