When an Old U.S. Open Course Meets a New Generation of Golfers

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, the host of the United States Open this week, is 127 years old and widely considered among North America’s best. But in the ways that matter for an elite player — the feel of a layout and the understanding of its nuances — the Shinnecock Hills course is largely a stranger to the young golfers who have overtaken most of the top spots in the world rankings.

In the 14 years since the U.S. Open was last contested here, a new wave of talent has reshaped the way the game is played at the highest levels. The modern game, boosted by equipment advances, emphasizes distance off the tee and has golfers attempting to overpower most tournament courses.

But at a traditional layout like Shinnecock Hills, the priority is instead precise shot execution and deft decision-making. In that way, it is similar to another old-style course that recently hosted a U.S. Open, Merion Golf Club, where in 2013 much of the field struggled and the champion, Justin Rose, finished one over par.

Most of the new guard has never played a competitive round, let alone one under the harsh conditions of major championship golf, at the esteemed Shinnecock Hills, which is hosting the Open for the fifth time.

With Thursday’s opening round approaching, the question is whether a venerable course, whose first holes were shaped during the 19th century, will inevitably be overwhelmed by players using 21st century golf technology and the aggressive mind-set that goes with it.

Or, can the lessons of a bygone era of golf architecture still teach the world’s best some new tricks?

“Shinnecock Hills is undoubtedly one of the big stars here this week — not just the players,” Curtis Strange, a two-time U.S. Open champion, said Tuesday. “All of us are wondering how the modern player will adapt to this historic place. I definitely think there will be a learning curve.”

The game’s elders think the course still has plenty of lessons to impart.

Strange, an analyst for Fox Sports during the championship, acknowledged the new mentality on the PGA Tour, a change in philosophy that favors bombing the ball as far as possible.

“It’s a completely different game that says they’d rather be closer to the hole even if they’re in the rough,” Strange said. “Here at Shinnecock, you can’t do that. I’m a true believer that you have to learn how to play a U.S. Open golf course, especially this week, because you have to back off. Hitting the fairway is mandatory. Make par, be patient and move on.”

A year ago, when Erin Hills, a relatively new course in Wisconsin, hosted its first U.S. Open, Brooks Koepka won the event at 16 under par, and 30 other golfers were also under par. No one is expecting that kind of scoring this year. When the Open was at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, only two golfers finished in the red.

“You want the players complaining. You want them pulling their hair out,” Brandel Chamblee, the Golf Channel analyst, said. “It’s too bad they can’t play the U.S. Open every single year at Shinnecock.”

Added David Duval, Chamblee’s Golf Channel colleague, who was once the world’s top-ranked player: “You go in there expecting to be challenged and expecting to get your teeth kicked in.”

Naturally, these are not the swing thoughts the current players in the field like to use to prepare for a major championship. But some seem to understand the history of the venue and its reputation for providing an enduring test.

“Just when you say the name Shinnecock Hills, you think the U.S. Open and extremely difficult,” said Justin Thomas, 25, who is ranked second in the world.

Jason Day, 30, focused on the knee-high length of the voluminous rough here.

“Healthy fescue,” Day said. “Obviously healthy.”

But Phil Mickelson, the runner-up to Retief Goosen in 2004, when the event was last held here, does not seem intimidated.

“It is one of my favorite courses,” Mickelson said, adding that the layout and the condition of the course were “the best setup, in my opinion, that we’ve seen.”

Others feel certain the field will be tested strategically.

“There’s so much nuance and subtly to this course; it’s worthy of study, and it will reward the players who put the time in,” said Gil Hanse, a prominent golf architect and a Fox Sports analyst. “The angles and the defenses that are built into the design are subtle in their punishment. Yeah, you can hit it into the fairway, but if you’re approaching the green from the wrong side of the fairway, you have no chance.”

Hanse, in fact, believes that the understated intricacies of Shinnecock Hills, which also hosted the Open in 1896, 1986 and 1995, are so devilish it would probably be deemed unacceptable if it were a new golf course trying to host a major.

“They’d be going nuts about the blind tee shots here and the greens having so much slope,” Hanse said of the players. “But this golf course has stood the test of time, and it is in the top five of everyone’s list of best golf courses. So you come off as foolish if you criticize it.”

It is true that few players this week have had a bad word to say about Shinnecock Hills, even though complaining about devilish holes is a staple of the United States Open. Then again, the first tee shot has yet to be struck.

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