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Clayton: Shinnecock to shine brightly

Shinnecock Hills Golf Club
Shinnecock is hosting its fifth US Open. Image: Getty

US OPEN TV GUIDE

Any discussion of the best courses in the world always includes Shinnecock Hills, an old and historic course in the sand dunes a couple of hours from New York’s towering skyscrapers.

Some think it a links course. It’s not. It’s about as far from the sea as Royal Melbourne and the golf is not dissimilar but it’s a subtly different form of the game from the one we will see next month at Carnoustie in the Open Championship on a true links.

The US Open this week at Shinnecock Hills is however the closest the American national championship comes to playing the British game and that alone makes it one of the most interesting venues to test the game's best players.

The first Open at Shinnecock was in 1896, a 36-hole affair on a course much different from the great layout made by William Flynn in the years just before the great depression put a halt to course-building in the United States.

Amazingly it was another 90 years before the Open returned, and one assumes it was a membership seeking neither attention, recognition nor acclaim for its awesome course. Rather, they preferred to keep their secret gem to themselves.

The 1986 Open at Shinnecock was a great one. Raymond Floyd, the 43-year old hard man of the tour acknowledged it was one of his last chances in a tournament he had longed to win but never could.

‘Every year’ Floyd said recently, ‘it was something, the USGA taking these magnificent courses and turning them into horrible versions of what they were meant to be.’

Then he got to Shinnecock and  found something he could truly love, a course suited to his wide-ranging skills. A lot of brilliant players played well that week. Greg Norman lead after three days and Lee Trevino, Payne Stewart, Hal Sutton, Chip Beck, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw all had their chances.

It was a leaderboard suggesting players with a wide range of skills could play the course and surely that is one measure of something worthwhile as a venue for a national championship.

The USGA, anxious to return, were back in 1995 when Norman, the power player and Corey Pavin the short-game magician duelled over the final nine. Noman had birdied the 37th hole and then waited until the 69th for his next one, and when Pavin hit a masterful four wood shot to five feet at the last hole, it was all over.

Norman, playing  in the group behind, hit a seven iron to the green but the clever, tenacious grinder had shown the powerful player could be beaten with guile and skill. Shinnecock once again proved its versatility and its greatness.

Then in 2004 the championship all but descended into farce on the final day as the rock-hard and fast putting surfaces shed balls off the greens. At one point even a missed three-foot putt by Kevin Stadler finished up in a bunker beside the seventh green. It was then the organizers were forced to resort to watering the greens between groups to keep play going. In the end Retief Goosen beat Phil Mickelson by a couple of shots after a seemingly nerveless display of pressure putting on the final nine.

Great courses are invariably made of great holes and many of them, and the varied and enduring questions they ask do not favour one type of player over another. The ball needs to be shaped both ways and assuming the ground is firm the ball, and the way it bounces, allows for invention and variety off the tees and into the greens. It can also be assumed the shots around the green will be played as much off short grass as the longer stuff we so often see at traditional US Open set-ups.

Everyone guesses at possible winners, and the most obvious this week is Dustin Johnson because he won last week. He has a fine record at the Open and he’s probably the best driver in the modern game.

Phil Mickelson is the one the sentimental man the locals hope will finally win his Open after so many close finishes. More likely is that he won’t win and sit alongside Sam Snead as the two greatest players never to win their national title. To think Mickelson, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer won one Open between them is truly astonishing.

Of ours the most likely are Adam Scott, Jason Day and Marc Leishman. The course is as close as they will find to Australian golf but Day especially has played so little here that he has no advantage. Scott and Leishman, though, will find holes suited to their skills and familiar questions they will understand.

I like that Scott has had to play hard to even qualify because playing a lot of golf is something he has not done for years. Some suggest he is past his best and an unlikely contender. Perhaps the critics are right but the elegance of his technique suggests he is only a decent week away with his putter from dealing himself right into the middle of it on Sunday.

Extraordinarily, not 150 metres from the second green at Shinnecock is the ninth green at The National Golf Links of America. Unlike Shinnecock, it remains largely a reclusive course with only the incredibly lucky or well-connected getting a chance to play what was America’s first great golf course.

This week is American golf at its best and on a course many would suggest is not even the best in the neighbourhood .Either way Shinnecock Hills is an architectural treasure and one sure to bring out interesting golf as well as identifying a great champion.


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