Chris Vaccaro

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Long Island’s Golf Riches on Display for World

Shinnecock Hills Golf Club hosted the 2018 U.S. Open.

For the 10th time in history, Long Island hosted a U.S. Open championship this past weekend. That includes tournaments for both men and women and a historic timeline that dates back to 1896.

Walking the course at Shinnecock Hills this year, it’s easy to get swept up in the sprawling hills and picturesque terrain without thinking of the robust history associated with the land.

This was the fifth Open held at Shinnecock. The first was in 1896 when James Foulis, better known for inventing the modern 7-iron, won the only tournament of his career.

It would be another 90 years before Shinnecock hosted again. Raymond Floyd, a World Golf Hall of Famer, shot a 66 in the final round to edge out Greg Norman and win the Open in 1986.

In 1995, it was Norman again playing runner-up, this time to Corey Pavin, who ran valiantly down the fairway after his 4-wood approach on the 18th hole sealed his victory. This was also the first U.S. Open for a 19-year-old Tiger Woods. Rateif Goosen won at Shinnecock in 2004 and Brooks Koepka nailed his second straight U.S. Open title this year, becoming just the seventh person in history to win the big dance in back-to-back years.

In between the Shinnecock moments, Garden City Golf Club (1902), Inwood Country Club (1923), Bethpage (2002 and 2009) and Sebonack (2013) all hosted the U.S. Open. Most notable are Bobby Jones winning in 1923 simply because he is one of the most influential figures in the history of American sports, Woods winning in 2002 at Bethpage, which we know now as the prime of the modern legend’s career, and Inbee Park winning in 2013, the first women’s U.S. Open on the island.

Long Island’s golf landscape is more than championships and big names, it’s about the dense arrangement of courses scattered from Queens to Montauk. It’s why many consider Long Island the world’s premier golfing destination – sorry, Scotland. The diverse placement of courses feature both a modern parkland build of tree-lined fairways, and courses with older treeless and hilly swaths. You can go anywhere in Nassau or Suffolk and run into a course that is revered internationally.

You could read novels about the green pastures and bountiful gusts of swirling positive sentiments about the courses in these parts, but it’s really Shinnecock that holds the top flavor for golf enthusiasts. Maybe it’s the historical factor of being the oldest formal golf course in America when it opened in 1891, or the first course to have a club house when that opened in 1892, or the host location of just the second U.S. Open in history 1896.
Golfers simply love the challenge. During interview after interview, one golfer after the next mentioned how tough the course would be and that even aiming for par would be a challenge.

“You’ve got to play really good golf if you want to shoot a good score, and I like where par is a good score on every hole no matter what club you got in your hand, what hole it is,” said Dustin Johnson, the top ranked golfer in the world, who finished three-over and in third this year.

“A par is a really good score,” he continued. “Around here, the fairways are fairly generous, but with crosswinds on every hole, they’re still tough to hit. Even though you’re in the middle of the fairway, a lot of times with a wedge you’ve still got to hit a good shot just to give yourself a 15- or 20-footer.”

Rickie Fowler said he played 13 rounds of golf on Long Island in 2013 and was waiting for the opportunity to play in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock. He finished tied for 20th at 11-over.

“I’ve always heard about the great golf in Long Island, especially in the Hamptons, and I wanted to get up here and see and play some of the golf courses because I just love to play golf,” he said. “Shinnecock is my favorite as far as it’s a real golf course. It’s going to test you, day in and day out, and it’s very straightforward right in front of you.”

Many golfers admire holes 14 and 15 as two of the most scenic in the country. Rory McIlroy played at National, Friar’s Head, and Garden City while he was in town for the Open.

“Obviously, with the history and the architecture, but I’m a big fan of what Coore and Crenshaw have tried to do with their golf courses,” he said referring to the golf course architectural firm that has developed or renovated hundreds of courses, “and Friar’s Head is one of the best I’ve played. Not just for the design, but just for the setting and the scenery.”

For all the same reasons, Shinnecock will once again host the Open in 2026, and before that, Bethpage will host the PGA Championship in 2019, where once again Long Island will be on display as a premier golfing destination.

