The Evolution of Glorious Shinnecock Hills

shinnecock hills

Shinnecock Hills GC is one of American golf's most important places. It has a fascinating history, and is the only club to have hosted the US Open in three different centuries.

But it hasn't always been plain-sailing for the Long Island, NY sanctuary. Confusion still surrounds exactly how and when its first layout appeared; the club has endured its share of financial crises; and the course has been cut up by government infrastructure. The architect of its magnificent clubhouse, Stanford White, was murdered by the husband of a woman he is reported to have sexually assaulted when she was a minor - publicity the club didn't need. It has suffered the indignity of watching a new neighbour arrive and steal much of its limelight, and it has been the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Shinnecock Indian Tribe which says the course was laid out on land belonging to them. And, of course, it endured great embarrassment when groundscrew were forced to hose one of its green (7th) during the final round of the 2004 US Open.

That was the last time the club staged the event - a championship remembered not so much for Retief Goosen’s second victory in three years, but the sight of staff watering the burned-out putting surface between groups.

Fourteen years on, Shinnecock Hills and the USGA have been determined to bury that unfortunate incident once and for all and put on a great show. So far the scoring has been high - the field averaged 76.4 in round one, and 73.6 on Friday when the wind barely blew at all. Of course, tempers have flared and debate has raged over the set-up, some saying the USGA has failed again to produce a difficult layout but which still rewarded good play, others insisting they got it just right and that, while the margin for error is very small, the demands are not excessive.

Let's hope the USGA keeps control of the surfaces over the weekend, and that it will be the action that unfolds over this great course that everyone remembers a decade from now.

To hopefully enhace your enjoyment of the TV coverage, here's a history of Shinnecock Hills, and how the course has evolved since it first opened nearly 130 years ago. 

The Club's Origins
When examining the early history of venerable Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, venue for the 118th US Open, the words ‘tangled’ and ‘web’ come quickly to mind. Really, what 100+-year story isn’t mired in confusion and doubt somewhere, the result of facts being embellished, forgotten, or perhaps consciously removed or altered in order to promote a particular narrative or further a perception the subject wishes people to know?

In the case of Shinnecock Hills GC, the somewhat misleading reminiscences of founders and other figures involved with the club in its formative years have made it difficult at times to pin-point exactly when its first golf course was built, who built it, and even how many holes there were.

It would be disingenuous, completely untruthful in fact, to label this the ‘untold story of Shinnecock Hills’. They may not have sold boat-loads of copies, be known outside a fairly confined circle of golf historians, or even have been made available to the general public, but books on the very private Shinnecock Hills GC, which generally has zero desire to make known its particulars to the outside world, do exist.

Its most recent official history is David Goddard’s The History of Shinnecock Hills, published in 1999. An extraordinary volume considered by many the final word on the club’s past, it was able to correct a few inaccuracies from the previous history - written by Golf Digest’s Ross Goodner in 1966 for the club’s 75th anniversary. 

Since Goddard’s book was completed, however, internet archiving and the virtual Cloud have allowed newspapers to store tens of thousands of issues online, giving researchers quick access to information not easily available before. So while Goodner’s book stated Willie Dunn built Shinnecock’s first golf course, we can now be fairly certain that wasn’t the case.

So who did design Shinnecock Hills’s first course?
For many years, the name most people associated with the club’s original course was Willie Dunn, a Scottish expat who built the famous course at Biarritz in France with his brother Tom in 1889, before emigrating to the US. 

And it’s easy to see why. For the September 1934 edition of Golf Illustrated, Dunn penned an article titled Early Courses of the United States in which he declared he had designed Shinnecock Hills's original course.

He begins by describing an encounter he’d had with three American visitors, or ‘sportsmen’ as he called them – Messrs. Vanderbilt, Mead, and Cryder – in Biarritz.

“They showed real interest in the game from the beginning,” he wrote. “I remember the first demonstration I gave them. We chose the famous Chasm hole — about 225 yards and featuring a deep canyon cleared with the tee shot; I teed up several balls and laid them all on the green, close to the flag. Vanderbilt turned to his friends and said, "Gentlemen, this beats rifle shooting for distance and accuracy."

Dunn says the men invited him to America to build them a golf course in the village of Southampton, near New York City. 

