Shinnecock Hills has officially been acquitted of all manslaughter charges.
For seven agonizing years, the East Coast’s oldest and most storied course sat on major championship death row. It was ready to join the ancient Indian burial mounds and whiskey bottles it was built upon. Combine its sentence to the wrap Bethpage Black received in 2009, and we’re looking at two of America’s most unwanted. It spelled apocalypse for Long Island golf.
It was nearly an unforgivable sin, that fateful June Sunday in 2004.
The greens the USGA (United States Golf Association) purposely setup to roll as fast as racecar wheels erroneously morphed into a racetrack. Tap-in putts weren’t falling into cups, they were falling into adjacent bunkers. Silky-struck approach shots heading for the flag bounced off greens like they were hitting a trampoline.
There’s no denying the carnage that day; 28 players shot 80 or worse. No player was able to break par. For crying out loud, Phil Mickelson three-putted from five-feet on his 71st hole with a lead (oh wait, that’s normal).
But the folks at the USGA found vindicating evidence. They delved into the country’s history books on golf and rediscovered Shinnecock’s glowing presence within them. They scrolled to the line where it explained the Southampton club hosted the second national championship ever, in 1896, and was one of the five founding clubs of the USGA.
They presented convincing parallels the venue draws to St. Andrew’s in Scotland. The fact it’s the birthplace of championship golf in America, stretching back when three-shotters (today’s par-5s) and mashies (mid-iron) were in. The unique links-style features it so obviously dons; conflicting winds gusting from the north, the Great Peconic Bay and from the south, the Atlantic; gnarly fescue and prickling blueberry bushes posing off fairways; jagged sand dunes unshaped by human hands.
Or maybe they simply made the case that Shinnecock is indeed the mecca of U.S. Open courses. After all, Stanford White, the architect responsible for the original Madison Square Garden, designed the clubhouse (which is said to be the country’s oldest).
Shinnecock Hills deserved a mulligan and that’s exactly what the USGA gave it on Wednesday. One ugly afternoon doesn’t tell a story that’s more than 100 years rich. You can’t look at the three most recent championships hosted there (1986, 1995, 2004) and deny the greatness of the victors. Despite the conditions in 2004, the tournament was still decided on the last few holes. Isn’t that what you want in an Open?
Giving Shinnecock the lethal injection would’ve meant terminating one of the most fertile golf landscapes in the world. The USGA doesn’t owe Long Islanders anything. But it owes golf a whole lot. We can just pray the same mistake isn’t made.
We can pray someone turns on the sprinklers.