The greatest players in the world must be anticipating the US Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club with the same sort of nervous anticipation that they approached their first date with an older and more experienced woman.
Shinnecock has nothing worth calling a hill across its broad expanse of land that is as close to a proper links as can be found in America. With no significant hills and almost bereft of trees, Shinnecock is windswept. Situated about 100 miles from New York at the distant tip of Long Island, Southampton is the resort of choice for the exceptionally well-heeled New Yorkers escaping the summer swelter of the city to the cooling ocean breezes, and it has long been so.
There is much myth about the earliest golf clubs in the US but there is absolutely no doubt that Shinnecock was the first course to be built on Long Island - and there is even less doubt about its quality. Only Pine Valley could seriously challenge Shinnecock for the title of 'best course in America', and, as far as a true test of golfing excellence is concerned, it stands supreme.
Of Shinnecock's origins there are several versions. The most appealing one is that William K Vanderbilt saw Willie Dunn play at Biarritz and, turning to his companions, made the memorable and prophetic remark: 'Gentlemen,' he said, 'this is a game that might go in our country.' Of course, golf was already being played in the US before 1889 but what Willie Dunn established in that year and what Dick Wilson renovated in the 1930s has been the ongoing yardstick for golf in America.
Shinnecock was named after the Indian tribe of these parts but its neighbour, the monumental National Golf Links of America, built by the magnificent autocrat, Charles Blair Macdonald, has no such sentiment. Nearby in the Hampton's, the Maidstone Club is where PG Woodhouse penned his amusing prose. The whole tip of Long Island compares with anywhere in Scotland for the density of high quality golf courses. Stanford White, one of America's greatest architects built Shinnecock clubhouse which remains supreme in the US. The clubhouses of the National and Maidstone have also been lovingly maintained in their conceptual integrity and are the best in the world.
Shinnecock has a long tradition of hosting the US Open. In 1896, James Foulis - newly emigrated from Tom Morris' workshop in St Andrews - was the winner. He was not the favourite but he was also not an unlikely winner and this has been the true of every winner at Shinnecock since. In recent years, Raymond Floyd (1986) and Corey Pavin (1995) have taken the laurels and, although both were seasoned campaigners, neither was in the 'likely winner' rankings. It is particularly significant that in both cases putting played the major part in the outcome. Floyd took only 111 putts and Pavin only three more. Both were shot makers with low ball flight trajectory and both were exceptionally accurate off the tee.
Nicklaus still speaks of Floyd's win at Shinnecock somewhat grim-faced for he made his one and only long slow walk back to the tee after losing a ball in the Shinnecock hay. It was his only lost ball in competitive play since his amateur days in the Championship at Royal St George's.
Tiger Woods also has unhappy memories of Shinnecock after spraining his wrist in the hay in 1995 and it is at least interesting to recall that Tiger also lost a ball in the hay field to the right of the first tee at Sandwich as well.
Of all the US Open venues, Shinnecock probably presents the best chance for British and Irish players who have been brought up on windy links conditions. Clearly, in this respect, Harrington and Clarke must consider Shinnecock to be a good opportunity.
In the height of summer in the drying winds, Shinnecock's greens are fast and infuriating. The course itself is not long at 7,000 yards and, given that the fairway is hit and in the right place, the shot maker through the breeze into the green will be rewarded: the, the hot putter will prevail but concentration will be required and, most critically, patience. This is not the place for the petulant short fuse nor for those becoming irritable waiting on the tee while some unfortunate in the game in front flattens the hay in search of his ball.
Shinnecock is the place for the ponderously patient Pod Harrington and it is on his uncertain back that I have staked my money. Nick Faldo is another whose game is eminently suited to these conditions and he deserves every respect for going through the qualifying rounds to enter the fray. But, sentiment aside, Faldo is worth a flutter for he is a serious contender and he is also a big time player.
Of the young and unpredictable, Justin Rose and Luke Donald have both the brains and the concentration required. David Howell has the all-round game and Garcia has again shown his credentials by not only coming from behind but also going through a play-off to take the Buick.
Of the old masters, Woods will not get away with his waywardness of late, Mickelson will have to remember to pack his brains and David Duval has just come out of the sticks and cannot possibly be competitive.
Shinnecock is the place of able if unlikely winners and Harrington fits the bill perfectly.
|| 14 - JUNE 2004