After 127 years, there are many descriptions that fit Shinnecock Hills Golf Club: Venerable, stately, traditional and dignified come to mind. At the U.S. Open that formally begins Monday with official practice rounds, there is yet another word that applies: New.
As odd as it might seem, one of the most storied and treasured courses in the country represents a novel experience for the overwhelming majority of golfers who will tee it up Thursday. A quick count indicates that only 18 of the 156 entrants have ever played a competitive round at Shinnecock before.
That means nobody knows what to expect. Even the 18 current players who were here in 2004 do not have much to go on because the fairways have been widened and many trees have been felled. It is a different course. Plus, there is a whole new layer of intrigue owing to the fact everyone hits it farther than they did 14 years ago. In a casual practice round with Jordan Spieth right before 5 p.m. Sunday, Tiger Woods hit iron off the tee on the 399-yard first hole (Spieth hit hybrid).
So, everyone is in the process of learning or re-learning the layout. Not to mention getting a first lesson in the history of the place: How, for the 1896 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, much of the course was where the highway and railroad tracks are now, and how members back then wore scarlet jackets (long before Augusta National and its green jackets came to be).
About the only factor that is certain is that the mostly Millennial field is preparing to enjoy the new ride.
“It just makes it a more special place, the history that comes from here, the type of champions who have won here,” Tony Finau said after having had his first look at it on Sunday.
The 28-year-old from Salt Lake City, a winner on the PGA Tour, was not exactly glued to the TV during the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock.
“I don’t remember much. I remember the seventh green,” he said of the infamously overdried, browned-out par-3 hole.
The course he saw yesterday was green all over.
“They were lenient with us on a few holes that I saw. But the challenge of getting it on the green and putting it on the right surface is what makes this course,” he said. “It’s a great challenge from tee to green.”
Rickie Fowler, 29, fell in love with Shinnecock early. “The first time I played it,” he said, adding that it was about four years ago.
The four-time PGA Tour winner was not preparing for a championship. He had just heard about Shinnecock’s reputation and got on a plane to come play it. Although he has yet to play a round on it that really counts, he considers it one of his favorite venues anywhere.
“I’ve done two trips up here, to come and play some of the courses. I made sure this was one of them. I think I played it twice the first time, once or twice the second. I wanted to make sure we got some time in on this place,” he said after having finished a practice round with Justin Thomas and Jimmy Walker. “It’s a great track. It’s right in front of you, and it’s hard.”
Mike Miller of Brewster, a former New York State Open champion, has grown up in the metropolitan area but never had played Shinnecock before last week. The 26-year-old earned his way in by qualifying in the sectional last week at Canoe Brook.
“You just have to find fairways. If you’re not hitting the fairways, it’s going to be tough. Right now, it’s softer than what I assume it will be on Thursday. I’m sure it will be fantastic during the week,” he said. “There is nothing better. This is where you want to be these are the guys you want to play against. The whole place is truly awesome. Spectacular, actually.”