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The Evolution of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course

By Bob Crosby and Wayne Morrison

| May 23, 2018

An aerial view of Shinnecock Hills in 1938, not long after William Flynn redesigned what is now the current routing. (Wayne Morrison)

If you were looking for a case study on the evolution of golf architecture in America, Shinnecock Hills would be a good place to start. Beginning in 1891, each of Shinnecock's three major design iterations built at the same site reflects an important stage in golf course design. Changes in technology (balls and implements) and design aesthetics have brought changes in golf course architecture. How people thought golf courses should look and play has changed dramatically over the decades. What counted as a good hole in one era did not count as a good hole in a later era. Perhaps no other course in America exemplifies important turning points in American golf architecture as well as Shinnecock Hills.

Shinnecock's first course was only 12 holes, laid out in 1891 by Willie Davis and built by a crew of Native Americans from the nearby Shinnecock reservation.  Four years later Willy Dunn, like Davis an English professional golfer who recently arrived in the U.S., revised the course and added six new holes to complete an 18-hole layout of 4,347 yards, considered at the time one of the best courses in America.  In 1896 Shinnecock hosted both the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open. Due to the low scoring in those events, the club lengthened the course to about 5,000 yards soon afterwards.   

The Davis/Dunn course, in play for almost 20 years, reflected the architecture then prevalent on late Victorian English inland courses. The course’s mostly straight holes were traversed by cross hazards in the form of “cop” bunkers, ravines, ditches, roads, rail lines or other obstacles.

Following Victorian design tenets, such hazards were placed so that players were required to hit over them and for that reason were often called “carry” hazards. They could be quite severe, on the rationale that the worst miss – the dreaded topped shot – deserved the most severe punishment.

Typical of courses of the period, Shinnecock's cross hazards were set at prescribed distances from tees or greens, giving the layout an engineered, man-made look. Adding to its unnatural appearance were greens that were often flat, square and largely without bunkering. But that did not preclude Shinnecock from indulging in a bit of architectural whimsy circa 1900. Some of the club's early “cops” were given fanciful shapes, the most famous being the zig-zag “Bastion Bunker” that forced an airborne approach to the then par 3 fifth green.


An view of the fifth hole at Shinnecock Hills in the early part of the 20th century. (Wayne Morrison)

Few Victorian courses survived World War I and the Davis/Dunn course was no exception. In 1916 Charles Blair Macdonald, often called the father of American golf architecture, was called on to “modernize” Shinnecock. With the assistance of Seth Raynor, Macdonald stretched the course to about 6,000 yards and built Redan, Cape, Eden, and Short holes based on similar “template” holes he had introduced five years earlier at neighboring National Golf Links of America.

Those and other of Macdonald's template holes are well-known today. Less well-known is that they were at the heart of a revolution in American golf architecture. Victorian assumptions that the main work of hazards was to punish bad shots, an assumption that guided the design of the older Davis/Dunn course, were rejected by Macdonald in favor of a view of hazards that emphasized their effect on better golfers playing aggressively. Rather than directing the pain inflicted by hazards at the foibles of the bad golfer, the new view was that hazards should be placed to penalize a good player’s shot that was “not quite good enough.” Bad shots, conversely, were viewed as their own punishment. That new approach to golf course design, advanced by Macdonald and others, marked the beginnings of what we call today “strategic” golf architecture, an architectural philosophy that is still dominates the discipline.

When a new road (the current Route 27) was planned through several of Macdonald's holes south of the clubhouse in 1927, the club purchased about 108 acres to the north and east with an eye to a comprehensive redesign of the course. Juan Tripp, the founder of Pan American Airlines, was instrumental in hiring William Flynn to prepare the plans. That new course, completed in 1931, is in all essentials the course that will be played in the 2018 U.S. Open, though new tees now stretch it to 7,445 yards. When the course's footprint was shifted to the north, Flynn's new routing left very little of Macdonald's course.

Flynn’s work at Shinnecock Hills, late in golf architecture's ‘Golden Age,’ reflected several of the directions that American golf course design would take into modern times. For example, Flynn was among the first to draft detailed hole-by-hole plans that included construction specifics. It was a methodology borrowed from civil engineering that enabled Flynn – to the delight of the club – to more accurately set construction schedules, plan for needed materials and project expenses. Flynn’s methodology was adopted by many other golf architects over the following decades.

Flynn shared Macdonald’s preference for holes that played strategically, but he obtained that strategy by utilizing more of the site's natural features. Using existing landforms for green sites, building bunkers into natural contours and routing playing corridors that tracked movements in the property's topology, Flynn’s holes tend to blend more with their natural setting without sacrificing their strategic values. Shinnecock’s 10th and 11th holes are good examples of holes where the existing terrain was maximized for such purposes.  


William Flynn's original routing plan of Shinnecock Hills. (Wayne Morrison)

Flynn also sought to take better advantage of the prevailing winds by “triangulating” certain groups of holes. The Macdonald course tracked more or less back and forth along a main axis. Flynn's different routing created three sets of holes, each laid out in triangle that exposed the golfer to a variety of wind directions at different points in a round. The first of Flynn's routing triangles is comprised of the 5th, 6th and 7th holes. The second by the 10th, 11th,12th and 13th holes and the third by Nos. 14, 15 and 16.

Flynn designed a number of doglegs holes with more acute turns than those on Macdonald’s earlier course. Some offer the player a choice between a safe shot down the fairway or cutting a fairway corner for a shorter approach into the green but at the price of carrying bunkers or other hazards. On other of Flynn’s doglegs the best play, against most players instincts, is to stay on the wide side of the turn. Finally, Flynn built several tees and greens that are off-set to fairway centerlines, testing a player’s ability to hit a shot on the right line and the right distance. His version of Macdonald’s Redan template, the 7th hole at Shinnecock Hills, is perhaps the most famous of Flynn's off-set greens.  

It is a testament to the quality of Flynn's work at Shinnecock Hills that the course on which the 118th U.S. Open Championship will be contested is essentially the course Flynn designed in 1931. But beyond the quality of his course, his design should also be seen as the culmination of two previous iterations. Those earlier versions have long since disappeared, but they were at the center of pivotal changes in American golf architecture during its most revolutionary and creative decades.

Bob Crosby and Wayne Morrison are members of the USGA's Architectural Archive Committee.