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Portrait sets record straight on designer of Shinnecock course

Bohemia-based artist Elaine Faith Thompson works on "Shinnecock

Bohemia-based artist Elaine Faith Thompson works on "Shinnecock 18th Hole and Willie Davis," which gives proper attribution to the original architect of the golf course. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The confusion over who designed the historic Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton is a dilemma that could be referred to as a case of the Willies: Golf professionals Willie Dunn and Willie Davis have both been credited with determining its layout.

But a new painting by Bohemia-based artist Elaine Faith Thompson titled “Shinnecock 18th Hole and Willie Davis” — an 18-by-24-inch oil painting created for the 118th U.S. Open, set for June 14-17 at the Southampton course — gives proper attribution to its original architect.

In 1891, Davis designed what was then a 12-hole course, the first “formalized” golf course in America, according to a history of the club published in 1991. Still, that feat was frequently attributed to Willie Dunn, who designed holes 13 through 18 several years after the course opened. It wasn’t until 1986, when the U.S. Golf Association’s museum staff uncovered new evidence of the course’s designer, that Davis began to get credit.

To honor his legacy, Thompson’s vision for the painting was to superimpose his image with the clubhouse in the background.

She took her own photographs of the clubhouse and located a photo of Davis in the 1991 history booklet. The club said it wasn’t clear who owned the rights to the photograph, so to use Davis’ likeness as reference, the USGA asked Thompson to get permission from one of his descendants.

In February, Thompson found an obituary for Davis’ granddaughter, Esther Davis Martensen, who had died just two months earlier. She contacted the funeral home, which then reached out to Martensen’s daughter, Susan, who was living outside Cleveland.

Susan Martensen said she was more than happy to grant Thompson permission to use her great-grandfather’s image.

“She would always say she never thought he got the recognition he deserved,” Martensen said of her mother. “It’s just unfortunate she can’t be here to enjoy it.”

Davis died in 1902 at age 39 and never met his granddaughter, who was born in 1921. Martensen and a nephew will make the trip to Southampton in June to see the course and the painting.

Thompson is no stranger to golf art. She has also painted commemorative pieces for the 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2009 U.S. Open events, as well as the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open at Sebonack Golf Club, which is near the Shinnecock course.

Fine-art prints for this year’s painting will be available for $99 inside the event’s merchandise tent, at Thompson’s home gallery and other locations. A limited number of artist’s proofs will be offered for $199. The original will sell for $75,000, though the USGA has right of first refusal, Thompson said.

The portrait will be unveiled at 3 p.m. April 29 at the Bellport Community Center. An artist reception will be held from 2 to 5 p.m., and all are invited.

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