Shinnecock Hills

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The story of Shinnecock Hills Golf Course is a complicated tale mired in myth and misinformation. Tony Dear heads back 150 years to unravel the story. 

When examining the early history of Shinnecock Hills Golf Course the words ‘tangled’ and ‘web’ come quickly to mind. In truth, what century old story isn’t mired somewhere in confusion and doubt?

In the case of Shinnecock Hills Golf Course, the reminiscences of founders and other figures involved with the club in its formative years have made it difficult to say exactly when its first golf course was built, who built it, and how many holes there were. 

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

Since Goddard’s book was completed, however, archiving has allowed newspapers to store tens of thousands of issues online, giving researchers access to information not easily available before. 

So while Goodner’s book stated that Willie Dunn built Shinnecock’s first golf course, we can now be fairly certain that wasn’t the case. 

It’s easy to see why Goodner thought Dunn was the man. In 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 the course.

He described an encounter he had with three American visitors in Biarritz – Messrs. Vanderbilt, Mead, and Cryder. “I remember the first demonstration I gave them,” he wrote. “We chose the famous Chasm hole – about 225 yards and featuring a deep canyon cleared with the tee shot.”

Dunn says the men invited him to America to build them a golf course in 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 explained. “The land was rolling and sandy, with thick growths of blueberry bushes in some places. I laid out plans for 12 holes and started work.”

In 1923 De Lancey Kountze, the President of Shinnecock Hills Golf Course, asked Parrish for his recollections of the origins of golf in America, and specifically Shinnecock Hills. Parrish claimed he had received a letter in 1891 from his friend Edward Mead who was visiting Biarritz, describing this game called golf.

When they met back in Southampton that summer, Mead communicated his enthusiasm for the game so convincingly that they asked another friend, Charles Atterbury, to visit the Royal Montreal GC while he was in Canada 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 the book Golf in Canada, 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”.

Following 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.”

The pair visited Shinnecock to view the site. Parrish says Dunn was unimpressed with the land and remarked that “no golf course could be built on land of that character”. Parrish, very familiar with the 4,000 acres of the Shinnecock Hills, knew a spot with sandy soil that might work.

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On September 5, 1891, the club purchased around 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 was decided to proceed with plans for a clubhouse far larger than originally planned. Parrish noted the original course, ‘as laid out by Willie Dunn in the summer of 1891’, consisted of 12 holes. 

So Parrish and Dunn both stated in writing that Dunn had built the club’s first 12 holes in July 1891. But how could this be? For starters Dunn wasn’t the pro at Royal Montreal when Charles Atterbury visited in June 1891. In fact, Dunn was never the pro at Montreal.

Dunn also said it was WK Vanderbilt who first showed him the site when numerous reports show it was Parrish. There are also some conflicting dates surrounding Dunn’s arrival in Southampton. In his 1934 Golf Illustrated article, he 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 and David Goddard has him in Southampton in 1894. 

LA based researcher David Moriarty says no travel manifest for a Willie Dunn travelling from Britain of France to America prior to 1893 has been found. 

Moriarty says he found no indication that Dunn arrived in America before 1893. He believes Dunn may have embellished the truth and that Parrish may simply have been confused. It is therefore far more likely that Willie Davis laid out Shinnecock’s first rudimentary holes. 

A New York Times article from March 1896 also lists Davis as the creator of Shinnecock’s first course, as does the club’s own website. In fact, the club makes no mention of Dunn at all in its historical overview, even though Dunn certainly played a major role in the development of the golf course after Davis’ initial effort.

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Uncertainty over who created Shinnecock Hills is matched by uncertainty over how many holes he first created. The club’s website says, “The original twelve-hole golf course was designed by Willie Davis”, while Golf Digest says, “The original 12-hole course of Shinnecock Hills was designed in 1891 by Willie Davis.” David Goddard said it was 12 in The Story of Shinnecock Hills, as did Samuel Parrish.

Yet David Moriarty’s exhaustive research suggests they were all out by three. “W.D. Davis came to Southampton in July 1891,” he wrote. “While in Southampton, he gave lessons and laid out two golf courses.”

Moriarty’s source was a New York Herald article dated August 30, 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’ nine-hole layout was already there.”

So why does the 12-hole story persist? “Old legends tend to linger,” says Moriarty. “Or maybe no one cares enough to bother to correct it.”

Davis is thought to have remained at Shinnecock for five weeks then returned to Montreal before reappearing in the US in November 1892, in Newport, Rhode Island. 

There he laid out nine holes for the Newport Country Club which was one of the five clubs – Shinnecock Hills, Saint Andrew’s in Yonkers, Chicago and the Country Club in suburban Boston the others – that formed the Amateur Golf Association in December 1894, becoming the United States Golf Association soon after.

It is thought that Dunn was hired primarily as a greenkeeper and instructor, but he is also believed to have developed Davis’ layout, adding three holes to form the 12-hole course many still believe was Shinnecock’s first. 

Shinnecock Hills now enjoyed a decade of relative peace and prosperity, but it felt forced to update the course in 1916. Concerns remained over part of the layout still located on the south side of the Long Island Railroad, and a look at the 1895 map of Dunn’s 18-hole course shows the routing really wasn’t terribly exciting. 

A bigger concern though was the arrival of another golf club immediately to the north. National Golf Links of America (NGLA) opened in 1910 and was designed by Charles Blair Macdonald. He formed the Chicago Golf Club in 1892 before relocating to New York in 1900.

Macdonald was determined to build his own course featuring all the best characteristics of courses he’d played in Britain. He wanted sandy soil and enough movement in the ground to ensure interesting play. In 1906, he settled on property adjacent to Shinnecock Hills Golf Course.

The area in question had been under consideration for several years by Shinnecock members who wanted to develop it. They’d had very little success, however, and following the 1907 ‘Bankers’ Panic’ in which the New York Stock Exchange plummeted by almost 50 percent from its 1906 peak, there was a feeling among Shinnecock members that Macdonald’s plan was ill-fated.

However, National Golf Links of America was a roaring success. In a 1999 interview, Bahto said the course was vastly superior to Shinnecock Hills Golf Course. “After NGLA opened, Shinnecock paled by comparison in routing, design, and length.”

You might think that when Shinnecock Hills decided to update its Dunn-designed course, it would have been disinclined to approach Macdonald, and that such an exchange would have been excruciating for the club. 

Bahto saw it differently. “Charlie (Macdonald) was a member at Shinnecock Golf Course, and it was only natural that he was asked to redesign the course,” he said.

Macdonald worked closely with his protégé Seth Raynor, using new land to the northwest of the existing course and building a par 70 of 6,108 yards. Included were the template holes Macdonald modelled on great holes he’d played on his trips to Britain and Europe and which he deemed to have architectural merit. 

The redesign was well received and the neighbouring clubs actually enjoyed a cordial relationship with Shinnecock.

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Macdonald and Raynor’s Shinnecock course lasted a dozen years before, in 1928, the New York State Route 27 was routed through the course’s southern holes. The President of the club at the time bought a chunk of land to the east of the clubhouse to build new holes that he chose William Flynn to design. 

Flynn was a very highly-regarded golf course architect. When designing the new course he retained only three of Macdonald’s holes. The quality of Flynn’s design has allowed Shinnecock Hills Golf Course to remain largely unaltered since the early 1930s. Of course, minor changes have occurred and a major restoration.

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Nick Wright