“I arrived in March of 1890, and Vanderbilt took me out to Long Island to the site of the proposed course,” Dunn went on. “The land was rolling and sandy, with thick growths of blueberry bushes in some places. I laid out plans for twelve holes and started work with one hundred and fifty Indians from the Shinnecock reservation, the only available labor.”

Dunn then describes the course and its design in great detail, at one point saying the land was “dotted with Indian burial mounds”, which he “left as bunkers in front of the holes”. Irrigating the greens was achieved by placing a water-filled barrel on a wagon next to the green and “tapping at the bottom with a sprinkler attached hose, then squeezing the barrel until the last drop was forced out”.

Dunn concludes by saying the club’s first members were a group of New Yorkers – “General Thomas H. Barber was the president, and Samuel L. Parrish, the first secretary.”

Parrish, a lawyer from Philadelphia who had moved north to New York in 1877 and become a very active member of the community in Southampton, also identified Dunn as the club’s first designer.

In 1923 or thereabouts, the President of Shinnecock Hills GC - De Lancey Kountze, asked Parrish for his recollections of the origins of golf in America, and specifically Shinnecock Hills. Parrish, then in his early 70s – collected his reminiscences in a book or pamphlet with a rather wordy title - Some facts, reflections, and personal reminiscences connected with the introduction of the Game of Golf into the United States, more especially as associated with the formation of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. In it, he wrote that he had received a letter in the spring of 1891 from his friend Edward Mead who was visiting Biarritz describing this game called golf which might be ‘successfully introduced at Southampton, and played possibly on the Shinnecock Hills’. 

When they met back in Southampton that summer, Mead communicated his enthusiasm for the game so convincingly that they asked another friend – railroad lawyer Charles Atterbury - to visit the Royal Montreal GC while he was in Montreal on business to connect with the club’s officials with a view to bringing their club professional to Southampton and laying out a course.

The meeting was mentioned in Golf in Canada, a semi-regular feature that appeared in an early British golf magazine and written by Royal Montreal’s secretary J. Hutton Balfour. “The next request we had was from several gentlemen in Long Island, New York, that we would permit our professional to go there for a month to lay out a green and instruct them; this we gladly did”.

As the result of this interview, Parrish wrote, “the Scotch Canadian professional, Willie Dunn by name, arrived at Southampton with clubs and balls in the early part of July, 1891, consigned to me.” Parrish then says that immediately on Dunn's arrival, they drove out to Shinnecock to view the site. 

Parrish says Dunn was unimpressed with the land and "remarked in a crestfallen manner that he was very sorry the club had been put to so much trouble and expense, but that no golf course could be built on land of that character". 

They turned to leave, Parrish recalls, when he asked Dunn what sort of land would be suitable to which Dunn replied “ground capable of being turned into some sort of turf was necessary”.  Parrish, very familiar with the 4,000 acres of the Shinnecock Hills having ridden horses and cycled all over them knew a spot with sandy soil that might work. 

Dunn then apparently agreed it was suitable for golf and teed up a ball for Parrish to hit which providence dictated he hit solidly over the railroad tracks. It was the first shot ever struck at Shinnecock and Parrish was hooked. 

He related his experience to Mead and together they, along with others who had become quickly enamoured with hitting a ball with a stick, pledged to raise sufficient money for the course and a small, functional clubhouse.

On September 5th 1891, the club purchased 75 to 80 acres of land - on which the course had already been laid out - from the Long Island Improvement Co. for $2,500. Two days later, with interest in club membership having far exceeded expectations, it decided to proceed with plans for a clubhouse that had been designed by well-known architect Stanford White - the first golf clubhouse in the US. 

Parrish concludes saying the original course, "as laid out by Willie Dunn in the summer of 1891, consisted of 12 holes, the object of selecting that number instead of eighteen having been, as I remember, for the purpose of conserving our resources in the interest of improving both the fair green and the putting greens.” So Parrish and Dunn both stated in writing that Dunn had built the club’s first 12 holes in July 1891.

willie davis
Willie Davis

But how could this be? For starters, Dunn wasn’t the pro at Royal Montreal when Charles Atterbury visited the club in June 1891. That was Willie Davis. Dunn was never the pro at Montreal, in fact.

Dunn also says it was WK Vanderbilt, not Parrish, who first showed him the site, and the reported dates surrounding Dunn’s arrival in Southampton are somewhat conflicting.

