By Aman Misra in Mumbai
The 118th playing of the United States Open Championship is days away. This year, the tournament returns to the historic Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Long Island, New York for the fifth time.
After being built in 1891-92, the course was all but forgotten save for a US Open in 1896 and a US Women’s Amateur in 1900.
Hosting the 1986 US Open, brought the links layout back into the imagination of golf fans across the world.
The architects who worked on the course are many in number including Willie Davis (1891), Willie Dunn (1894), and CB MacDonald (1901).
There is, however, one name that stands out – William Stephen Flynn. Coming to the property in 1937, Flynn redesigning of the course, has led it to eventually become one of American golf’s treasures.
Your correspondent caught up with Dana Fry of Fry/Straka Design.
Fry is part of the trio of architects who designed Erin Hills, site of last year’s US Open Championship.
In an interview, he talks about the uniqueness of Shinnecock as a golf course apart from Flynn’s lasting legacy.
The Q&A format has been retained, with edits at places to ensure readability.
Aman – William Flynn’s name lives on even today. For our readers, can you in your words give an introduction to the gentleman who is considered a master designer?
Dana – He was born in Boston, Massachusetts and was an accomplished golfer. Flynn was a friend of Hugh Wilson who designed both courses at Merion Golf Club in Philadelphia.
During that project, Flynn was an integral part of the design process with Wilson and they were going to start a design business together but Wilson got sick so instead, he started a design firm with Howard Toomey.
Flynn handled all the design aspects and Toomey handled the engineering side of their projects. Together Flynn & Toomey built some of America’s greatest courses.
“Flynn had many great skills but routing a golf course was perhaps his best skill.”
Aman – What is Flynn’s influence on golf architects today?
Dana – Flynn had many great skills but routing a golf course was perhaps his best skill. Like a few other great architects, Flynn selected green sites first and would locate the rest of the holes from there.
“A common trait among Flynn’s courses is the variety of the holes. He didn’t like holes that looked alike appearing on any of his courses.”
Aman – Speak about his style of design?
Dana – A common trait among Flynn’s courses is the variety of the holes. He didn’t like holes that looked alike appearing on any of his courses.
He used the natural hills, valleys, and streams to create the strategy for his golf holes and liked to feature dramatic vistas. Generally, he also routed golf holes to follow the natural slope of the land.
“(To win at Shinnecock), you must drive boldly, play demanding approach shots, hit treacherous recovery shots, and the putting depending on your location on the green can be very challenging.”
Aman – What makes Shinnecock different from other classic layouts?
Dana – Shinnecock is located on a treeless site with sandy soil, which is indicative of a links sight in the United Kingdom but it sits a couple miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The course sits on almost 260 acres of land that is very rare for a course this old. The course was built with the wind in mind so the longest holes usually play downwind and are open in front. The holes that play into the normal wind are usually shorter with more exacting shots required. I think it’s ultimately the best course in the US for tournament golf.
You must drive boldly, play demanding approach shots, hit treacherous recovery shots, and the putting depending on your location on the green can be very challenging.
The course sits on almost 260 acres of land that is very rare for a course this old.
Aman – In courses like Shinnecock Hills, Pine Valley, and Cherry Hills are there lessons for the modern designer?
Dana – Absolutely. These three courses all share several common traits.
First and foremost all these courses are built on great natural sites. Very different from each other, but dramatic in their own ways. Each course has a fantastic routing plan, has lots of memorable shots and other characteristics that make them stand out. All of these courses require finesse around the greens to score and nearly every hole on these courses offer alternate routes and risk-reward opportunities. Another thing that Flynn was noted for was creating golf holes on a grand scale and that is evident in these three courses.
“If not very windy and soft (conditions), I say ten under wins and possibly lower. If dry and windy, four under.”
Aman – The last 3 times the Open came to Shinnecock, the course has done well to live up to the United States Golf Association (USGA) motto of ‘protecting par’.
Golf Club technology has improved vastly since 2004, abd so has agronomy. In that light, what do you think will be a good score come Sunday?
Dana – The scoring will greatly depend on the weather conditions. Nowadays, these guys play a very different game and unless a course is tricked up under ideal conditions they will shoot low scores. If not very windy and soft (conditions), I say ten under wins and possibly lower. If dry and windy, four under par.
Aman – Talk about the changes the course has undergone specifically for this US Open.
Dana – A few years back, Shinnecock Hills hired Coore & Crenshaw to renovate the course. They added 10 new back tees and created much larger fairways in some cases up to 60 yards wide. These were done to create different angles to attack the course from.
These changes created about 50 acres of fairways. After the US Open at Erin Hills, the USGA decided to narrow fairways down in some places.
For the US Open this year, there will be 42 yards of fairway, which is much wider than in 2004 when the course had less than 30 acres of fairway.
From talking to John Jennings the superintendent at Shinnecock, the greens were brought out to their original size but the contours of the greens were not changed. The restoration also included bringing the bunker play closer to the ideal line and a return to more naturalized dune blowouts.
“From an architect’s standpoint, I hope it is windy so it creates a stern test for the players.”
Aman – On Sunday in 2004, the broadcast said the green speeds were at 11. Later on the back nine, they said it was well over 12, closer to 13.
Can we expect similar speeds this year?
I am confident the USGA will keep green speeds between 12-13 this year. With the proper amount of water in the subsurface and by monitoring the number of times they cut and roll the greens they will not have a problem with greens at this speed.
[NOTE: Stimping refers to green speeds measured by a device called a Stimpmeter. One applies force to a golf ball and measures the distance traveled in feet to come to the number. Obviously, the higher the number the faster the green.]
Aman – Do you think the wind will play a part in the Championship this June?
Dana – Shinnecock sits on a hill not far from the Atlantic Ocean. By nature, it is a windy place and for sure during the tournament, the winds should play an integral part of this tournament. From an architect’s standpoint, I hope it is windy so it creates a stern test for the players.
Aman – The last three winners at Shinnecock, Raymond Floyd, Corey Pavin and Retief Goosen were distinct – gritty characters.
Can you think of anyone in the present generation who fits the bill?
Dana – I can think of several. Most notably Henrik Stenson, Matt Kuchar, Kevin Kisner, Brian Harman, Zach Johnson and Rafa Cabrera-Bello to name a few.
All of these players are at 150 or lower in the driving distance category (out of 206 players who have played enough tournaments to have their stats measured).
The above players are very accomplished and if they are playing at their peak could win the US Open at Shinnecock. If the conditions are fast and firm I think they have a much better chance than if the course is soft and plays long.
Feature photo credit – Golf.com