ERIN, Wis. — The head of the U.S. Golf Association promised on Wednesday that Shinnecock Hills will look much different when the U.S. Open returns to Long Island a year from now than it did when the championship last left it. For starters, the course will have living, green grass.
“In terms of what happened in ’04, believe me, we are mindful of that,” Mike Davis, USGA executive director, said. “That will not happen again. If it does, I’m retiring.”
The grounds, and especially the greens, were a scorched brown at the end of the final round of the 2004 Open in Southampton. And the world’s best golfers were seeing red about the conditions that the USGA had administered in hopes of making the layout firm and fast. At the time, the feeling was that something had to be done to toughen the course in the absence of the East End’s normally stern winds.
Davis was not in charge back then, but he was visible. He was the one standing near the battered seventh green, speaking into a walkie-talkie, receiving orders to allow workers to spray water on the putting surface during play. That, he promised during his pre-Open news conference at Erin Hills, will not happen again.
Advances in turf management have been dramatic, and the USGA’s outlook about making courses penal have softened since then — having led to Davis becoming the lead person on course setup and eventually as head of the entire association. He and Jeff Hall, the top rules official, will tour Shinnecock next month. From the reports they have heard, they expect to see only good things.
Both pointed out that the course will play about 500 yards longer and many holes will be wider than they were in 1986, 1995 and 2004. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were hired by the membership to restore Shinnecock to the look it had in 1931, when William Flynn remodeled the 19th-century venue into an American classic.
“It had kind of shrunk a little bit on the fairway-width side of things,” said Hall, former tournament director for the Metropolitan PGA. “It’s a windswept property and if you’re looking at [narrow] Winged Foot corridors when it’s blowing that hard . . . ”
If the wind does not blow, so be it. The USGA will not try sorcery or dehydration as an antidote. The scorched earth appearance left a bad taste in the mouths of members as well as players and golf fans. But the USGA and Shinnecock patched up their differences and agreed to hold the Open there in 2026 as well as next year.
Among golf aficionados, Shinnecock never did lose its luster. “Spectacular,” said Paul Azinger, who is here as an analyst on Fox telecasts. “It’s one of the greatest golf courses I’ve ever seen. It looks like the most natural piece of property in the world. I played two U.S. Opens on it and it beat me to a pulp. A lot of times you fall in hate with a USGA golf course because they make it so hard but I fell in love with it. I played poorly and fell in love, so that’s pretty good.”
Azinger admitted he had the opposite reaction to Bethpage Black, “It unnerved me,” he said, but said he “embraced” Shinnecock.
Internationally acclaimed course architect and Babylon native Gil Hanse, who also is working on Fox TV this week, said, “The golf course just lays on that landscape unlike any other. You’ve got all that tradition associated with it. That stretch of golf there, Shinnecock, National and Maidstone, there is nowhere in the world that is better, for a set of three golf courses.”
Davis said the greens will be covered with tarpaulins all winter, just to be safe. “It is,” the top USGA executive said, “a great golf course.”