Southampton, N.Y. — The US Open golf championship traditionally returns to famous old courses: Winged Foot, Pebble Beach, Baltusrol. There's almost a 10-year rotation in place. This week the Open goes back to Shinnecock Hills, but only the historians appreciate it. The last time the Open was here was 90 years ago.
Shinnecock Hills was the host club for the second Open in 1896 (the first was at Newport Country Club). Shinnecock was the first incorporated golf club in the country, with the first clubhouse, a shingled masterpiece designed by the legendary Stanford White.
The course today is much different from the original and much different from the usual Open site. It heaves across the dunes between Great Peconic Bay and the Atlantic Ocean more like a British Open venue.
The fairways curve one way and another, the greens are small, and a few shots must find blind targets. There are no trees to block the wind, which frequently changes the course from a beautiful sculpture into a raging monster.
``If the wind blows 35 miles an hour from a funny direction, we won't enjoy ourselves,'' says defending champion Andy North. ``I played a practice round here earlier this year and couldn't get home on a lot of holes in regulation. Par was 70 on the scorecard, but 80 on the course. There were about 14 par-5 holes and a par-6.''
North likes the place, if only because it has Hills in its name. He won the Open at Cherry Hills in Englewood, Colo., in 1978 and at Oakland Hills in Birmingham, Mich., a year ago.
``The scoring here could be very low one day and very high the next, depending on the wind,'' he says. ``It's hard to predict what will happen. The Europeans -- Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, and Seve Bellesteros -- will feel at home on this course. The course isn't manicured as finely as many in America, and will demand many different shots. You'll have to bounce the ball onto some of these small, firm greens.''
Few pros are familiar with Shinnecock.
``We'd love to play it 10 times beforehand, but won't have the opportunity,'' North says. ``I think the winner will have to come here playing well.''
That makes Bob Tway, who won Westchester, a favorite. Straight driving is very important, which makes Calvin Peete a good possibility to break through and win a first major.
Greg Norman is the hottest player on the tour, with two victories and two seconds in the last couple of months. George Burns grew up nearby and has played the course a great deal. Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus have won major championships on all types of courses.
Nicklaus, the 46-year-old Masters winner, was here last week tuning up. He conceded he is thinking about the Grand Slam, the unprecedented capturing of the four major professional titles (the Masters, the US and British Opens, and the PGA) in one year.
``I'm the only player with a chance this season,'' he said with a grin, ``and I'm gearing myself hard for the Open. This is my sixth opportunity to win the Slam -- a big reason I didn't even consider retiring after the Masters. All of a sudden Shinnecock became not only a fine golf course but a target. I think I'll play it well.''
The course has been lengthened to 6,912 yards for the Open through the building of several new tees. It is out toward the tip of Long Island and was constructed by the Shinnecock Indians, who gave it its name and still inhabit a reservation nearby.
The remote location does not lend itself to car traffic, so attendance is being limited to 17,000 a day. The small, elite club membership wasn't nearly large enough to form the usual volunteer corps, so the sponsoring US Golf Association is supplying the manpower and womanpower itself.
Frank Hannigan, executive director of the USGA and an admitted romantic, is the man who more than anyone else brought the Open to Shinnecock.
He says, ``We aren't taking the gamble that a lot of people think. The British Open goes to places like this and provides its own volunteers. We've been working for a year on plans for smooth traffic flow. The key is crowd size. We limited attendance at Merion  with good results.''
In any event, the number of people who witness an Open in person is minuscule, compared with the number who watch it on television, and viewers at home will have a rare opportunity to see what has been called ``one of the greatest unplayed courses in the world.''
``Because trees won't be getting in the way, the camera angles will be marvelous,'' predicts Hannigan. ``We are here for one reason alone: an extraordinary golf course.''