What the U.S. Open needs more than anything else is a homecoming. Like a sailor coming in from rough seas, a worker escaping a bad day on the job, a youngster reeling after a tough day at school, the national championship needs a familiar and sturdy refuge.
More than ever, it needs Shinnecock Hills.
Not the Shinnecock Hills that the U.S. Golf Association left in ashes 14 years ago, but the place as it has been for decades and is again now — its grass green, its fescue blooming, its flags flapping in the South Fork breeze. Those are welcome sights for the national championship, which in recent years has been unmoored by controversy, debacle and fiasco.
It is good to be home. Home to one of the founding clubs of the USGA. Home to the course that hosted the second U.S. Open in 1896 and is uniquely into its third century with the Open. Home to the region that gave birth to American golf.Home to where the national championship can dismiss the memory of what has been called the Great 2004 Bakeoff (when the greens were allowed to die of thirst), of Dustin Johnson’s awkwardly handled penalty stroke at Oakmont, of the rain-check snafu at Bethpage, of the questionable decision to take the Open to Chambers Bay, where the grounds looked like the surface of the moon.
Last year, Mike Davis, the chief executive officer of the USGA, decreed it was very important that the association have a good Open in 2017. It didn’t. Unproven and wide-open Erin Hills was no match for modern golfers. The absence of any challenge and drama became just another embarrassment.
Concerned that a recent makeover had taken the sting out of the course, Davis approached Shinnecock last year and asked that the fairways be narrowed. The club swiftly complied, transplanting seven acres of fescue to serve as rough. It was a gesture that emphatically said, “No hard feelings about 2004.”
“More than anything, those were personality conflicts rather than organizational conflicts,” Shinnecock Hills president Brett Pickett said. “Those personalities on both sides have moved on and the people on both sides today get along extremely well on a personal level. The only things that really matter for us about 2004 are, one, did the best player over four days win? The answer is yes (Retief Goosen). And two, have the people in charge today learned from the mistakes of the people in charge back then? The answer is absolutely yes.”
Pickett recognizes the potential of new chances. His father, John O. Pickett, took the Islanders from the brink of bankruptcy and turned them into a thriving business and Stanley Cup dynasty. The younger Pickett also knows the magic of his course.
“There is nothing that feels better than being able to share Shinnecock with people who love golf. It is the greatest feeling in the world,” he said. “Through the USGA, we have this opportunity every so often to share this place with the outside world. It is, kind of on a large scale, how we feel when we bring a pal to see it for the first time. It is this exhilarating feeling to share something that is so special in gof.”
Which is not to say this is sheer philanthropy. The USGA pays millions for the rental. But the fact is, Shinnecock Hills never will have to hold a bake sale or a car wash to keep the gate open. The place does not need a major championship to stay in business.
It is simply better for everyone that the Open is back on solid ground. Shinnecock Hills has a presence that restores stability and stature. Davis said, “Sometimes there are awkward situations that come up, like at Oakmont with Dustin Johnson. But that could have happened at any event, anywhere. It just so happened it was at the U.S. Open.
“We know we’re at one of the world’s greatest golf courses, and to me, it is just, ‘Get this golf course set up properly and then sit back and watch the 156 best players in the world compete for that silver trophy.’” In other words, let Shinnecock be Shinnecock.
Davis once said, on behalf of the whole USGA, that if there is a repeat of 2004, “We all quit.” He is confident that the momentum finally will turn. The U.S. Open at last has a shot at beating the odds and circumstances. And it has an advantage this time. It’s a home game.
Future sites of the U.S. Open
Pebble Beach, Pebble Beach, Calif.
Past Opens: 5 (1972, 1982, 1992, 2000, 2010)
2010: Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland won his first Major.
Winged Foot, Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Past Opens: 5 (1929, 1959, 1974, 1984, 2006)
2006: Phil Mickelson’s troubles open door for Geoff Ogilvy.
Torrey Pines, San Diego, Calif.
Past Opens: 1 (2008)
2008: Tiger Woods beat Rocco Mediate in 19-hole playoff.
The Country Club, Brookline, Mass.
Past Opens: 3 (1988, 1963, 1913)
1988: Curtis Strange won in playoff over Nick Faldo.
Los Angeles Country Club
Past Opens: None
Pinehurst, Pinehurst, N.C.
Past Opens: 3 (1999, 2005, 2014)
2014: Martin Kaymer led wire-to-wire to win his second Major.
Oakmont Country Club
Past Opens: 9 (1927, 1935, 1953, 1962, 1973, 1983, 1994, 2007, 2016)
2016: Dustin Johnson won his first Major.
Past Opens: 5 (1896, 1986, 1995, 2004, 2018)
2004: Retief Goosen edges Phil Mickelson by two shots.