ERIN, Wisconsin — Next stop, Shinnecock. And not a minute too soon.
Now that the 2017 U.S. Open has finished its historic, quirky and controversial run at Erin Hills, it is officially Open season in Southampton. One last look at the former farmland northwest of Milwaukee was enough to make anyone in golf long for next June, when the championship comes home to one of its favorite places.
Golfers were complimentary about Erin Hills Sunday, which was both polite and understandable. Players never gripe about a course that is easy. Consider this: Seven golfers finished double-digits under par and four ended 11 under or better. In the 116 previous U.S. Opens, only six ever had been as low as 11 under at any point. No one other than a champion ever had finished an Open as low as 10 under.
The week was fun and exciting, but the untested new course — with its wide fairways and rain-softened greens — began the week as a question mark and ended the same way.
Returning to Shinnecock Hills will be like having a bowl of chicken soup, a tried and true home remedy. “That’s back to a classic course,” Keegan Bradley said. “Shinnecock Hills is a cool place. I’d love to play there.”
Bradley has played there once, when it was literally cool. He was on the St. John’s golf team and was invited on the course one January. “It was hard,” he said. Again, both literally and figuratively.
Ernie Els has a ton more familiarity with the club on Tuckahoe Road. He has friends who are members there. He played there in the 1995 U.S. Open, in a group with U.S. Amateur champion Tiger Woods. Els stormed off the grounds in 2004, despite a top-10 finish, fuming about the way the U.S. Golf Association allowed the greens to burn out.
“Well, they got it a bit ridiculous on that Sunday 13 years ago but it’s still one of my absolute favorite venues,” he said after his round Sunday, sitting behind the clubhouse in a steady breeze. “If you get wind like this, you could play [Shinnecock] at 7,000 yards. It’s a great design.”
Sadly, Els is not likely to be on the starter’s list when the tournament tees off next June. His five-year exemption for having won the British Open will have expired and he will need to have another big finish in a major between now and mid-2018 or receive a special exemption from the USGA as a two-time champion. Don’t bet on either.
“If something miraculous happens in the next six months, I would love to continue. But if it doesn’t happen, it’s been 25 years,” he said. “How many guys can say they’ve played in 25 U.S. Opens?”
How many clubs are able to say they have hosted U.S. Opens in three different centuries? Exactly one.
Bill Haas cannot wait to get back to the place where he made his first cut at a U.S. Open, the week his dad, Jay, held a share of the first-round lead. “We played right near each other on Sunday. I think he beat me by 10, so he put me in my place,” Haas said after making birdie on 18 to finish at 10 under Sunday. “I have really good memories of that place. I’m really looking forward to going back there.”
Stewart Cink cited the firm East End turf. “And that’s really what major championship golf is all about, controlling the ball on firm ground,” the 2009 British Open champion said. “I think Shinnecock is awesome. I played there in ’04 but I didn’t make the cut, so when it got crazy I wasn’t there. I was there when it was tame.
“I loved it, it was so cool. I remember coming there on Sunday the week before. It was closed — closed because the members were playing until 3 p.m. I thought that was pretty funny: The U.S. Open is coming and you can’t get on. It was OK. We played National.”
Like the neighboring National Golf Links of America, and unlike Erin Hills, Shinnecock has history on its side. Next year cannot get here quickly enough. It would help if the USGA lets the rough grow a little by then.