Shinnecock Hills going all-out to test golf’s best

About 200 miles away from this week’s U.S. Open, in a small town in southern New Jersey called Woodstown, there are about four acres of fairway grass from Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, planted and growing and treated with care and reverence. After the best players in the world vie for the national championship at Shinnecock out on the east end of Long Island, the club might ask for it back.

“We are caring for it as if it was turf we had from inception,” said Scott Geiser, an account manager for Delea Sod Farms who helped on the project.

The grass had been removed because the USGA, in its ever-present longing to make this tournament the most stern test in golf, wanted to narrow the recently expanded width of the fairways. So in September, with cooperation from the club, the USGA had large portions of fairway grass — a mix of bent grass, poa annua and rye — cut out and replaced with about 90,000 to 100,000 square feet of fescue grass provided from Delea Sod, which will have grown to a gnarly 4-5 inches by the start of the tournament Thursday.

If the fairway grass had just been allowed to grow to that height, it would become almost unplayable. That combination of grasses would have grown to be incredibly dense, and would lay on their sides in every direction. But the fescue is thinner, and grows straight up rather than sideways — not that it is going to be an easy task getting out of it.

“The U.S. Open really is, we consider, golf’s ultimate test,” said Mike Davis, the CEO of the USGA, “and accuracy needed to play a bigger role in that.”

As the fairways tightened, the USGA also brought in more knee-high fescue grass that grows on the outskirts of the regular rough. That was transplanted from the club’s wonderful little par-3 course — most of which has been trampled by the infrastructure needed for this type of event — and from other places on the golf course where tents and stands were erected.

This was a major undertaking, which also included moving some of the irrigation lines to make sure everything was being watered properly. With collaboration between a contracting company called LaBar Golf Renovations, the team spent six days cutting and rolling up grass to put on a flatbed and bring it to New Jersey, while they also unloaded the new grass and planted it.

“This is unprecedented so close to the event,” Geiser said. “It was a real team effort between us, LaBar and the club.”

The general feeling is that this was done in part as a reaction to last year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, where the wide fairways helped long-hitter Brooks Koepka shoot a winning score of 16-under. But Davis has already made some strides away from the old ideas of the USGA, when the men in blue blazers were spiteful and talked of things like the “integrity of par.” That desire to make the best in the world suffer was also part of the reason Shinnecock got out of control in 2004, the most recent time the Open was held there, as some of the greens got burnt out and had to be watered in the middle of the final round just to be usable.

“Who is to say whether [2004] was about protecting par,” Davis said, “but I can tell you now, we want this championship to be the ultimate test.”

An overhead view of Shinnecock HillsBrian Zak

Davis has brought the Open to nontraditional venues like Erin Hills and Chambers Bay, where Jordan Spieth won in 2015 on the brown, bouncy turf hard against Puget Sound in the state of Washington. This is following the trend in American golf toward courses that are more natural and less manicured, a necessity to keep costs down and help the game survive. It has also come in concert with a renewed interest in architecture, especially from “The Golden Age” architects of the early 20th century.

That includes William Flynn, who rebuilt Shinnecock in the 1920s after Suffolk County extended Sunrise Highway through the original course that hosted the 1896 U.S. Open. The course Flynn so masterfully designed had wide fairways, with undulating greens surrounded by tightly mown chipping areas. But over the years, including Shinnecock’s modern Opens in 1986, 1995 and 2004, these areas had shrunk. The rough had grown closer and choked out some of the most interesting elements of the design.

So like many clubs over the past decade, Shinnecock underwent a restoration. They hired the renowned firm of Coore and Crenshaw to run the project, and the result was that some fairways became 60 yards wide and the greens and their immediate surroundings grew. The membership generally loved it, and the course was back in all of its historical and architectural glory.

But the USGA, which was founded by Shinnecock and four other clubs in 1894, didn’t think it was quite hard enough. So fairway grass was cut up and moved to New Jersey, where it now lives with the possibility of return.

“It’s a gamble. Nobody knows if it’s going to work or not,” Geiser said. “But we’re watching this thing and happy to be a part of it.”

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