If the three holes of Augusta National's Amen Comer are the recognized holy trinity of professional golf, a new unholy trinity may have emerged at Shinnecock Hills last week. As relentless a test as Shinnecock proved to be, it was the three finishing holes that defined this national championship. Sixteen, 17 and 18 were the site of so much carnage, so many stirring finishes, blown opportunities, decisive swings and appalling hacks that they seemed part of a links-land drama scripted by Shakespeare but brought to life by Quentin Tarantino. After four eventful rounds this trio earned its own nickname. Call it Aw Man Corner.
"Those holes will make you crazy," said Bill Glasson, who played the trio in even par for the week. "They're nasty and they're fun, and that's how it's supposed to be."
"It's like getting hit with a wild flurry of punches right at the bell," said Bill Murchison, who would certainly know. A bout with 18 KO'd his tournament hopes.
It's not that the closing holes are necessarily Shinnecock's hardest, they just come at a bad time. Windblown, worn-out and wound too tight, the Open competitors often staggered like drunken sailors into the finish. Those who regained their equilibrium in time contended for the trophy. For the rest, the last three holes were where their chances at victory went to die. Corey Pavin's win will no doubt be remembered for his heroic four-wood approach to the 72nd hole, but for the week he played the finishing holes in one under. Important? "Huge," Pavin said Sunday night. Yes, it was. Had Phil Mickelson played those holes at even par, he would have won the Open by four strokes. Instead he finished in a six-way tie for fourth, four off the pace. On Sunday, Tom Lehman's tournament chances ended with an unsightly double bogey on the 16th. He finished third. "Down the stretch," said Lehman afterward, "you're nervous, the wind is blowing, and all you're hoping to do is survive. Not many did."
The two nines at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club are actually reversed for the U.S. Open, meaning the 18th hole last week is what the members play as the 9th hole. The flip-flop is done because the club's number 18 has no room for grandstands and is less telegenic than the adjacent 9th. The change also creates a stouter road home.
The 16th is a sinuous par-5 of 544 yards, with a green fronted by a rash of bunkers and, on the left, a meadow of fescue. It was the decisive hole at the '86 Open, the place where Ray Floyd left the rest of the field behind with a 10-foot birdie putt. This year it played straight into the wind the final three rounds, making it a tricky three shots to the green. Still, most players considered 16 a good birdie opportunity—excepting those times when they were making bogey.
Because 16 is one of only two par-5s at Shinnecock, "you feel like you are losing ground if you don't come away with a birdie," said Jeff Maggert. Never mind that the wind and the rough add about another 100 yards in distance. The hole also has some of the riskiest pin placements at the Open, which is what nabbed Mickelson. "I haven't played the approach at 16 very smart," he said after a third-round bogey. "I should just shoot for the middle, but I keep thinking that the hole owes me, so I go for the birdie." He finished the week six over on 16.
The par-3 17th has added a new tee box since the '86 Open, growing 17 yards to 186. The new tee also creates a more extreme approach angle, as players now have to carry three bunkers yet stop the ball on a shallow green.
Like 16, the 17th also suckers players into mistakes. All the trouble at 17 is on the left side, so naturally that is where the pin was placed three of the four days. Play it safe to the right, and you're left with a downhill 30-footer. Go pin-seeking and you have to contend with the sand. "How hard is getting at the pin on 17?" asked Glasson. "Way too hard."
Eighteen is a brute, a fishhook-shaped par-4 of 450 yards, all uphill. The green is one of Shinnecock's most severe, pitching steeply from back to front. It's a little like putting in a bathtub and trying to stop the ball before it gets to the drain. "Leaving yourself a downhill putt on that green is the ultimate sin," Glasson said. "That is one of the toughest putts I've ever seen." Just as it was in 1986, 18 was statistically the hardest hole on the course, costing an average of 4.5 strokes.