The thousands of golfers trying to qualify for the U.S. Open all can envision what it will be like to play at Shinnecock Hills next month. In their mind’s eye, each of them can see the famous, venerable course. And at one of the 112 first-round sites, they will not even have to rely on their mind’s eye.
All they need to do during a qualifier at Southampton Golf Club Monday is look up while they are on the third fairway and they will have a clear view of the bleachers on Shinnecock’s 12th tee. If they hit their tee shots too far left on No. 6, they will land on Shinnecock property. Welcome to a chapter of “So Near, Yet So Far.”
With roughly 9,000 players shooting for approximately 90 available spaces in the Open field, it is a long shot for anyone to make it from a local qualifying tournament (another of which will be May 16 at Cherry Valley Club in Garden City). The local qualifiers then go to the sectional qualifier to earn a spot. But in the 18-hole event at Southampton Golf Club, it will at least feel like a short hop.
The venue is adjacent to Shinnecock Hills, with the same types of grass and one almost exactly matching hole. So, it is a motivational location, and a reminder of what an amazing slice of golf turf sits there. If they weren’t private clubs — and in some cases extraordinarily private — you could walk the whole way: Southampton Golf Club is next to Shinnecock, which is next to the National Golf Links of America, which is next to Sebonack Golf Club.
“It’s the soil, the terrain and the weather,” said Jimmy Choinski, superintendent at Southampton Golf Club, explaining what makes it seem like the acres were created specifically for golf.
Greg Gauvin, Southampton’s head pro, said, “Who would want to farm on such sandy soil? They knew what they were doing way back when, when they started building these courses.”
Southampton Golf Club is on land that once was either an apple or potato farm, depending on whose story you hear. The place never has had the worldwide cachet or jet-set membership of its neighbors. Southampton’s locker room is occupied by East End entrepreneurs, trades people and summer residents. Still, its roots reach deep into golf history.
It was built by renowned architect Seth Raynor, a Southampton man who was Charles Blair Macdonald’s engineer in the construction of National Golf Links. Macdonald and Raynor together reshaped Shinnecock in 1916. Thus, the seventh at Shinnecock is a Redan par-3 (the green slopes sharply right to left), a Raynor trademark that he also used for No. 7 at Southampton.
The latter course held a special place in Raynor’s heart, albeit briefly. He saw it take shape but did not live to witness the official opening in May, 1927. His legacy remains front and center, especially after a back-to-the-origins restoration seven years ago.
Such touches are important for the people who play at Shinnecock, who eat, sleep and breathe golf, according to Gauvin. “Our local core members know all of the history, they are very well attuned to what Shinnecock is, on the level of having the Open and how it is viewed in the world of golf,” he said the other day, in the Southampton pro shop. “Some of them grew up caddying over there. They’re not trying to be like Shinnecock. They want to make this place as nice as they can make it.”
So, the Open evokes excitement, not envy. Southampton members will marshal the first hole during the championship. Shinnecock has provided a rear gate through which Southampton members can get into the Open.
“They are great neighbors,” Choinski said. Bob Joyce, who has spent 49 years at Southampton as head pro and now pro emeritus, said he and his peers at Shinnecock and National used to talk about having a round in which they played six holes on each, but never quite got around to doing it. He calls Southampton the “most playable” of the lot.
Fifty-one pros and 41 amateurs will play it on Monday, with the top five advancing to a 36-hole sectional qualifier June 4. The field features Long Island club pros Matt Dobyns and Sean Farren, who have played in U.S. Opens, and Bob Rittberger, a former Open alternate. Also competing will be Matt Lowe of Farmingdale, a senior at the University of Richmond and 2017 winner of the prestigious Ike Championship, as well as Southampton Golf Club assistant pros Jason Russell and Colby Lewis.
They probably will have to go low (Joyce thinks at least four golfers will break par 70) while aiming high.
They will not have to look far for inspiration.