SHINNECOCK HILLS GOLF CLUB - 19 POINTS
Shinnecock Hills may just be the best golf course I’ve ever played. When you are playing a top 10 course in the world expectations are generally pretty high and there can be a little something which just makes you question how close to perfection it really is. Royal County Down had too many blind shots for me, National Golf Links was maybe a little too quirky. No such worries at Shinnecock – this was simply amazing on pretty much every level.
The course is hosting the US Open in 2018 and they have been doing a huge amount of work to prepare for it. We played in September 2016 and the fairways had been sanded, according to our caddies this was pretty much business as usual at the moment – they are trying to get the course playing faster than ever in 2018. Sand was being injected into the fairways on a regular basis to get the course running firm and fast.
Coore and Crenshaw have been working on the course and they had also widened the fairways, there really wasn’t a huge amount of intimidation from the tees, and increased the greens by around 30%. This doesn’t actually increase the ‘playable’ area of the greens as the false fronts and run offs are significant but visually it is stunning. Since then we know some of the fairways have been tightened as the USGA worry about the course being over-run but hopefully that hasn't changed things too much.
The club itself is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the world, and it knows it! The welcome we received was pleasant enough but quite formal and this is a place which is serious about its golf. There is no sense that you are a ‘member for a day’ a la North Berwick. Of no, you are honoured to be getting the chance to tee it up here. It’s well worth making sure you spend some time in the clubhouse looking at the letters and artefacts on the walls.
While the inside of this clubhouse is great it’s actually the outside which has the real wow factor. It is said to be the oldest clubhouse in the USA and has a real simplicity to the design, perched on a hill and you can see through from one side through to the other.
The driving range is right up there with the best and there are plenty of opportunities to blow your money in the well-stocked pro shop, again though the welcome was cordial rather than effusive. The locker room is fairly straightforward but there are some nice touches.The membership list is up on the notice board with handicaps of all the members and there are some pretty illustrious names posted.
So we made our way to the first tee with two caddies in toe, one of whom had been working at the club for over 30 years and caddied for Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus here over the years so safe to say we were in good hands.
We played from the medal tees where it’s a par 70 and the course measured just over 6,300 yards. Given the run on the ball and the width of the fairways it didn’t feel that this was a course you needed to try to overpower and while the longer hitters in the group had some advantage it was playable for all. The tees were really cleverly placed for us because it felt like we were playing the same approach shots in that the pros will in many cases without having to pound it 300+ from the tee.
However, we saw some of the new tees they were putting in for the US Open and they are going to take this course back a long way. It’ll be interesting to see just how long the course will measure then but given the fast running fairways it's understandably I think on balance that they have had to tighten it up in some areas as they need to do something to defend it, beyond the devilish greens.
There has been quite a lot of work done over recent years to bring in the current ‘in’ look on golf courses. You know the type - waste areas, natural edges to green, tee boxes which seem to just be plonked down on the ground. Coore and Crenshaw have been allowed to work their magic in places and it really does look fantastic.
I’m not going to go through a hole by hole analysis of the course but I would strongly urge you to look at this post on GolfClubatlas.com if that is what you are looking for. It is a fantastic description of the course.
What I will say is that this is a course which has no weak hole. Every single one gives adds to the experience of the course. This is definitely a course that is ‘all before you’. On almost every tee box you can see what is ahead, often from a slightly elevated position. There are a lot of doglegs, with more left to right, although as a drawer of the ball I didn’t feel unduly penalised.
The course most definitely has a proper links feel to it – the ball runs fast and the greens are hard to hold and often exposed to the wind. However, you cannot run the ball up to the greens in many cases as you could at a traditional British links. This is one of the main things that I found about US ‘links-style’ courses, they played harder than their UK counterparts often for this very reason.
The two nines both return to the wonderful clubhouse but this isn’t the kind of place where you pause for too much thought at the turn, given the fun you will could having you won’t really want to. The 10th is the only blind tee shot on the course before the brilliant short 11th greets you. Famed from the exploits of the 2004 US Open this really is a tough, tough par 3. Your caddie will mention more than once that it is the shortest par 5 in the world and my scorecard would support that view!
This is a course that you just don’t want to end, and when you walk off you will know that you have just enjoyed something very special. But it is playable - this isn’t a course which will chew you up and spit you out. Sure it’s a challenge and you will find it hard to play to your handicap but there doesn’t need to be any fear on the 1st tee box - at least not from the tees we played from with little wind and greens that hadn’t been mown to the quick. I guess 2018 will show us just what a test this will give to the best in the world, but I suspect they will find this course at its peak and the reports will be nothing short of adulatory. It definitely deserves it.
BOOKING THE COURSE
Sigh. I’m sorry but these American courses do make it very hard. At Shinnecock though there are a few glimmers. They do accept unaccompanied guest play if you can find a member to introduce you - Pine Valley and Merion for example don’t so this makes it marginally easier to get on - however you do need to find that member and there aren’t that many of them. Therefore, if you are really keen to get on then the best route may well be to look out for charity auctions again. In the last few months I have seen 2 or 3 on Charitybuzz.com and if you set up a Google alert service you should get to find out whenever something is available. They are few and far between though and it may set you into the thousands of dollars which is a lot to pay for a round of golf, even on one of the very best courses in the world.
I have been to this part of the world a couple of times for golf and both times stayed in the town of Riverhead - about 20 minutes from Shinnecock Hills. We stayed in the Indigo hotel the first time - just a little out of town - and the Hyatt in the middle of things the second time. Both were absolutely fine, the Hyatt would probably get my vote next time as it was an easy walk from here to the sights and sounds of Riverhead. OK, those sights and sounds won't take you too long to explore but there were plenty of good eating options. Jeremy and the Mermaid was right next door and had good seafood at a reasonable price while Joes's Garage and Grill and the Riverhead Diner and Grill will both leave you pretty full. There are plenty of well-priced pubs in town too so Riverhead is a pretty good base all round. If you fancy a 10 minute drive to the north I would recommend Cooperage Inn as a good venue for a nice meal and good service.
While this area is perfectly hospitable, Manhattan it isn't. But let's face it, you will be here for the golf. Shinnecock in a must play if you can but if you add in the likes of National Golf Links of America, Friar's Head and Sebonack then you have an amazingly high quality golf trip which you will never forget.