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At This Week’s U.S. Open, a Venerable Golf Course Confronts Modernity

Shinnecock Hills, the exclusive golf club in Southampton, Long Island, that is hosting the U.S. Open this week, is the most venerable, and arguably the greatest, championship course in America. Founded in 1891, by a group of wealthy New Yorkers that included William K. Vanderbilt, it extends over two hundred and fifty acres of hilly, and now immensely valuable, land to the south of Peconic Bay. A year after it opened, the course was converted from twelve to eighteen holes, and in 1896 it hosted its first major championships: the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur. (In the those days, the U.S. Amateur was the more prestigious of the two.)

The combination of a stark, undulating landscape, sandy soil, excellent course conditioning, and breezes between ten and twenty miles per hour that blow in from the Atlantic make Shinnecock Hills an ideal location for golf. In a pre-tournament media briefing a few weeks ago, Mike Davis, the chief executive of the United States Golf Association, which organizes the Open, said that, in terms of championship venues, “I can’t think of a better golf course in the world than Shinnecock Hills.”

The last two Opens that Shinnecock hosted were both memorable. In 1995, Corey Pavin, a diminutive and short-hitting Californian, stroked a magnificent 4-wood onto the eighteenth green on Sunday afternoon to defeat the powerful Australian Greg Norman, who was then the best player in the world. In 2004, Retief Goosen, a taciturn South African, emerged as the victor after Phil Mickelson, so often the bridesmaid at the Open, double-bogeyed the par-3 seventeenth when he had a share of the lead. (I was following Mickelson’s group and, even today, I recall the silence that accompanied him to the eighteenth tee.)

This year, however, a menace is stalking Shinnecock Hills: the menace of physical and technological progress. Like almost all of the great courses, it was built in an era when driving the golf ball three hundred yards was unheard of. Today, it’s a feat that most top players can accomplish with relative ease, and some of them—such as Dustin Johnson, the number-one-ranked player in the world; Rory McIlroy, who is now ranked sixth; and Tiger Woods, who is on the comeback trail—sometimes bash it three hundred and fifty yards, or even farther. To players of this ilk, a four-hundred-and-eighty-yard par 4—a hole that would strike fear into the heart of a typical


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