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U.S. Open: Shinnecock Hills had the country’s first golf clubhouse

A view of the club house during preview

A view of the club house during preview day for the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. on Monday, May 21, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

One of the all-time most recognizable and respected figures in golf will return to major championship competition this week. Front and center, right in the middle of the action, this icon will hold everyone’s attention throughout the U.S. Open.

Here’s to the world’s reunion with the Shinnecock Hills clubhouse.

The modest, stately structure that was designed by Stanford White and built in 1892 still stands on the highest ground at the club. It was the first golf clubhouse in the United States and it remains the first thing anyone notices when they pass by or enter the grounds. It defines and enlivens just about every photo of the course and carries its own noble personality into a third century.

“It is the history of American golf. That’s what it says to me,” club president Brett Pickett said. “The fact that we have a clubhouse that is the equal to our golf course is such a privilege. We take care of the clubhouse as fastidiously as we take care of the golf course. So much so that three years ago, we invested a huge amount of the members’ money to totally restore the clubhouse.”

The gabled, shingled building is the one constant in the five U.S. Opens at Shinnecock Hills. It stands out now as it did from its inception. “With no obvious precedents, the architect took his cues from the site, a rolling landscape with distant views of the sea,” White’s great-grandson Samuel wrote in “Stanford White, Architect,” his 2008 book. “Except for barns and windmills, the clubhouse would have been the only structure for miles.”

The front door still faces south, which is where the bulk of the course was before County Road 39 came through in 1929 and forced the club into a new layout.

Club member Bernard Bailey, chairman of Shinnecock’s house committee and head of the restoration effort, said: “My theory on how the building came to be is that these prosperous men who established a colony out in Southampton ran into golf in Biarritz, France. McKim, Meade & White probably had built houses for some of them. So they probably went to Stanford White and said, ‘Look, Stanny, why don’t you build us a little shack up on the hill? This golf thing, it may not go, so don’t build us anything grand, but build us something.’ For $8,000, they got a house that was very, very small.

“The fact is, golf was very successful. The club almost immediately ran out of space,” he said, adding that the building was expanded in 1896, 1903 and 1913. “The clubhouse you see today was essentially as it is by 1913.”

Understatement always has been its trademark. It never has been nearly as colorful as the architect, whose death was a page-one sensation in 1906. He was killed on the roof of Madison Square Garden by millionaire Harry Thaw, husband of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, whom White had been romancing. Nor has the clubhouse ever overshadowed the drama on the course.

“I like to say that it fits the membership because it’s not a fancy building. It fits the way the place is,” Bailey said.

Pickett said that the exterior’s historical details were painstakingly revived in the restoration. The interior was completely modernized, starting with a new foundation built through a series of excavations done without dislodging the building. State of the art electrical wiring was installed. Dust-gathering hardware was rescued from storage rooms, polished and placed in a new trophy room. Much of the second floor was converted into a new women’s locker room, with sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and Peconic Bay.

“We’re fortunate in that the club is in pretty good shape financially,” Bailey said, “so why not spend some money to ensure this clubhouse is going to be there for the next 100 years? That is an iconic building in all of golf. Everybody who plays golf knows what that building is. You don’t have to show them anything else. They look at it and say, ‘That’s Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.’ ”

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