Major Golf Championships on Long Island (men and women)

Year Location Tournament Winner
2026 Shinnecock Hills U.S. Open men TBD
2019 Bethpage State Park PGA Championship TBD
2018 Shinnecock Hills U.S. Open men Brooks Koepka
2013 Sebonack Golf Club U.S. Open women Inbee Park
2009 Bethpage State Park U.S. Open men Lucas Glover
2004 Shinnecock Hills U.S. Open men Rateif Goosen
2002 Bethpage State Park U.S. Open men Tiger Woods
1995 Shinnecock Hills U.S. Open men Corey Paven
1986 Shinnecock Hills U.S. Open men Raymond Floyd
1926 Salisbury Country Club PGA Championship Walter Hagen
1923 Inwood Country Club U.S. Open men Bobby Jones
1921 Inwood Country Club PGA Championship Walter Hagen
1919 Engineers Country Club PGA Championship Jim Barnes
1902 Garden City Golf Club U.S. Open men Laurie Auchterlonie
1896 Shinnecock Hills U.S. Open men James Foulis

*Note: A number of Walker Cup tournaments were also played in Long Island, but not reflected in this chart.

 

Chris R. Vaccaro is Executive Director of the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame.

Belmont Stakes History Runs Deeper Than Triple Crown

Justify lead the pack from start to finish when he became the 13th horse in 150 years to win the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 11, 2018.

As Justify beautifully and methodically crossed the finish line Saturday to capture the hearts and spirits of 90,000 spectators at Belmont Park and win the Triple Crown, the historical significance was almost too perfect.

Keep in mind the spectacle was the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes. Anniversary events are special regardless if a breathtaking and historic feat is achieved. Justify ran the mile and a half fast track in 2 minutes 28.18 seconds in front of a ruckus grandstand showering the colt in adulation.

For Long Island, the Belmont Stakes is more than just a thoroughbred horse race. It’s a reminder of the rich and vibrant sporting culture in these parts that dates back centuries. If not for the Belmont family, who lived prominently in Babylon, there would be no Belmont Park or Stakes.

There are throws of articles crediting August Belmont II with saving thoroughbred racing on the East Coast in the early part of the 20th century. Belmont Park opened in May 1905, but the Belmont Stakes started in 1867, first at Jerome Park in the Bronx and later at Morris Park in Westchester before landing at their namesake park in Elmont for the last 113 years.

The Belmont Stakes is named in honor of August I, a politician, financier and chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

His son, who was an inaugural “Pillars of the Turf” inductee of the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame, is a founding member of The Jockey Club, the National Steeplechase Association and the Westchester Racing Association. He also served as chairman of the New York Racing Commission. His power and influence in the sport led to the creation of Belmont Park in honor of his family’s name.

August Belmont II

Belmont, the track, has been a haven for sports history over the last century. It has been the last leg of the Triple Crown and those legendary names like Man o’ War, War Admiral, Admiration, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, as well as the eight others, all ran to glory at the same vaunted location just off the Cross Island Parkway on the border of Nassau County and Queens.

According to his biography on the Racing Hall of Fame’s website, members of The Jockey Club said Belmont II, “loved the horse as an animal and saw in racing an opportunity for raising the standard and improving the qualities of the thoroughbred, thus adding to the prosperity of the breeder and furnishing broader avenues for clean and honest sport.”

August II, a horse breeder on top of his business ties to the sport, raised many of his stock right in Babylon on the family property. For their historical significance to sports and the local scene, the family was posthumously inducted to the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.

For just the 13th time in history, a horse won the Triple Crown in 2018. Under the watch of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and under the guidance of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Justify’s name will forever run deep in Belmont.

Larry Collmus, calling the action live for NBC Sports, belted an appropriate and now lasting line as Justify soared past the finishing gate: “He’s just perfect, and now he’s just immortal.”

One hundred and fifty years since the first Belmont Stakes, the same can be said for the Belmont Family.

Chris R. Vaccaro is Executive Director of the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame.

Long Island Homecoming for Villanova’s Jay Wright

Jay Wright court side at Nassau Coliseum.

Jay Wright was using words like strange and unusual as he prepared his top-ranked Villanova men’s basketball team to play against his beloved Hofstra, the school that gave him his first job as a head coach in 1994.

