Shinnecock Hills: Why it would be the one place I'd go for a round of golf
With golf fans once again being treated to views of magnificent Shinnecock Hills this week as the 156 players prepare for the start of play Thursday in the 118th U.S. Open, the popular discussion questions of “what course would you want to play for the rest of your life if you only had one to play,” or “if you could only play one more round somewhere, where would it be” come quickly to my mind.
Realizing that the influence of my golf opinions—written and spoken—at best have never risen above the moderate level in the forums I have used, I feel compelled by the warmth and affection I feel about Shinnecock Hills to proclaim that the Long Island legend would be my choice for the course to play for the rest of my life.
I would have other contenders, naturally, ranging from other classics—The Old Course at St. Andrews, Winged Foot (West or East, I would take either!), Garden City GC, Pine Valley, Newport CC—to lesser known locales—courses of the Canadian Maritime Provinces (Highlands Links for one), Architects Golf Club—to places of my youth in central Illinois—Highland Park in Bloomington and Blue Grass Creek in Minier. I had fondness for the Ocean Links Course at Amelia Island Resort but sadly it appears to be destined for housing.
Why Shinnecock is the leader for me begins with the memorability quotient. I have only played it a couple times, and not in several years, but the layout and feel of being there remains vivid in my mind. The vista from the clubhouse and finishing holes 9 and 18 allows you to see nearly the entire course, except for the first holes on the back nine. Then there is the atmosphere, history and locale. The view of the famed windmill at nearby National Golf Links of America is unique. You can feel golf in the air, talk about it all you want, and oddly enough, be so engulfed about where you are that getting out to play might go to the back of your mind. You simply like being there.
My first time at Shinnecock was on Monday, May 12, 1986. I know the precise day because I have kept a log of my golf rounds since leaving Illinois to join Golf Digest in 1984. From that log, for instance, I know my second round of golf as an Easterner was on Sunday, April 29, 1984, on Winged Foot West. I believe my group was member Jerry Tarde, Ross Goodner and Andy Nusbaum, but I know for sure my first tee shot went sailing onto the range on No. 1. I likely was shown mercy and allowed a lunch ball. To further digress, what does it mean that I recall the negative things that happened to me at famous courses? Embarrassing moments are hard to forget, I suspect. The one time I played Pine Valley, November 4, 1989, I remember making a double bogey on the first hole, putting awful (37 putts) and only hitting three greens in a round of 91. There, at least, the ambience of the clubhouse, staying overnight, and the presence of English writing legend Peter Dobereiner helped me get over a forgettable golf performance.
But back to Shinnecock in 1986. The round was on U.S. Open Media Day, in cool, blustery weather similar to what the players faced in practice today. In fact, I wrote a special note in my log that we played “in damn cold, rainy and windy weather.” Besides the memorability of being at Shinnecock, I also recall all these years later the long slog it took to get out to Southampton—it felt like you were driving back across the Atlantic—and that I had to play with a busted left thumb.
Yea, how was that? I had to play Shinnecock Hills for the first time with my left thumb bandaged. A week before the round I had worked on a light fixture in my house and made a three-quarters inch cut on the right side of my left thumb. I should have gone for stitches, but tried to let it heal with butterfly Band-Aids, but there weren’t enough days to let the cut close up. I wasn’t about to miss this chance, however, so I had to play with a thick bandage in addition to the rain and cold. I only hit four fairways and two greens, took 35 putts and shot 95.
The round happens to be the only one of mine that was written about in a newspaper. I was in a group with Joe Juliano of the Philadelphia Inquirer, photographer Dan Farrell, and writer Hank Machirella, the latter two from the New York Daily News. Machirella, who passed away in 1998, wrote about the round a month later during the paper's preview coverage and in describing the course hole by hole included notes from our round. He quoted Andy North, the defending champion who was at the media day, telling us press hacks, “Par for you fellows out there today will be 93.” From that comment, I was only two over par, but I was still very unhappy about the thumb injury and my play. The beauty of Machirella’s report is that it chronicled my round's big moment, on the 453-yard, par-4 third hole, which was playing into the wind. I still had 102 yards for my third, which I punched with an 8-iron, the ball holing out for a birdie.
Overall, I didn’t give Shinnecock my best that day, but my next time there, in October 1991, I had 84 with 31 putts and a birdie on No. 1. My other trips to Shinnecock were to attend the U.S. Open, but whether I was playing or observing, the experience was equally special.
My grand plan was to come back to Shinnecock during the U.S. Open this week and do so as a volunteer, which I signed up for in 2017. I opted to be in several duties that would let me be out on the course or the range, anything that would allow me to be outside seeing the course and players. From that vantage point I planned on writing on my website about what I saw each day. Instead I was assigned to merchandise-tent duty.
It’s rare that I would pair Shinnecock with the word “disappointment,” but to be indoors all week was not acceptable and I backed out of volunteering. Instead, I will watch my golf mecca, just across Long Island Sound from where I live in Connecticut, on TV and be reminded of how special Shinnecock Hills is to me as a golf location.