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The people who helped make history at Shinnecock Hills

Greens superintendant Peter Smith holds the pin on

Greens superintendant Peter Smith holds the pin on the sixth hole at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Shinnecock Hills on May 3, 1995. Credit: Newsday / John Cornell

When Alex White was a young boy in Southampton, he was drawn to the golf club that was itself fairly young. “He started as a caddie when he was nine years old, if you can believe that,” his daughter Diane said. “He worked there in one capacity or another well into his 80s.”

White died in 2009, weeks shy of his 99th birthday, having witnessed three U.S. Opens at Shinnecock Hills, the course he served for decades as caddie master. He was around when golfers’ prizes were in the millions, fondly telling visitors of the days when he made 75 cents for a loop, with a 25-cent tip.

He was one of the people whose very presence has written the elegant history of one of America’s most respected and venerable golf courses.

The caddie master used to tell guests that the northwest wind was the toughest and used to recall how golf was played on the grounds the day after the devastating Hurricane of 1938. Like his fellow lifers, he had almost indescribable affinity for the place.

“I think he loved the view from up on the hills. He said, ‘This was God’s country,’ ” his daughter said by phone from Saratoga Springs, adding that she will be back in Southampton for the U.S. Open, to be held next week three miles from the house in which she grew up. “He liked being outside, he enjoyed working with the caddies. He wrote dozens, if not hundreds, of letters of recommendation.”

A longtime competitive speed skater, White was something of an ambassador for the exclusive club to the public. He participated in civic activities and organized skating races for youth. “I think he might have been buried in a blazer that had ‘Shinnecock’ on it,” his daughter said. “Some of the caddies from the club came to the wake. Most of them didn’t even know him but they knew of his reputation.”

Father, son tended the course

Elmer and Peter Smith connected Shinnecock to its roots, figuratively and literally. The father and son were the first two superintendents, growing and maintaining the grass. They also were members of the Shinnecock Nation, which provided the work crews that built Shinnecock Hills in the early 1890s.

Elmer followed the path of his father, who worked on the greens staff for nearly 50 years, and was named superintendent in 1950. That was long before the advent of sophisticated irrigation systems. His son remembered how his dad used to drag hoses and sprinklers from hole to hole every night. Peter also once said that the club had offered the family a house on the grounds, but Elmer was concerned about his children having to be so quiet all the time.

So, they remained on the reservation, about a mile south of the 10th hole. During his time on the job, Shinnecock progressed from being a quaint, overlooked East End outpost (it did not even make Golf Digest’s 1966 list of top 15 courses in New York State) to a national treasure. He prepared it for the 1977 Walker Cup, which opened the door to the U.S. Open.

When Elmer died of a heart attack in 1980, club leadership quickly made it clear that the only candidate to replace him was his Dartmouth-educated son. Peter took the job and equipped himself more by studying turf management at Rutgers. He prepared Shinnecock for the 1986 and 1995 Opens, which were so well received that the U.S. Golf Association signed on for another go in 2004.

“Equipment is better, golfers are better. Hey, whatever they shoot, they shoot,” he said during a tour of the grounds in 1995. As it turned out, the course was so much of a test that no one broke par.

When Peter Smith was replaced in 1999 by Mark Michaud of Pebble Beach, it caused anguish in the Shinnecock Nation, which Smith served as tribal leader (as well as being a board member of Southampton Hospital). He became superintendent at the Foxwoods course in Connecticut, where he was working when he died at 47 of a heart attack in 2002. He remains the only superintendent to have prepared Shinnecock for two Opens.

Thom was pro 54 years

Like the sport of golf itself, Charlie Thom was an import from Scotland. He came from Montrose, north of Carnoustie, as an 18-year-old in 1899. He was named the pro at Shinnecock Hills in 1908 and remained in that job for the next 54 years.

Thom was an accomplished player, having won the 1913 Florida East Coast Open and 1915 California Open. He was in contention at the fabled 1913 U.S. Open, won by Francis Ouimet, before finishing 26th.

But he was most known for being a fixture at Shinnecock, cajoling the members and once playing a match against a stout golfer while wearing a pillow around his waist (to make it fair). He and his wife lived in a cottage near the long, bending par-4 14th hole, which to this day still is known as “Thom’s Elbow.” Hedges near his former home were used as a backdrop for interviews during the 1986 U.S. Open.

Neither the house nor the hedges are there any more as a new tee has been built on Thom’s Elbow, making it 75 yards longer than it was back then. Thom was succeeded as Shinnecock pro by Don McDougall, who held the job for 45 years, and Jack Druga, who has been there since 2007.

Women played big role

Right from the start, Shinnecock Hills was a welcome place for women. Female members were part of the club at its inception and a women’s nine-hole course was part of the layout in the late 19th Century. Janet Hoyt, daughter of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon Chase, was among the charter members.

A newspaper report at the time said that women represented much of the gallery at the 1896 U.S. Open at Shinnecock. So, it was no surprise that the club had been represented at the first U.S. Women’s Amateur championship on Nov. 9, 1895. It went beyond mere representation, in fact.

Shinnecock Hills member Lucy Barnes Brown, listed officially as Mrs. C.S. Brown, won the event held at the original Meadow Brook Club on the site of the current Meadowbrook Parkway. She was the best of 13 competitors on the nine-hole course, which they played twice.

The champion shot 132, a high score even for that era, owing in part to raw conditions and the fact Meadow Brook was considered the longest and possibly toughest layout in the U.S. at the time. The New York Sun reported, “Mrs. Brown is a graceful driver, but her great advantage was in finely directed approach shots and putting.”

Brown declined to defend her title the next year. In her place, Shinnecock sent teenager Beatrix Hoyt, Salmon Chase’s granddaughter, who won the first of three consecutive women’s amateurs in 1896. She spread such goodwill for Shinnecock Hills that the club was tabbed to host the women’s championship in 1900.

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