About the first thing Mark Michaud did after arriving in 2000 as the course superintendent at Shinnecock Hills GC was fire up the chainsaws. Michaud had his crew chop down pines and hardwoods, rip out vines and underbrush, clear entire hillsides to open up startling new vistas. There are no secluded corners at Shinnecock anymore. You can now see the clubhouse from way over on the third green, at the far end of the course. The 443-yard 14th hole, once a bobsled-run fairway down a tree-lined corridor, is now a bobsled run down flanking dunes of tall, wavy fescue and bluestem grasses.
Michaud's defoliation of Shinnecock was not only practical -- providing a lot more air and sunlight to turfgrass and a lot more spectator vantage points for this year's U.S. Open -- it was also symbolic. Shinnecock Hills, you see, has emerged from the shadows cast by its peers. Long considered one of a handful of this nation's best golf courses, up there with Pine Valley, Augusta National, Cypress Point and Pebble Beach, it has now moved to the head of the pack, at least in the minds of some.
"Shinnecock is wonderful, superb, magnificent, all the cliches you can muster. I don't see how you cannot be a Shinnecock enthusiast. It is as good as it gets," says Frank Hannigan, former senior executive director of the USGA and the man usually credited with returning the U.S. Open to Shinnecock Hills in 1986 after a 90-year absence. But that idea, Hannigan says, really came from Harry Easterly Jr., a former president of the USGA and Hannigan's predecessor as executive director. Easterly signed a contract with the club, then told Hannigan to work out the details. "We hadn't given any thought to traffic, parking or housing," Hannigan says with a chuckle. "But we pulled it off, and it was a huge success."
It was after that 1986 U.S. Open that Shinnecock Hills first moved into the top 10 of Golf Digest's biennial rankings of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses. It has remained there ever since, once ranked as high as third, never lower than its present position of sixth, but always something of an underdog. Under Golf Digest's scoring system, which evaluates courses on a variety of architectural criteria, Shinnecock scored highest in the nation in the Resistance to Scoring category in the 2003 survey (8.95 points out of a maximum 10), but trails all the courses above it in the bonus Tradition category, even Pine Valley and Cypress Point, which have never hosted any major championships. Golf Digest's system is designed to remove the influence of any emotional attachment to a particular course, which makes it entirely too clinical to some, like Hannigan, who has long grumbled that you can't judge great art by numbers, any more than paint-by-numbers can amount to great art.
If you factor passion into the equation, Shinnecock Hills fares better. It may lack the grandeur of Pebble Beach, the polish of Augusta National and the mystique of Pine Valley, but it also lacks detractors. Plenty of experts think Pebble and Augusta and even Pine Valley are overrated, but it is hard to find anyone who'll say that about Shinnecock. If anything, knowledgeable golfers feel it's underrated. If course rankings were run by an applause meter, Shinnecock would bust the needle. Other big-name courses may be respected and admired, but Shinnecock is beloved.
"I love Shinnecock," says Masters champion Phil Mickelson. "The greens are very small, and they were so hard in '95 that it played just brutal in the wind. But it's really a fair test, tee to green, and on the greens, it's spectacular. I think it's a complete golf course."
"I think it's the best course in America," says Tom Lehman, who was tied for the lead after three rounds of the '95 Open at Shinnecock and ultimately finished third. "It has 18 outstanding golf holes that are difficult, fair, require different shots and make you use every club in the bag. It has the feel of a links, because of the roly-poly nature of the ground and the severity of the wind, so the ball tends to bounce a bit. Shinnecock never lets up. From the very beginning, you've got to be hitting the ball solid, you've got to be chipping, you've got to be putting."
"It's the Holy Grail of golf in America," Johnny Miller wrote in a Golf World column in 1995. "Shot for shot -- Shinnecock is America's best."
Corey Pavin, who won the '95 Open, declines to proclaim Shinnecock as the very pinnacle, mainly because he refuses to pick any single course. "I suppose it could be," Pavin says. "Certainly it's in my top 10, and I'm sure I'm coloring my opinion by the fact that I won there. But it's definitely one of the best courses in the United States."
If there is a dissenting opinion of sorts, Hannigan says it came from Jack Nicklaus, following a practice round for the 1986 Open. Hannigan insists Nicklaus walked up and coolly remarked, "Nice members' course."
"I don't recall saying that," Nicklaus said recently. "However, I do feel it is a nice members' course, and I mean that in a very complimentary way. At Shinnecock, the members see fairways that are wide, with plenty of room to play. But for the U.S. Open, they will narrow the fairways, move the tees back and hide the pins. And that's all they'll have to do."
