US Open returns to traditional course with modern touch

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Such is the stature of century-old Shinnecock Hills that it seems everyone can’t wait for the U.S. Open.

“Shinnecock looks epic,” Russell Knox said after he qualified.

Phil Mickelson has been critical at times for how the USGA prepares a golf course for what it calls the “ultimate test.” He was runner-up at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, when only three players broke par on the weekend, none on Sunday. Asked if it was unfair, Mickelson said that day, “I played some of the best golf of my life and still couldn’t shoot par. So you tell me.”

He has been back to the Long Island gem twice in recent weeks and was raving about it.

“I think it’s the greatest setup I’ve ever seen in a U.S. Open,” he said.

No one is more excited about a return to Shinnecock Hills than the USGA, which has tradition on its side for the 118th U.S. Open championship. As much as it tries to present the ultimate test, lately it has seemed more like a trivia quiz.

Twice in the last three years, the U.S. Open has gone to golf courses barely a decade old — Chambers Bay in the Pacific Northwest and Erin Hills in the heart of Wisconsin’s pastureland — that featured wide fairways and the wrong kind of weather.

It reached a point where Jack Nicklaus, whose name is on the gold medal awarded the winner, feared the U.S. Open was losing its identity. For him, that identity was narrow fairways, thick rough and hard, fast greens.

“Take me with a grain of salt,” Nicklaus said. “You’re partial to what you grew up with. All the (four) Opens I won were set up that way.”

Shinnecock should at least look like a traditional U.S. Open, even if it will be different from the last time it was there in 2004. For starters, the course has added 10 new tees that have lengthened it by 450 yards. Most of the additional tees have been moved back at angles, instead of straight back, to try to restore the shot values that architect William Flynn had in mind.

The fairways were widened in a renovation project just over five years ago. Then in a response to the swing-for-the-fences style that wide-open Erin Hills allowed, the USGA had 200,000 square feet of turf removed from the sides of the fairways and replaced it with fescue.

“The U.S. Open really is, we consider, golf’s ultimate test and accuracy needed to play a bigger role in that,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s chief executive.

Fairways that were an average of 26 yards wide for 2004 were widened to about 65 yards under the renovation, and then brought in to about 41 yards for the U.S. Open. The greens were enlarged. And gone is the thick rough framing the greens, meaning errant shots will travel along short grass farther from the hole.

“Skill is brought into play with the short game there,” Mickelson said. “I think that it will reward the best player as opposed to having luck be a big element on some of the bounces in the fairway, bounces around the green, how it comes out of the rough.”

Mickelson suffered one of his six U.S. Open heartaches at Shinnecock Hills, three-putting from 5 feet on the 17th hole for a double bogey to finish two shots behind Retief Goosen. Equally memorable was the state of Shinnecock that weekend, so bone dry by the final round that 28 players couldn’t break 80. The par-3 seventh green was baked to the point that USGA officials had no choice but to spray water on it during the final round.

“I think we’re happy that we have a mulligan,” Davis said. “It was certainly a bogey last time. … But it’s great to be back to one of the greatest courses on the planet Earth, and if you can’t tell, we are incredibly excited to be back. It is a national treasure.”

There was as much dirt as grass on some of the greens at Chambers Bay. Dustin Johnson won at Oakmont without knowing the score over the last seven holes because the USGA was slow to react to a potential penalty. Brooks Koepka tied the U.S. scoring record to par at 16 under last year at Erin Hills, where a record seven players finished 10 under or better.

The trick now is not to mess this one up. Shinnecock Hills, with its open, links-style look and fairways framed by native grass, will certainly help.

Starting with the course, this is shaping up as quite a show.

Tiger Woods returns to the U.S. Open after a two-year break to deal with his ailing back, and he looks good enough to win, even though he hasn’t during his return. Mickelson gets another shot at the career Grand Slam, though New York courses have not been friendly to him. Of his record six runner-up finishes, four have been in New York: Bethpage twice, Winged Foot and Shinnecock. He finished four shots behind in 1995 at Shinnecock, despite playing the par-5 16th in 6-over par.

The last 11 majors have been won by 11 players, and nine of them won a major for the first time, a list that includes Masters champion Patrick Reed and PGA champion Justin Thomas — the seventh player in the last seven years to be No. 1 heading into the U.S. Open.

Thomas saw Shinnecock Hills for the first time last year on a scouting trip with Rickie Fowler, before the project began to narrow the fairways.

“Shinnecock can be soft and it will still play hard,” Thomas said. “I hope they don’t try to set it up too hard because it could get it out of hand.”

Rory McIlroy won at 16-under par in soft conditions at Congressional in 2011, and the following year Webb Simpson won at 1-over par at Olympic. The last time at Shinnecock followed a U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, where Jim Furyk tied the Open scoring record.

McIlroy wonders if the USGA thinks too much when preparing the golf course.

“I think they have to take previous results out of their head and just say, ‘OK, let’s set up this golf course as best we can just let the guys go play,’” he said.

It helps to be at Shinnecock Hills, the club by the Hamptons with its history as a founding club of the USGA and course that is ruggedly framed and endlessly pure. That’s why it’s so popular with the players, and it’s the USGA’s job to keep it that way while identifying golf’s best player for the week.

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