My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
The Golf Bucket List
Shinneock is a wonderful wonderful golf course. People have asked me to compare it to Merion, the other old-time, classic, top 10 course that I've played to date. I'd say that Merion beats Shinneock as far as total club experience, what with the showers, turtle soup, trophy room, dinner, etc... However, I think Shinneock has the slightly better golf course. It's just a no frills experience. You're there for the golf. For swimming and food, members have their Hamptons vacation homes and the Ocean. I'd be elated to be able to play Shinnecock every day of my life, and that's the mark of a great golf course. It's really cool that the club has been on the forefront on several things in the game too. Yes, the clubhouse, but more importantly, the club welcomed woman members from day one...an action that some clubs STILL haven't adopted to this day. For a top 5 club to take the lead on that matter is worthy of some form of recognition.
What a great day at Shinneock. Thanks so much to Tom for including me on this great day, and for Fred in hosting us. A true Bucket List experience, not just for my quest, but for life in general. After this, I'd be making the short trip to Bethpage State Park for the most polar opposite two-day stretch of golf in my life. Before I close, here are two crude videos that let you hear the winds of Shinnecock. What a day!
#14, "Thom's Elbow," Par 4, 438 Yards
This fantastic golf hole takes it's name from Charlie Thom, who was Shinnecock's head golf professional for over 50 years, beginning in 1906. I'll borrow its description from Jeff Barr's book, 1001 Golf Holes You Must Play Before You Die:
"The 14th at Shinnecock has been called the perfectly routed golf hole. it follows a natural valley and rolls upward to a green that is not hindered by mad-made mounding. Cleanliness, crispness. it is a pristine hole if there ever was one. That doesn't mean it's without nastiness along the way. The fairway is absurdly tight at points, yet that's where you must be if there's any hope for success. To the left is a collection of bunkers seemingly placed at random all the way down the rough, yet somehow situated in spots that your golf ball seems destined to find. If you stray left and happen to avoid the bunkers, you might get lucky enough to have a shot to the green, but luck would have to play an enormous role. If you miss the fairway right, there isn't enough good fortune in the world to secure rescue. It's ugly, it's deep, it's thick, and it's brown. Don't go there, or bogey is your best."
#13, "Road Side," Par 4, 354 Yards
Thirteen is a bit of a breather after several challenging holes in a row. The fairway narrow as you get closer to the green. There are some whispers that the USGA might set this hole up as a drivable par 4 for the US Open, at least for one day. I can't say I'm a huge fan of that, as the green is clearly not built to approach it with a driver or fairway wood, but he USGA does what the USGA does.
#12, "Tuckahoe," Par 4, 427 Yards
The most unique part of this flowing par 4 is the public road (Tuckahoe Road) that runs right through it, at about 100 yards from the green. Cars are supposed to stop when players are ready to hit...some do, some don't. I hit my drive way right into the rough and had to hit an iron out, which actually landed on the road, so it was a good thing that nobody was driving by at that moment. It's not a road with much traffic, but it's still public. Of course, they close the road when major tournaments are played. Bunkers straddle the landing area off the tee, and then are placed in an area short of the green on the second shot, which would need to be considered for a recovery shot out of the rough or bunkers.
#11, "Hill Head," Par 3, 146 Yards
This hole may as well be an island green because there is nowhere to miss that is any good, and up-and-downs are extremely difficult from anywhere. You just need to step up and execute a good shot to this green. It plays over bunkers, and uphill to a skyline green. A really good hole.
#9, "Ben Nevis," Par 4, 379 Yards
Many thing the back nine at Shinnecock is among the best nine holes in golf. I'd argue that this incredible stretch of golf should really start at #9, which I thought was one of the best holes on the course. The hole bends hard to the left, and goes uphill to a spot fronting the clubhouse. It's really a cool hole. The tee shot should split the chimneys on the clubhouse.