In his 1934 Golf Illustrated article, the Scotsman said he was there in March of 1890. Parrish says he turned up in July 1891. However, newspaper reports don’t make any mention of Dunn in America until 1893. David Goddard has him in Southampton in 1894.

Los Angeles-based researcher, David Moriarty, a semi-retired attorney whose hobby it is to examine golf club histories and archives, and whose exhaustive, independent study of Shinnecock Hills’s early years appeared on in 2010, says no evidence can be found that Dunn was in Southampton prior to 1893. And The Golf Book of East Lothian written by the apparently fastidious Reverend John Kerr and published in 1896, states Dunn left for America in 1893. “He (Dunn) left England for America in 1893,” Kerr wrote, “to act as professional to Shinnecock Golf Club, the most important of the new clubs started in America.”

Moriarty speculates as to why the mystery has arisen, saying Dunn might have embellished the truth a little and that Parrish may simply have been confused. Which of us, after all, hasn’t mixed up the names of the early Scottish pros from time to time? 

It is far more likely then – pretty much to the point of being beyond doubt - that Willie Davis laid out Shinnecock’s first rudimentary holes with 40sqft greens. A New York Times article from March 8th, 1896 recounts the story of Parrish’s first meeting with Davis, and their tour of the area. You simply insert the name Davis for Dunn and it reads much the same as Parrish’s own recollections in his book. Parrish told the author of the Herald report he had anxiously asked Davis what he thought of the grounds. “With a sad voice and troubled look, Willie Davis replied, ‘Well Sir, I don’t think you can make golf links out of this sort of thing."

The New York Times article and, indeed, the club's own web site now state Davis was the man. In fact, the club makes no mention of Dunn at all on its ‘Our History’ page, even though Dunn certainly played a major role in the development of the golf course after Davis’s initial effort. 

But how many holes were there?

shgc 1891 9-hole course
This map of the original course (which appeared in the New York Herald in August 1891) clearly shows there were nine holes.

After clearing up the question of who laid out the club’s first golf holes, we should consider how many there actually were. The club’s web site says “The original twelve-hole golf course was designed by Willie Davis”, while Golf Digest says the same - “The original 12-hole course of Shinnecock Hills was designed in 1891 by Willie Davis.” David Goddard says 12 in ‘The History of Shinnecock Hills”, and Samuel Parrish also says it was a dozen. “The original course consisted of 12 holes,” he wrote in his book.

However, David Moriarty’s research suggests they were all out by three. “W.D. Davis came to Southampton in July 1891 and apparently stayed about a month,” he says. “While in Southampton, he gave lessons and laid out two golf courses. The men’s course was nine holes with lengths of 258, 187, 395, 275, 412, 297, 265, 228, and 242 yards.”

Moriarty’s source was a New York Herald article dated August 30th, 1891 which includes a diagram of the layout clearly showing nine holes. 

So why do so many people cling to the notion that the first course at Shinnecock Hills had 12 holes?

“It’s hard to say,” says Moriarty, “but I assume it’s because of what Samuel Parrish wrote in 1923 and what Willie Dunn claimed in 1934. When Dunn said he built the 12-hole course, which is true, he failed to mention Davis’s nine-hole layout was already there.”

He adds that "old legends tend to linger", and rather dismissively suggests that "maybe no one cares enough to bother to correct it."

There is little doubt, though, that the original course in 1891 was nine holes, Moriarty insists. “And in addition to the map, the author of the Herald article describes playing nine holes with Davis present. There are other press accounts from 1892 which also list a nine-hole course. I’ve found nothing that indicates the 12-hole course existed prior to 1893.”

Shortly after laying out those first nine holes, Davis also created a nine-hole ladies course, apparently about a mile in total length. We can be fairly certain it was a nine-holer because, in Golf in Canada, J. Hutton Balfour said a ‘good eighteen holes have been laid out’ at Shinnecock, meaning nine for the men, nine for ladies. If that is indeed the case, it follows that Shinnecock Hills was the first golf club in the United States with 18 holes, even if they weren’t all part of the same course (the Saint Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers had formed in 1888, three years before Shinnecock, but they didn’t yet have 18 holes. Chicago GC owned America’s first ever 18-hole course in Belmont).

Click here for Part 2

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