Until last month, a 1938 Packard convertible, canary yellow, occupied the most prominent spot in the small parking lot of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. Its owner, club manager David Huschle, recently sold the car. Too bad. He should have been required to keep it as a condition of his employment, as an inspirational symbol for Shinnecock Hills and days long ago, before the game was defiled by paved cart paths, condominium-lined fairways and college golf scholarships.
Shinnecock Hills, site of the 26th Walker Cup Match (Aug. 26-27), is in the ever-fashionable summer resort of Southampton, 35 miles from Montauk Point, the eastern end of Long Island. The course is stunning, the nearest thing America has to a British links. All the best elements of the game are at Shinnecock: small and firm greens, sandy soil, gently rolling ground, terrifying rough and lush vegetation resplendent with wild flowers. Above all, there is the wind, flowing in off the Atlantic Ocean to the south or, better yet, howling in from the northwest and Great Peconic Bay. Golf without wind is an invalid exercise.
Roughly speaking, there are two schools of golf-course architecture—penal and strategic. Penal means you suffer damnably when you make even a slight error. Pine Valley is the Taj Mahal of the penal discipline. Strategic architecture provides for alternate routes and broader expanses on the way to the ultimate target, the hole, which may be protected by fearsome putting-green contours. The Augusta National Golf Club, intended by Bob Jones to be a pleasantly heroic course for his friends, epitomizes the strategic approach. Shinnecock is most definitely penal.
Indeed, the course is not a lot of fun—except for the scenery—if you don't hit the ball very straight. Alistair Cooke, whose unfulfilled ambition is to maintain a 12 handicap, contends that the course was designed by Lady Macbeth. On the other hand, great players are often enraptured by Shinnecock. Ben Hogan, never known for effusive praise, said warm things about the old layout—such as, "Each hole is different and requires a great amount of skill to play properly," and, "I think it is one of the finest courses I have ever played."
The course record, from the back tees, is 65, set by Ben Crenshaw during a casual round in the fall of 1973, just before he turned pro. Crenshaw, a golf-course freak, was treating himself to a pilgrimage to the game's shrines as a last act of fealty to amateurism. Asked if he thought Shinnecock would be a legitimate U.S. Open course, putting aside the problems of manpower, gallery flow and parking, Crenshaw says, "You bet. It would be great. And there should be no television towers. A U.S. Open from Shinnecock should be on the radio."
Shinnecock predates the broadcasts of Graham McNamee, Ted Husing or Bill Stern. It reeks of the history of the game. The first version of the course was laid out in 1891, and consisted of 12 holes designed by Scottish pro Willie Dunn, who had been imported for that purpose by the club's founders. (Another Scot, Charlie Thom, became Shinnecock's pro in 1906 and remained so for 55 years. Now 96, he still resides on the club grounds.)
Dunn hired 150 Indians from the neighboring—and still existing—Shinnecock reservation as laborers. Many years later Dunn wrote, "The place was dotted with Indian burial grounds and we left some of these intact as bunkers in front of the greens. We scraped out some of the mounds and made sand traps. It was here that the Indians buried their empty whiskey bottles, but we did not find this out until later when playing the course. One never knew when an explosion shot in a trap would bring out a couple of firewater flasks, or perhaps a bone or two."
The course was an instant hit and Dunn soon laid out six more holes. Shinnecock historians vehemently claim the layout was completed during 1892, making it the first 18-hole course in America. This claim is disputed just as vigorously by the Chicago Golf Club, designed by Charles Blair Macdonald, winner of the first bona fide U.S. Amateur championship in 1895. Macdonald insisted that the last six holes at Shinnecock were not actually in play until after his Chicago course was finished in 1893. The dispute rages and the U.S. Golf Association refuses to render a decision.
The second U.S. Amateur and Open championships, in 1896, were both staged at Shinnecock (for its first three years, the Open was not much more than a 36-hole tag-on to the Amateur). The Shinnecock members, while generally happy with the experience, were mortified by the low scores (eight players broke 80 in the first round of the Open) and they set about lengthening the course from less than 5,000 yards to 5,493. It has been ever thus with clubs and their members.
Among the contenders in the 1896 Open was young John Shippen, whose father was a black minister and whose mother was a Shinnecock Indian. Shippen worked on the labor crew that built the course. The USGA record book has always pointed with pride at Shippen's performance as the first participation by a black man in a national golf event, although there is a counterargument that he was an Indian. In any event, the immigrant Scottish pros who composed the balance of the field weren't exactly wild about playing with either an Indian or a black. A USGA edict that either Shippen would play or the Open would be canceled was decisive. He finished in a fifth-place tie at 159.