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America's Golf Gateway

Some of the country's first courses were built at the turn of the twentieth century on long island, and one of them, Shinnecock, will host this year's U.S. Open tournament
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

In a June afternoon in 1972, two teenage house painters arrived at the 18th tee. They had said little to each other for most of the round, unusual for two kids who generally talked each other's ears off. Looking at the elegant shingle-style clubhouse on the hill, Chris Quackenbush had a pragmatic question for his buddy Jimmy Dunne:"How much do you think we would charge to paint the clubhouse?" said Quackenbush.

"Well, do we get to play the course, too?" replied Dunne. "I'd say about $600."

At the end of their first rounds at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which had been arranged by a member whose house they had painted, Dunne announced that Shinnecock Hills was the greatest golf course in the world. "There's no way there's a better golf course anywhere," proffered Dunne in his burgeoning baritone. Quackenbush harrumphed. How could a 16-year-old who had never played golf anywhere off Long Island make such a statement? How could someone who had never been to Scotland or Ireland or anywhere say this was the greatest?

Over the next 30 years Jimmy Dunne went everywhere to play golf. He traveled around the world to play the top 100 courses on the Golf Magazine list. As his fortunes rose as managing partner of the investment banking firm of Sandler O,Neill & Partners in Manhattan, Dunne played all the best courses on a regular basis. Garden City Golf Club, Deepdale, National Golf Links of America, Pine Valley, Seminole, Royal Portrush. And Shinnecock Hills.

"So I play the top 100 in the world and I still think it's the greatest course in the world," Dunne says in 2004 with the same certainty he had in 1972. "It's just a fantastic golf course, a fantastic place. I remember when we got to the course, we checked in with [professional] Don McDougall and then went to the practice range and hit a few balls. We hardly said a word until we got to the third tee and I said, 'What about this place?, But that's the thing, I think, about truly great courses. When you get to them, you are quieter. As two 16-year-old kids we knew not to talk. We just reveled in it."

This June, the world gets to revel in Shinnecock Hills once again. The United States Open Championship will be played at Shinnecock for the fourth time, coming back to a course and a club that are virtually the soul of the game in America. Shinnecock Hills was one of the founding members of the United States Golf Association in 1894 and was host to the second U.S. Open in 1896. After being practically ignored for the next seven decades, the USGA rediscovered its roots by choosing Shinnecock to host the U.S. Senior Amateur in 1967 and the Walker Cup in 1977.

In 1986, the Open finally returned. On a perfect Monday morning of that Open week, Frank Hannigan, then executive director of the USGA and a driving force to get the Open back to Shinnecock, was walking in front of the clubhouse near the door to the men's locker room when former U.S. Open champion David Graham emerged. Graham won his U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in 1981, and it was during that week that the USGA announced that Shinnecock would get the 1986 championship.

"Frank, you've finally done it," exclaimed Graham, his arms spread wide as if to gather in the whole course. "It's absolutely perfect."

Shinnecock is America's true championship links, even if it isn't exactly a pure links course. While Pebble Beach calls itself a links, it's actually a headland course on a rocky outcropping. Shinnecock has the requisite sandy soil, though most of it was deposited by glaciers and not the ocean. Shinnecock occupies the high ground outside the village of Southampton, New York, one of the if-you-have-to-ask-how-much-it-costs-you-can't-afford-it-Hamptons of the east end of Long Island, about 90 miles from Manhattan.

Shinnecock is a marvel. From the veranda of the simple Stanford White clubhouse, the course magically unfolds beneath you. It is one of the most stunning views of a golf course anywhere in the world, a vista that includes Peconic Bay to the north and a smidgen of an adjoining course, the National Links of America. The view alone highlights a fact: there are many great courses on Long Island, courses not only of beauty and challenge, but of historical importance. They are the kind of courses where you get quiet when you step into the clubhouse or when you walk onto the first tee.

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