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.