I learned early on in the process of working through the Bucket List, that there would need to be some strategy involved in attacking the list in the most efficient and cost effective manner. For example, for a person who lives in Michigan, it would be silly to travel out to Oregon and not to play all four Bandon Dunes courses, thus requiring a second trip. There would be courses where I had a connection (strong or weak) and would make it work eventually. However, moreso, there would be plenty of clubs where I had no connection or strategy to experience them. In some cases, I could work these out over time, but in other cases, I just had to hope for an Act of God, so to speak. In the case of Shinnecock, I had nothing....no clue how I would ever walk through the doors of the nation's oldest clubhouse and actually be granted access to the first tee. However, it was this very website that opened up the doors to one of golf's Mecca's. Incredibly, a reader of the site contacted me with an opportunity to play this fantastic track with 15 days notice. Of course, I maintain a day job, and what made things even more difficult is that the tee time would be a couple days after returning from another four day trip to East Lake, Honors, Holston Hills, and Lookout Mountain. However, there are courses you can take a pass on and wait for another opportunity, and there are courses were you just need to drop everything and go. Shinnecock is one of the ones where there is no conflict big enough to take a rain check. When you have a chance to go, you go.
So, go I went. With the prior trip just completed, I had to find a way to make this one as short as possible to keep my job! So, I would board a 6:05 AM flight out of Detroit, and hope it would get me to LaGuardia in a timely manner, without losing my golf clubs. All went as planned, as I landed, early, in Flushing at barely after 7:30. From there, I'd rent a car and head straight out to The Hamptons to meet up with my group for the day, whom I had never met. A few folks I shared my plans with were aghast when I said that I had accepted an invite from a person I'd never met, who emailed me after reading my website, suggesting that I might become a victim of some horror film in the process. Admittedly, it did require a bit of a leap of faith that it would all go as promised, but after trading messages with the individual who put it all together, I was put at ease. This was actually going to happen.
After arriving in the Hamptons, I wasn't sure what to expect. A guard gate, barbed wire, and a man with an automatic weapon wouldn't have surprised me, as I assumed this well-healed club would be similar to the likes of Augusta and Pine Valley to keep out the riff-raff. However, that couldn't have been further from the truth. In fact, after making a left turn off of Route 27, the club is right there, straddling a public road. Anybody can drive right past it, and in fact, right through it!
So, what makes Shinnecock so special? Well, first off is it's history:
From its website:
Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, founded in 1891, is one of the historic golfing institutions in the United States. It is the oldest incorporated golf club and was one of the five founding member clubs of the USGA. The Clubhouse, built in 1892, was the work of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. While in character it remains substantially the same as a century ago, it has enjoyed several expansions and renovations in the intervening decades, before undergoing a major restoration completed in 1991.
The original twelve hole golf course was designed by Willie Davis, and expanded to eighteen holes in the spring of 1895. These links were revised four times before the present course, designed by William Flynn and built by Dick Wilson of Toomey and Flynn, was opened for the 1931 season.
Shinnecock is laid out utilizing the natural topography of the Shinnecock Hills, and resembles a number of the courses on the British Isles. It has long been recognized as one of the top courses of the world, and has been the scene of notable U.S.G.A. events since its beginning. These include the second U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur in 1896, the Women’s Amateur in 1900, and the Walker Cup Match in 1977. The U.S. Open was held at Shinnecock again in 1986, and in 1995 for the 100th anniversary of the Open, and again in 2004. The 2018 U.S. Open will be held at Shinnecock.
From the yardage book:
Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, one of the five clubs that founded the U.S.G.A. in 1895, has stood the tests of time, yielding only one sub-par total through three prior Opens.
In a world of golf courses that establish bragging rights by simply adding length, Shinnecock offers 7,041 yards that require more skill than power. More deft touch than sinew and bone. More nerve than braggadocio.
1986 Open Champion Raymond Floyd said, "This is the greatest golf course I've ever seen. No matter which way the wind blows, you're guarnateed to face a different challenge on every hole. That's the genius of it."
From Ben Crenshaw, "Imagine The Masters, U.S. Open and British Open all rolled into one and you have some idea of the atmosphere of Shinnecock."
As these descriptions suggest, Shinnecock is essentially where golf began in the United States. To built its initial golf course, the club enlisted the services of Willie Davis, from Royal Montreal Golf Club, the first golf club in North America. A number of alterations were done in the years that followed, which included input from C.B. Macdonald, who designed the neighboring National Golf Links of America. However, today's routing is essentially the work of William Flynn, as said above. Aside from minor alterations, the course that stands today, is basically what he opened for play in 1931.