“I’m messed up on this one,” Wright said of his emotions following a 95-71 Villanova victory at the newly renovated Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Friday night. “I don’t want to beat Hofstra. I root for Hofstra.

“We watch Hofstra games and still follow the Hofstra scores,” he continued. “It was emotional. We don’t usually do that. It was unusual.”

It has been 16 years since Wright coached at Hofstra and his legacy continues to grow thanks to his historic tenure on Hempstead Turnpike. Wright was only at Hofstra from 1994 through 2001, but two American East Conference championships and two trips to the NCAA tournament later made Wright one of the top figures in university history.

He left Hofstra in 2001 for the same position at Villanova, where he has risen his profile as one of the premier coaches in the country having led the Wildcats to a national championship last year.

“He is one of the most impactful people in Hofstra athletic history,” said Stephen Gorchov, Hofstra’s associate director of athletic communications, then a basketball team manager when Wright was first hired. “To have him still come back and understand how important this is to him, he is a god-like figure at this university. He changed this university, not just the basketball program.”

Prior to the game, he and Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich, a fellow Philadelphia native, spoke to a group of Hofstra alumni supporters, something he would never ordinarily do with an opponent. After the game, he and his wife, Patty, stayed at the Garden City Hotel and planned on visiting friends in Rockville Centre, where he lived while coaching on Long Island.

Wright was content with staying at Hofstra, but the prospects of coaching at Villanova in his native Philadelphia were too strong.

“If he could have stayed at Hofstra the rest of his career, I’m sure he would have died a happy man,” said Mihalich.

He remembers the journey from the humble beginnings as a first-time head coach and the patient understanding from then-Hofstra president, Dr. James Shuart.

“The early struggles you look back on fondly,” he said. “It’s the tough times that you appreciate the most. We were not good in the beginning and I was not good as a head coach then. I could tell administration believed in us and they were adamant about that. It was a slow process to get it going. They knew I was a young, inexperienced coach and they kept pumping me up and supporting us.”

He remembers those joyous occasions too – like upsetting St. John’s the last time Hofstra played at Nassau Coliseum in December 2000 – because that taste of victory was sweet after taking over a program that was in need of new life following the retirement of coach Butch Van Breda Kolff.

The uncertainty and naiveté wore off quick. Hofstra was 31-51 in his first three seasons and 91-34 in his last four, evolving into one of the best mid-major schools in the country in relatively no time. Life was good in Hempstead.

“We were a big-time program,” Wright said proudly. “We were getting big time recruits; the arena was sold out and we got a lot of support from the athletic department and the president, Dr. Shuart. It was a fun time.”

Wright will forever be linked with Speedy Claxton, his star player on those championship teams who later went on to a successful career in the NBA and today serves as an assistant coach at his alma mater.

Most people call the Mack Sports Complex – Hofstra’s home court – the “House that Speedy Built,” but, “that building is probably not here without Jay,” said Gorchov. “The reason Speedy is here is because Jay Wright was here.”

Claxton described Wright as bringing a certain energy to the program, but had no idea almost 20 years ago that his college coach would be on track for a hall of fame career. He likened his nature to other famous coaches he played for in the pros, namely Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich.

“He’s Bill Self, he’s Jim Calhoun, he’s Jim Boeheim, he’s a hall of famer,” said Mihalich. “We need to enjoy him and watch him work. Just like his team, there is no weakness there. He’s the total package.”

Claxton agreed.

“To see what he built from scratch,” said Claxton, “this place was nothing when he took over. We worked every year and got better year in and year out until finally we won a championship. It was an unbelievable feeling because you know what this place was and what we came from.”

Even after the national championship, two Final Fours, three straight seasons of being ranked No. 1, and nearly 400 wins with the Wildcats, those days at Hofstra arena and the physical fitness center before that still reign supreme.

“I was probably more thrilled to win that first conference championship at Hofstra than I was to win the national championship at Villanova,” said Wright. “You’re a lot more mature. You have a lot more understanding of the big picture of college basketball.

“At that time, I was naïve and inexperienced,” he continued. “It was as much a shock to me as it was anybody else. I was along for the ride. I didn’t know what to expect. It was exhilarating and it was surreal.”

He had the same sentiment Friday night.