SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – My colleague and friend Mike Vaccaro, a sparkling gem of the New York Post sports writing diadem, likes to collect datelines. I remember he was especially proud of “Beijing,” but lamented publicly that it couldn’t be “Peking” instead. Mike and I met writing the dateline “Mamaroneck” in 2006 at Winged Foot, and together we watched Phil Mickelson fall out of the sky like Icarus. Having a chichi address paled in significance to witnessing a Shakespearean-in-magnitude tragedy like that.
Hopefully nobody gets hurt that badly at this year’s US Open, the 118th playing of this august event and the fifth time at venerable Shinnecock Hills. “Dateline Southampton” is one of the nation’s richest zip codes, most serene coastlines, and most important clubs and golf courses in American golf. Not only is it a drop-dead gorgeous piece of property – if you squint, you might think you were on the moors of England, waiting for the mournful howl of a Baskerville hound – but its cunning 1931 William Flynn design is now hosting its fourth US Open. (The 1896 Open was played on a nine-holer that no longer exists in that form.) And for once, the pre-tournament buzz has universally praised the course, the set-up, and the USGA.
“Shinnecock is my favorite venue!” gushed a downright ebullient Graeme McDowell, the 2010 champion who bested Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els at Pebble Beach.
That’s like beating Rodan, Mothra and Ghidora on Monster Island.
“The Hamptons are totally blingsy,” he added mischievously. “This is not what we get week in and week out on the PGA Tour, and the course does not look like it’s in America. It’s firm and fast and plays like a links.”
McDowell was in a mood to be chatty actually -- Southampton and Sag Harbor will do that -- chatty and excited. He had steam in every stride and a gleam in his eye. It was fun to see. He expounded on exactly why Shinnecock is perfect for the US Open, and the US Open is perfect for Shinnecock.
“It’s the US Open. Par should be a great score. Fairways should be a premium. I don’t want guys bombing it; I want 90 percent fairways hit to win. At Erin Hills with those wide fairways, I start one or two strokes behind Dustin Johnson. Here not so much,” he surmised, giving a firm nod.
He has a point. Clearly Mike Davis has driven down the importance of driving accuracy by instituting graded rough -- where, ideally, the Cost of Rough Index increases incrementally the further offline you go. As we wrote in our US Open preview, from 1997-2005 (pre-Mike Davis), the winners ranked an average of ninth in driving accuracy. However, from 2006 forward, the winners averaged 26th.
Now with the widest fairways in modern US Open history – easily 40-50 yards, even narrowed by rolling out imported rough – you might ask yourself what golf course GMac was talking about. Long-hitting Brooks Koepka, the defending champion who tenderized Erin Hills with his driver last year was licking his chops on Shinnecock every tee box.
“The fairways out here are pretty generous. It’s like Erin Hills. It’s a second-shot golf course," he confided.
But the great equalizer at Shinnecock is the fickle, ever-changing winds and the foul weather that can blow in off the Sound with the sudden ferocity of Zeus himself. Flip a switch, and the sky starts spitting rain and a gale blows balls all the way to Bermuda.
“It is better weather than Scotland though,” GMac quipped. "This is Scotland with better weather.”
On a clear windless day, guys will shoot 65 or 66 at Shinnecock. But in any wind, add three full shots. And in dirty weather, we might see a bloodletting akin to that we saw on Saturday at Muirfield in 2002.
“It all depends on the wind,” added Koepka. “It’s starting to firm up a little bit. I think you can see its becoming a little more linksy around the greens.”
And therein lies the greatest magic of Shinnecock -- not its downright majestic setting, not its well-heeled address and membership, not even its venerable history. It’s the masterful greens and surrounds of William Flynn. Balls go scurrying every which way. Perhaps only Winged Foot’s, Oakmont’s and Oakland Hills’s greens have as much contour. If there is one word to describe the greens on all of those courses, it’s “treacherous.” Any careless stroke of the wedge or putter, any shot played with more bravado than common sense, will result in a Walk of Shame, often off the green and back down the fairway or into a bunker.
“You miss on the wrong side, and you can play ping-pong back and forth,” Koepka warned.
And so Shinnecock Hills re-emerges once more from the mists of time like a reverie. She will bewitch and beguile us for a week, before disappearing again until 2026. It doesn’t matter who takes home the trophy, Shinnecock always wins and, therefore, so does the golf viewing public.
“It’s so natural and minimalistic. It looks like they just walked out and placed tees and pins on the land, and said, “Go play!” said Zach Johnson, beaming widely as he said it. “This,” he added gesturing with his wedge, “This is my favorite course.”
With so much going for it, Shinnecock may be yours, too.