Also part of Shinnecock's history is its clubhouse, which is the first golf clubhouse in the United States. Being a wooden structure, I found it kind of amazing that the original structure still stands proud to this day. They have recently given it a bit of a face lift with new wooden shingles, but nothing major. The clubhouse sits perched on the highest ground, with a commanding view of nearly all the golf course below it. It's am amazing spot to just sit in awe of what lies around you. One bit of advice that I learned the hard way. The club has no problem with pictures taken of the golf course, but it does not allow pictures to be taken inside. I had snapped several before I learned this rule, so I'll keep those to myself and honor the club's wishes for privacy when it comes to the inside of the clubhouse. Let's just say it's extremely classy and a bit unique. The men's locker room is carpeted in bright red, with white paint on the old wooden lockers. There are several gathering and dining rooms, but they were all quiet and empty when we were there (Mid-May and Mid-Week likely played a role in that).
Shinnecock doesn't really follow some of the conventional private club rules. It's open on Mondays. It provides dinner service only rarely. The grill area is very small. Heating and air conditioning were added to the clubhouse only recently. Essentially, the clubhouse only stands as a complement to why the club really exists. And that is because of its world class golf course. Complementing that golf course is a really nice practice facility, along with a sporty looking par 3 course. About 270 people are lucky enough to call themselves members at Shinnecock.
The golf course itself is a masterpiece. The hills create genuine interest throughout many of the holes, and those without movement in the land found other ways to be exceptional golf holes. The course is a test, but is extremely fair. Fairways are quite wide, which is necessary to endure the frequent high winds that blow in the Shinnecock Hills. Our host told us that it can be very calm in the town of Southampton, while blowing hard at the club. The prevailing winds are out of the Southwest, with alternate winds coming from the Northwest. The routing of the course makes frequent changes in direction, so if you don't like the way the wind is blowing, you're certain to not face that impediment for long. On the day we played, the wind was out of the Northwest and blowing upwards of 30mph, which I'd argue is the more difficult wind direction, but still plenty playable. Of course, the winds are stronger when you're nearer the high ground, and not quite as penal when you get down into some other parts of the property. If you miss the fairway, you better hope it's not by much. Outside the regular rough is fescue that is cut once per year. Get in that, and good luck. Being May, it wasn't too high this time of year.
The course setup at Shinnecock is quite traditional with really only three tees set up each day. Coore and Crenshaw have been engaged to make some minor tweaks in advance of the 2018 US Open that the club will host. Part of this "renovation" has included building some US Open tee boxes that will stretch to course to give flexibility to the USGA in different wind conditions to test the world's best. However, for the rest of us, it's really just a choice between the White Tees, Green Tees, and Red Tees, with the Red Tees being the longest. Those Red Tees measure 6,781 yards with a par of 70, and play to a rating and slope of 73.7 and 138. With the winds blowing pretty hard in the eyes of the visitors, we decided the Green Tees would be appropriate, especially with a par of 70. Those tees play from 6,262 yards, with a rating and slope of 71.1 and 130. The forward White Tees, measure 5,394 yards. The US Open tees that are quoted in the yardage book measure 7,041 yards, but I think the Coore/Creenshaw renovation will add more distance to that. I'll quote the Green Tee distances below:
#18, "Home," Par 4, 380 Yards
The uphill 18th is probably best known for Corey Pavin's famous 4 wood to win the 1995 US Open, his only major championship. Aiming at the four bunkers that are between you and the 9th green is the perfect line. From there, bring enough club to get up the hill to the green, and a two-putt par eagerly awaits.
#17, "Eden," Par 3, 149 Yards
A short hole that must carry bunkers short of the green, with a tricky putting surface once you get there. This is the #18 handicap hole, but it can be plenty tough if you lose focus.
#16, "Shinnecock," Par 5, 464 Yards
With only two par fives on the course, this is a hole that needs to be taken advantage of. Even for the pros, it's only 520 yards (though a new tee is being built). However, there are no less than 20 bunkers on the hole, which can take an easy birdie and chance it into a bogey or worse quickly. Phil Mickelson famously struggled on this hole in the 1995 US Open, where improved play could have meant a championship. The line off the tee is at the flag just left of the clubhouse--the Shinnecock flag.
#15, "Sebonac," Par 4, 357 Yards
Playing downhill from a high up perch, this winding dogleg right, it really all about the approach shot into the green. Well guarded by five bunkers and with a green that rolls front to back, if you can find that green in two, you can make a good number here. Missing short of the green is bad, which is rare at Shinnecock where misses short are usually prefered. Along with #13, this is probably the easiest hole on the back nine and the best chance to score.
