Players in next year’s U.S. Open, June 14-17 at Shinnecock Hills, will confront a substantially different course than they faced in 2004: longer, more open in terms of tree removal, and in some places narrower in key landing zones.
Some of those changes have been a long time coming. The club recently concluded a meticulous restoration to its 1931 William S. Flynn design – a drawing in Flynn’s own hand that is displayed in the clubhouse. The restoration included fairway expansion, bringing bunker play closer to the ideal line, a return to more naturalized dunes blowouts, removal of ryegrass roughs and replacement with native fescues and blue stem, and lengthening to ensure the relevance of long-carry bunkers and kick slopes.
The par-70 course, which played 6,996 yards for the 2004 Open, was stretched by 449 yards to 7,445. That’s a 6.4 percent extension. Since 2004, the median drive as measured on the PGA Tour has grown by 1.9 percent, from 287.2 yards to 292.6.
Shinnecock Hills sports 10 new back tees, with the longest extensions (76 yards each) coming at the par-4 14th (now 519 yards) and the par-5 16th (616 yards).
The narrowing of some landing areas and removal of some greenside low-mow turf came at the request of the U.S. Golf Association. Each year senior USGA officials sit down immediately after an Open to review course performance.
For example, in the run-up to the 2017 Open at Erin Hills, course set-up was guided by the expectation of strong prevailing winds. But those winds never materialized, enabling the wide-open course to play relatively benignly in the eyes of Mike Davis, executive director and CEO of the USGA.
“Looking back at Erin Hills, it was a new course for us, we wanted to accommodate the wind” Davis said. While we are satisfied with how it played, we want to make sure that accuracy off the tee is a big part of a U.S. Open.”
That doesn’t mean the USGA will revert to the form of three or four decades ago and simply narrow the fairways to pencil-thin widths. When the U.S. Open was held at Shinnecock Hills in 1986, 1995 and 2004, the fairways were tightened to 26-28 yards regardless of fairway bunkering. Many sand hazards were surrounded by heavy rough and denied their intended role as strategic elements.
For next year’s Open, USGA officials made sure the recalibration of fairways respected local ground conditions. That took into account strategic bunkers and the lay of the land, including crucial slopes and angles.
In the case of the par-4, 500-yard third hole, a new tee on the inside of the dogleg left created a sharper angle off the tee that has been accentuated by tightening the carry down the left side. Tee shots to the right can bound through the fairway into bunkers that are closer than ever to the line of play.
The narrowing was implemented during a hectic 10 days in mid-September that saw the grounds crew, under superintendent Jonathan Jennings, replace seven acres of the club’s 50 acres of fairway and greenside low-mow surrounds with intermediate-mowed fescue and seed-head fescue.
Fairway widths, still on the relatively generous side for a U.S. Open, are now 28-34 yards in the championship landing areas. But their delineation pays close attention to the lay of the land and the presence of fairway bunkers.
No greens were re-contoured despite the controversy of the final round in 2004, when an unanticipated dry wind from the northwest turned the playing surfaces rock hard, with play suspended on the par-3 seventh hole when players were putting off the green into bunkers. On the most severely contoured par 3s, the seventh and 11th, the surrounding run-off areas have been extended, and a modest collar
of rough has been introduced around greenside bunkers to limit the likelihood of putts careening into bunkers.
Few courses have evolved over the decades as has Shinnecock Hills. It is the only U.S. Open course to have held the national championship
in three centuries. Back in 1986 and 1995, the course was heavily tree lined, with only truncated vistas available across the 250-acre site. Now it’s much more open to the sun and wind.
As for the ground game, it’s more expansive than ever, even if lately pared back a touch to be demanding for players skilled enough to play for sides of fairways.
(Note: This story appears in the Oct. 9, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)