Other course architects are more enthusiastic in their praise of Shinnecock. Tom Doak, who is collaborating with Nicklaus on the design of Sebonack GC on property right next door to Shinnecock, loves its design by William S. Flynn, a routing that has remained virtually unchanged since the present course opened in 1931. In his 1996 book The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Doak gave Shinnecock his highest possible rating, a perfect 10, calling it "simple and straightforward" and noting that the "beautiful native roughs and dramatic undulations of the property give it a character all its own."
Add to that the captivating, zigzag nature of Shinnecock's fairways, says golf architect Brian Silva, another longtime student of Shinnecock. A straight hole like the 540-yard 16th actually has four bends in the fairway as it snakes around bunkers left and right.
"Shinnecock's strength is its angles," Silva says. "The use of diagonals and random bunkering give its fairways great twists and turns. É The twists and turns set up some fade drives, some hook drives and some straight ones. Sometimes, this demand for a variety of shot-shaping can be found within a single hole, like a fade off the tee, then a draw into the green. How awesome is that?"
Indeed, what Shinnecock Hills offers in a single round is every imaginable type of terrain and every conceivable shot needed for a complete examination of golf. It has rolling fairways with barely a level lie and a couple of dead-flat fairways at the fourth and eighth. It has holes playing well downhill off elevated tees, like the first and 15th, and holes playing uphill to nearly blind greens, like the par-4 ninth. Some greens slant considerably forward, some roll from side to side, a couple cant from front to back and, in the case of the famed "Redan" par-3 seventh, one slopes right to left as well as front to back. All of this means that proper position on each green is often more important than being near the hole.
"The [challenge] with the ninth is not that it's so much uphill to the green, but that they're hitting uphill and have to leave it below the hole," says Doak. "If you end up above the hole, it's an impossible putt. The green is probably 40 feet above the fairway, so elevated that players can't dial in an exact yardage. That's what gets them frustrated." What can also be frustrating is when the ninth plays dead into the wind, as it did during the opening round in 1986. Not a single player reached the green in regulation that day.
Another wrinkle, first tried on selected holes at the 1995 Open, are shaved banks around all the greens, instituted to add a Pinehurst touch to Shinnecock. Players missing greens will face recovery shots from tight lies, often down in hollows well below the putting surface. A few may still try flop shots, but some will play bump-and-runs with an iron or metal wood, and others may try to putt up the slopes. Such indecision over the correct club selection may well lead to more frustration.
Hannigan points out this will be Shinnecock's first Open since the recent revolution in equipment (The average driving distance on the PGA Tour was 263.5 yards in 1995; it was 286.3 yards in 2003.) In 1985, feeling Shinnecock needed some added length, the USGA added the present back tees to the ninth and 18th holes, stretching the former to 443 yards and the latter to 450 yards. "The 18th went from a modestly OK par 4 to one that was legitimately brutish," Hannigan says. "I dare say this year we probably won't see the winner bouncing a 4-wood onto the 18th green the way Pavin did in '95. They'll probably be hitting 8-irons into it. But we shall see."
Three holes have been lengthened for the 2004 championship, including the par-4 third to 478 yards and the par-4 eighth to 398 yards. A couple of holes actually will play shorter than in 1995, particularly the par-3 17th, seven yards less at 179 yards, from a new tee more to the right of the old one. The par-70 course will measure 6,996 yards (a palindromic number any way you look at it), up from 6,927 yards in 1995. Hannigan and others ponder whether that is sufficient length for today's best players.
"The acid test will be the 16th," Hannigan says. "It has always been an incredible par 5 because the second shot was so very important, especially when the wind was up. If you missed the fairway on the second shot, it was always an automatic bogey. I wonder if it will play that way this time. If guys are out there banging an iron onto the green for their second shots, that would be sad. It would also be a clear indication of what's gone wrong with modern golf."
But tournament results really have little to do with critical acceptance of what are the top courses in America. If they did, Medinah No. 3 near Chicago and Valhalla GC in Louisville would be considered two of America's very best, because Tiger Woods won back-to-back PGA Championships on them. Both are very fine courses, but not among the killer elite.
Shinnecock Hills, however, is the real deal. As a result of its many recent improvements, Shinnecock now arguably has as few flaws as Pine Valley, Pebble Beach and Augusta National, and far more fans. Just try to find somebody who's played it and doesn't like it.