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A golfer’s dazzling Cape: Golf along Cape Cod

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When a sandy strand extends out into the ocean, it doesn’t take long for golf to establish itself as a primer recreational and fiscal entity. Cape Cod’s proximity to the Atlantic ocean extends its golfing season on both shoulders of summer. As a result, a great number of diverse golf courses are able to make a financial go of it. If you’ve never been, you have no reason to avoid golf on the Cape any longer.

Of 43 or so golf courses and clubs on the extensive promontory, 31 are public-access venues boasting varied topography, turf base and fairway trace. Stretching from Falmouth in the Southwest corner of the peninsula to Truro at the point of the hook, the golf along Cape Cod should be recognized and respected at a different level of awareness. That it isn’t might be a testament to the ability of Codders to guard a secret or of the variety of parallel activities available from town to town.

For a region known for antiques, seafood, vineyards, cranberries, beaches and wooden-bat baseball, it’s not a stretch for golf to take a back seat to the extraordinary offerings found along the cape, from the mainland out to Provincetown. Fair enough, the Cape doesn’t need to promote itself as Myrtle Beach North or Monterey East. If you find yourself in Woods Hole, Barnstable or Chatham and your clubs happen to be in your trunk, you’ll discover how profound the golf is along the 65-mile stretch of Route 6, from the Sagamore bridge to Provincetown.

My time on Cape Cod was brief, for reasons best left to the denouement of a sad romance novel. I arrived on a Friday morning and left at a Tuesday sunrise. Don’t ask why I spent Thursday night at a truck stop instead of a motel; instead, take a page from my as-yet unpublished golf junket strategy book on pre-pinches and pull-aways. A pre-pinch is a quick nine or 18 that you play the evening before the trip officially begins. I did that at Whitinsville (pronounced like the color) golf club in Massachusetts, a classic nine-hole layout kinda sorta Southwest of Boston. A pull-away is a round of golf you play on your way out of town, serving as a bridge between vacation and reality. I was able to play Pinehills’ Jones course (and photograph the Nicklaus as well) on my way out of town on Tuesday.

Oh, right, the Cape of Cod. There are two types of driving that you undertake when moving east-to-west or west-to-east on the great sandy stretch of Massachusetts. If you find yourself kicking back, enjoying the sun and breeze, the smell of the sea and the taste of lobster, you drive along unmarked paths, through roundabouts and past shanties, cottages and shacks. And it takes a while, but remember, you’re kicking back. If you absolutely and positively need to get somewhere promptly, you take Route 6, also known as the Mid-Cape Highway. It’s four lanes at times and moves well. It doesn’t have much of a shoulder, but you’ll get up to speed and stay there most days. I highly recommend it for golf junkets and you can’t miss it if you enter the Cape at the Sagamore bridge.

Rather than move west to east, as a typical Cape Cod rendezvous works, it just might be easier to reverse direction and start at the hook. In truth, there is no golf in Provincetown, but there are amazing beaches on the outskirts and a funky, hilly, trendy place filled with really good-looking people to pass a day. About 10 miles outside of Provincetown is a can’t-miss golfing opportunity, one of the few, true links golf courses in North America.

For those not in the know, a links golf course is found on land that “links” the sea with the farm land. It was land where animals grazed, too sandy to be of any worth to crop growers. As a result, it boasts perfect drainage for golf, along with firm fairways and a variety of native grasses. Highland Links in North Truro is a nine-hole haven, in the shadow of the Truro Lighthouse. It begins like a Scottish course might, across a bluff to the first green, then down a descent into a valley far below to N0. 2. The third scales the cliff and your breath scarcely returns until you find yourself halfway up No. 4. Highland Links play thus for six holes, then suddenly turns into an Irish glen, offering a different experience the last third of the way. Your only regret is that, looking left or right, a complimentary nine holes on adjacent property are easily imagined.

Highland Links

Highland Links

My next stop along the way was the Captain’s Golf Course, a 36-hole property officially in the town of Brewster, but situated as close to Chatham as one could imagine. I played the Port course early in the trip and anticipated a return to play the Starboard. Unfortunately for me, a foul, rain-soaked wind blew in as my tee time approached, and I was forced to retreat to a local shack where I gorged myself on delicious lobster tails. No matter, for my trip around the Port course gave me a sense of the property. The Captain’s is a memorable layout for vacationing and resident golfers alike. Its conditioning is far above average and the variety of holes is diverse enough to satisfy any architecture buff. The staff was exceedingly accommodating and the pace of play, laudable.

