SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- The extent to which architecture is part of the U.S. Open experience was on display Monday at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. This is, after all, not just a week to crown the national champion. It’s also an occasion to pay homage to the game’s heritage. This time around that means looking at course designer William S. Flynn (1890-1945), whose career culminated in the layout they’re playing here.
A U.S. Open forum like this has been held annually since 2013 at Merion Golf Club, led each time by USGA Executive Director and CEO Mike Davis. His deep interest in design is evident in the way he goes about course set up. Under previous USGA leaderships, course setup was form-fitted to a pre-existing notion based upon narrow fairways, dense rough everywhere and nerve-jangling hole locations.
That’s been changing lately, with more attention paid to the unique characteristics of the site, whether tree-lined parkland (Lake course at the Olympic Club in 2012) links like (Chambers Bay in 2015) or open prairie (Erin Hills, 2017).
This week, the sensibility out on Long island’s South Shore is rolling heathland, on a course that has gradually been restored to Flynn’s 1931 design. That means natural grasslands rather than tree-lined roughs. And it means firm, fast conditions with options off the tee to wide fairways (42 yards across) and lots of mown-down areas around expanded greens. As the speakers made clear at this forum, the Shinnecock that held U.S. Opens in 1986 (won by Raymond Floyd) and 1995 (Corey Pavin) was not the course the players will face this week. Nor does it have the turf issues of the 2004 U.S. Open (Retief Goosen).
It took the work of a meticulous archivist to dig up Flynn’s routing plans and hole-by-hole designs. Wayne Morrison, a Philadelphia-based international investor and golf architecture junkie, undertook the research and came up with a trove of material documenting Flynn’s career and specifically his work at Shinnecock. Morrison and a collaborator, Tom Paul, ended up producing a 2,400-page “book” (actually it’s a tome) called “The Nature Faker” that contains all of the existing Flynn material available. Luckily, Morrison speaks more concisely than he writes.
“Shinnecock represents a high-water mark in the Golden Age of Design,” said Morrison. “It’s naturalism that does not look man made.”
The material Morrison assembled for Shinnecock proved that the club had a lot of work to do to get back to Flynn’s original design. Years of tree growth, simplified mowing, inadequate irrigation and a tendency to let the greens shrink into circles had turned an elegant and spacious layout into something of a tightrope walk over grasses that were overly lush and dense when they should have been sparse.
The material confirmed that the club had an identity worth reclaiming. It helped green chairman Charles Stevenson make the case he was formulating to the club. The results, undertaken over the last eight years, have helped the club emerge from the controversy of the 2004 U.S. Open here.
Stevenson, a private investor based in Southampton, has been green chairman at Shinnecock Hills for 32 years. That achievement alone would be worth an hour-long seminar. After all, there are U.S. Open courses on the rota that have been through upwards of a dozen green chairmen in the last 15 years. But at Shinnecock, continuity reigns, and Davis was quick to applaud the outcome visible to anyone who has walked the course this week: a clearing of brush and trees; expanded closely mown areas around the greens; 10 new teeing grounds adding 449 yards to the golf course since 2004; dramatic green expansion; and considerable widening of fairways to provide options. As Stevenson made clear, "this isn't someone's folly or fantasy. We froze in on Flynn's DNA for the course, not what some green chairman thought of. The focus has been on Flynn's design, adapted to modern conditioning standards of mowing heights, firmness and the distances achieved by world-class golfers."
It was left to a world-class player on the forum, Hall of Famer Nick Price, to sum up the playing character of Shinnecock. A new member of the USGA Executive Committee, Price played in U.S. Opens here in 1995 and 2004 and marveled at what he saw this time around, especially at how "the idiosyncrasy of the wind" makes it hard to discern if the breeze is a plus or minus factor on the shot. The wind is more of a factor out there than it has been for decades. Flynn's routing exploits that uncertainty of wind. As Morrison describes it, the course is not built with an "out-and-back" sequence but more in the fashion of triangulation of a few holes in sectors.
Flynn, as it turns out, according to Morrison, never knew true linksland since he never ventured to Scotland or Ireland. His experience was entirely home grown in America. Seems like he did pretty well there.