#10, "Eastward Ho," Par 3, 404 Yards
Aptly named, the 10th hole plays nearly due east and begins a nine that occupies the eastern portion of the property. As I said on the ninth hole, this is one of the best nine-hole stretches in golf, and number ten gets it off to a great start. A decision should be made on the tee as there is a steep hill and speed slot at about 260 yards from the tee that will complete alter the next shot. If you stay short of the hill, you'll have an approach of 150+ yards into a putting surface that is close to level with your ball (over a huge valley). Or, you can try to hit it down the hill. From there, you could end up with a pitch shot of less than 100 yards, but to a green that's way uphill. I tried to hit it as far as I could, but didn't reach the hill, so it was a 170 shot into the green from the rough. Not ideal!
#8, "Lowlands," Par 4, 327 Yards
Take advantage of this short and flat hole, because the stretch that begins with #9 is tough and hilly. It's also outstanding! The drive on this hole should favor the left side of the fairway. Most of Shinnecock's greens have either false fronts or sections that roll off into closely mown collection areas. The 8th is a good example of that.
#7, "Redan," Par 3, 164 Yards
Onto the infamous Redan. The disaster of the setup is what's most remembered on this hole. The story, as I was told, is that the club warned the USGA on Saturday night of the 2004 US Open that the winds were blowing from the Northwest and that this green would need water to stay playable. The problem with a Northwest wind on this hole is two-fold. First, it makes the hole play downright and a bit from the right. That in and of itself can be overcome, because the hole is intended to allow a shot on the ground that lands on the front right and rolls to the back left. However, a Northwest wind is typically a dryer wind, while the prevailing Southwest wind carries more moisture in it. Therefore, this drier wind would firm up the green even more overnight, and with the downwind conditions, the hole would be essentially unplayable in the final round of the US Open. They would syringe the green during play, but its fairness had already come and gone. Unfortunately, that situation gives most people a negative connotation of this otherwise great hole. As I said before, like a typical Redan, the play is to the from right of the green with a draw, where the contours of the green will send the ball toward the middle and possibly even the back left section.
#6, "Pond," Par 4, 421 Yards
The hardest hole on the front side requires a second shot carry over the only water hazard on the course. The right edge of the tree line is a good target off of the tee. Coore and Crenshaw restored a waste area that must be carried from the tee on this one.
#5, "Montauk," Par 5, 491 Yards
There are only two par 5's at Shinnecock Hills, with one on each nine. The line off the tee is at the pines on the left side. For the shorter hitters who are unable to carry the bunkers off of the tee, there is an alternate fairway on the right side. On the second shot, avoiding the bunkers is the key, either in the layup area or short of the green if you are trying to get there in two. A layup shot to the left will roll off a hill and funnel down toward the middle. I was able to make a clean par of this one. Driver, 3 Wood, a pitch and two putts. Nice!
#4, "Pump House," par 4, 373 Yards
Finally, we get a hole that doesn't play into the wind! This one bends to the right. Keeping the ball on the inside of the dogleg, closest to the fairway bunkers on the right side will yield the best angle of attack into the hole.
#3, "Peconic," Par 4, 415 Yards
Consecutive holes going in the same direction is rare at Shinnecock, but happens at the second and third holes. Therefore, this one played into the wind, and a bit out of the left. The bunkers aren't really in the landing zone for most players. It's the length that is the primary source of difficulty on this hole, which goes out to the Northwest corner of the property with National Golf Links of America on the opposite side of the trees to the left. Is there a better pair of neighboring courses anywhere in the world?
#2, "Plateau," Par 3, 193 Yards
Playing uphill and straight into the wind, I wasn't sure if I could even get a 3 wood to this green. So, I took an easy swing with a driver and put in on the green, in position for a two-putt par. There is some room to run up a shot that lands short of the green as long as it carries the bunkers on the left.
Looking back up the hill toward the clubhouse:
#1, "Westward Ho," Par 4, 380 Yards
What could have been a gentle handshake hole was made into a difficult opener with the wind direction as it was. The Northwest wind quartered into our faces and off the right from the tee, and right into our faces on the approach. A typical line off the tee can go over the right fairway bunker to leave a short approach into the green. A big hitter could even taking it over the second bunker on the right since the hole plays downhill. However, on this day, I wasn't going to try to carry and bunkers and aimed safely at the fat part of the fairway. From there, I had a fairway wood into the green. Yes, the winds were stiff on this day!