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Shinnecock Poses Stern Test

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. --Shinnecock Hills Golf Club only gets better with age.
And tougher.
After going 90 years without a major championship, it allowed only one man to break par -- Raymond Floyd -- in the 1986 U.S. Open. When it returned in 1995, Corey Pavin became the first player in 16 years to win the U.S. Open at even par. If the wind blows all four days this time around, some believe no one will break par.
And yet players known to complain about something during a U.S. Open have nothing but praise for the 113-year-old course on the eastern end of Long Island.
Scott Verplank spoke for many when he said Shinnecock was simply the best he has ever played.
Asked why, Verplank offered an incredulous stare.
``Have you ever been there?'' he replied.
Not much has changed since Floyd's victory in 1986, and changes since Pavin won in 1995 have been mainly cosmetic.
``We've done very little to Shinnecock since the last time it was there,'' said Tom Meeks, the USGA's senior director of rules and competition who has been setting up U.S. Open courses since 1996. ``Other than three new tees and eliminating the back tee on 17, there wasn't much done at all.''
When Mark Michaud took over as course superintendent in 2000, he had his crew take down a few trees, clear out a lot of underbrush and level hillsides to open up spectacular vistas of an already breathtaking piece of property. From some holes, the entire golf course is visible.
And what a sight.
While Pebble Beach has the Pacific and Pinehurst No. 2 is famous for the turtleback greens conceived by Donald Ross, the image of Shinnecock Hills is a contrast of colors -- green fairways, framed by brown waves of fescue and bluestem grasses.
``I love the definition of the golf course, the way the bunkers are, the way the fescue and the grass grows, the difficulty of the greens, the wind,'' he said. ``I think it's going to test the players' overall game. We've had some tests at the U.S. Open that are very one-dimensional -- can you hit the fairway, can you hit the green. I think at this year's Open at Shinnecock Hills, short game will be a big factor.''
The biggest surprise is that more U.S. Opens have not been played at Shinnecock Hills.
The second U.S. Open was played at Shinnecock in 1896. James Foulis won the 36-hole tournament with a 152 on a course that stretched all of 4,423 yards.
Now, the par-70 course with plenty of doglegs, 164 sand bunkers and two water hazards will play at 6,996 yards, just 84 longer than it was in 1986. There will be seven par 4s over 435 yards, and the fairways will be about 26 yards wide, with typical U.S. Open rough -- 4 inches -- waiting to swallow up errant shots.
The fescue can be punishing or forgiving.
``The clearing of brush allowed the native grasses to grow to maturity,'' USGA agronomist Tim Moraghan said. ``Where Bethpage had thick strands of rye, you get off line (in the fescue) and the ball can be findable, retrievable, and sometimes you get lucky and there's not a lot of grass to grab the hosel of the club.
``Then again, there's a chance you could wind up in the thick stuff and have no shot.''
Jack Nicklaus hit his ball in the yellowish fescue on the 10th hole and never found it. Tiger Woods hit into the rough as a 19-year-old amateur in 1995 and tore wrist ligaments trying to hack out. He had to withdraw.
``We're not trying to come up with rough to injure anybody,'' Meeks said. ``The rough will be tough but we don't want to make it all pitch out or sand wedge. We hope they'll be challenged to make a shot out of there.''
Don McDougall, the head pro at Shinnecock for 43 years and just one of three men to ever hold that position, said the winning score will be determined by the weather.
``If we have rain, wind and cold weather that makes everything a little tougher at Shinnecock,'' he said. ``I would guess a score of 2-under would win if the weather stays the way it normally is. A calm day is a plus for the players. Hopefully they'll have good weather but not too good. We want to make a tournament out of it.''
Vijay Singh is among those with plenty of local knowledge.
``I think it's one of the best golf courses in the world I've played,'' he said. ``I've played many a times after the tournament. I was a member there, and I've gone and played quite a lot of times. It just excites you to go and play Shinnecock. Every hole is different, it's tough. You know it's going to be a hard week.
``If the wind blows, it's going to be almost impossible. I know even par out there could be winning the tournament.''
The Open was on Long Island just two years ago at Bethpage Black, a public course where golfers often slept overnight in their cars to try to get a tee time.
Things will be different at Shinnecock.
``For being an hour and a half away from Bethpage, it's a whole different world,'' said John Cook, who played in the '86 and '95 U.S. Open. ``You throw away the yardage book. It doesn't matter how far you hit it. If you don't hit in the fairway, you'll look stupid. You better be prepared to see some stuff you've never seen before.''
In Shinnecock's case, seeing is believing.
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