U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills: Driving Pros Mad

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The magic of Southampton’s Shinnecock Hills Golf Club lies in its history.

It is one of the inaugural five golf clubs of the U.S. Golf Association. Its clubhouse is the oldest in America. And it’ll soon be the only venue to have hosted the Open in three different centuries.

But for USGA officials tasked with making sure the Open venue poses a stiff test for the world’s best golfers, the layout of the East End’s crown golf jewel carries more weight than its illustrious backstory.

“They’ve been growing the fescue out over the past couple of weeks,” Shinnecock Caddie Master Greg Gagliardo tells the Press. “They brought the fairways in tighter back in September.”

The most recent design modifications undertaken at Shinnecock Hills involved seven years of back and forth with USGA officials. The renovations undertaken were intended to make the course more Open-centric. Seven acres of fairway were converted into rough.

The latest modifications came after the 2017 U.S. Open at Wisconsin’s Erin Hills, where the course played far too easy for the pros and featured a winning score of 16-under par. It was clear that USGA officials were keen on creating a stiffer challenge in 2018.

“The club undertook a restoration to return the golf course to its roots,” USGA official Jeff Hall told Golfing World late last year, speaking of that first renovation.

“The restoration work was wonderful, but we need to strike a balance between being true to the architecture and testing the best players in the world,” Hall said. “In collaboration with the club, we’ve undertaken a tightening of the golf course.”

Shinnecock Hills Golf Club
Shinnecock Hills Golf Club

Many tees have also been pushed back. The course will be playing around 7,500 yards, far longer than the length of 6,996 it was back in 2004, the last time the Open came to Southampton.

“I think we’ve struck the right balance between making sure accuracy is a key component…and being true to the architecture and design,” Hall said.

Long Islanders will make the trek to the East End and watch a new generation of PGA pros try to take on one of America’s original golf masterpieces. Of the top 10 golfers according to the Official World Golf Ranking, only 2013 U.S. Open Champion Justin Rose has played at Shinnecock Hills before. Rose missed the cut back at the ’04 Open, shooting an impressively bad 15 over par Thursday and Friday combined.

Shinnecock’s layout has a few blind tee shots, but the course’s beauty is evident right off the first tee box. Doglegs, bunkers, and of course the iconic thick fescue are visible more often than not from the slightly elevated tee boxes overlooking Peconic Bay.

“The first tee offers a nice view of the golf course,” Gagliardo says. “The fescue will be blowing in the wind. Even with the tents in the way, it’s a nice panoramic view of the course.”

Shinnecock had not previously been a course that mandates 325-yard drives down every par-4 to be in contention on Sunday. In light of these modifications though, it seems that USGA officials are intent on rewarding long hitters like Dustin Johnson, moving with a common trend in the game.

Back in 2004, it was not the course’s length or tightness that gave golfers fits. The par 3 seventh hole was the most contentious point of the weekend.

“The seventh hole is unplayable,’’ PGA tour pro Ernie Els said at the time, when only two golfers finished the weekend under par.

“The majority of the field is going to make (bogey) there,” Els ranted. “It’s ridiculous. The green has to be a little bit receptive. The green slopes right to left away from you, and where they put the flag, you had no chance. They didn’t quite set it up the way the hole was designed.”