You could say that Shinnecock was a blustery beast on Thursday, or that Shinnecock was heartless and mean. In truth, what really happened during the first round of the U.S. Open was that Shinnecock was Shinnecock.
This was the real Shinnecock Hills. It was not dried out or tricked up. It was not Shinnecock Extra, but Shinnecock Natural. The wind that always has shaped the course’s character showed up in force and an authentic U.S. Open arrived with it.
If only this breeze had been here in 2004, we might have been spared the ghastly sight of the parched earth and the greens being watered during play. When the wind didn’t show, the U.S. Golf Association tried to overcompensate for the calm air by making the place too firm and fast. Had yesterday’s gusts been around, there probably would not have been bad feelings between the club and the association. We probably would not have had to wait 14 years for a day like Thursday.
As it turned out, it was worth the wait. Despite the fact the fairways were 15 yards wider on average than they had been in 2004, the course was no pushover the way Erin Hills was last year. The thick fescue rough made it imperative that golfers put the ball in the fairway and the wind made it more difficult for them to do so.
The greens were not unduly fast. In fact, most of Tiger Woods’ missed putts fell short. Harold Varner, who finished at 9-over-par 79 after having gone out in the first group, said, “I thought they set it up pretty good, to be honest with you. If you hit it in the fairway, you’re going to be able to get good looks. If it was playing as firm as it was in the practice round, I would have shot a million.”
Shinnecock is not designed to embarrass players or punish their good shots. It demands that they adjust to the changing South Fork winds. Woods, after shooting 78 that included a few crooked numbers, said, “It’s tough out there, but you shouldn’t make two doubles and a triple.”
Only four players broke par, all at 1 under, which is just right for an Open’s opening. Currents are expected to grow calmer Friday and Saturday and scores should improve.
That is welcome news for the whole field, especially Scott Gregory, a 23-year-old first-year pro from Waterlooville, Hampshire, England. He shot a weekend golfer-like 92, becoming the first one in 16 years to shoot 90 or worse in a U.S. Open round.
In true Open fashion and with respect to Shinnecock, he took it in good stride. “Every time, I was just trying to get it in the fairway. And I didn’t do that,” he said. “You’re just not going to get it close to a lot of pins. You’ve got to take your medicine.”
So, how does a person deal with a score like that? “Realizing you are actually quite good,” the 2017 Walker Cup player said. “I mean, everyone has bad days. You know you can do it. I qualified last week so I can’t be all that bad.”
He added that the dream-come-true of meeting Woods on the range Wednesday and taking (and framing) a photo of it eclipsed the nightmare 92. “I tend to forget pretty quick about scores,” Gregory said.
For the rest of us, though, Thursday was one to remember because the great players were so sternly tested.
“The severity of the rough, the severity of the greens,” said Andrew (Beef) Johnston, a crowd favorite who was proud of his 73. “They’re sloping off, left-right, back to the front. You’re coming in sometimes with 5-iron or 6-iron from 200 yards, 220 yards with a cross wind. You’re trying to hit it into a section that’s like 20 foot. And if you get it slightly wrong, you’ve got to make sure you get it wrong on the right side.”
That said, how did he like it?
Said Johnston: “I love it.”
So do we. Hats off, and welcome back, to the real Shinnecock.