Captains-Port Course

Captains-Port Course

A bit more to the west brought me to the Cranberry Valley golf course, designed by the same architect (Geoffrey Cornish) who laid out the Captain’s. Cornish, who recently passed, was known for his ability to design playable courses that allowed beginners to get around, yet challenged the expert to a certain degree. The Cranberry Valley layout fits that model to a tee. It’s rare that you get bitten with a double bogey or worse, but to make par or better, you have to accurately place each shot in the proper space, in order to access the next optimal space. My best round, score-wise, took place at Cranberry Valley. I picked up a hitchhiking golfer on the No. 18 tee and gave her a ride in. She kept my mind on conversation and off the golf, at which point I promptly hit driver, 5 iron, wedge to 4 feet for a closing birdie. She would have followed me to the next course, I suspect, but you know, the wife and all…

Cranberry Valley golf course

Cranberry Valley golf course

Farther inland, in the town of Yarmouth, lies the Bass River golf course. As far as hidden gems go, lasses and lads, this is one to remember. Donald Ross, the transplanted Scotsman, laid down the fairway corridors and green sites over this magnificent tract of land. Adjacent to an inlet and a bog, the Bass River course arcs beyond crevasses and barrancas, over salt ponds and across rumpled fairways. Putting greens are benched into hillsides and fairways at times are hidden from the tee. It was my good fortune to run into a collegiate hero, Jim Hallet. Hallet was a PGA Tour player whose career was derailed by injury. A native to the area, he is back as a pro and instructor at Bass River. I played 14-or-so holes with his nephew, a good stick and conversationalist. When the lad took off No. 15’s tee, I surmised that the text he received was from a younger and cuter playing companion. Ahh, sweet birdie of youth.

9th Hole at Bass River

The ninth hole at Bass River

I haven’t mentioned it, but Cape Cod is home to a number of first-class private clubs. They are exceedingly restrictive in their access, but the proper letter from your club professional just might forge the key that turns the lock. It’s worth an effort, as they are the stuff of memories, both in conditioning and strategic layout. For me, I’d seen enough over my four days (plus pincher plus pull-away) to know that I’ll find some excuse to return for more golf. After all that, I’ve still got to get to the Vineyard and Nantucket, where they say that more links golf awaits.

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Ronald Montesano writes for GolfWRX.com from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. david

    Dec 15, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    Just curious, why did you choose Pinehills over Waverly Oaks?

  2. Sean

    Nov 20, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    If you ever go back, play Blue Rock. A Cornish design par three track in S Yarmouth, with holes ranging from 103 to 255 yards. A real gem. I believe in 2011 Golf Magazine rated it one of the top ten par three courses in the United States.

    • Ronald Montesano

      Nov 21, 2013 at 6:33 am

      Sean, that is helpful. It is very close to Bass River, no? I considered it but wanted to play par 72s my first time through. This gives me yet another reason to return!

  3. Ronald Montesano

    Nov 18, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Thank you for your comments. Keep them coming, along with suggestions for other course for the next trip. Tell your friends about this piece, so that they might offer up opinions and suggestions, too.

  4. Sam

    Nov 18, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Make the trip to Nantucket after Oct. 15th. Stay for at least one night and play Miacomet one day and Sankaty Head the other. Sankaty Head is private club that opens to the public after Oct. 15th and is one of the most picturesque golf courses you’ll ever play. Miacomet was just voted the best public golf course in Massachusetts. A fantastic weekend trip.

  5. Jim

    Nov 18, 2013 at 8:48 am

    Nice article. You can truly play golf year round, assuming not too much snow, on the Cape although it might get cold at times. Most of the public courses there are very nice, challenging and well kept year round. A few more to consider are Bayberry and Old Barnstable Fairgrounds too, all of which were designed by either Cornish or Silva and are terrific courses. There’s also quite a few private courses that are worth begging your way onto as well. Those of us in MA consider playing on the Cape during the fall and winter as some of the best times to play too.

  6. Sully

    Nov 18, 2013 at 2:46 am

    Growing up on the Cape this was a cool article. Especially your choice to play Highland Links. One cool fact is that little round tower in the background that aim at on the downhill second is an old WWII submarine lookout tower. One correction though….Cape Cod is just about as far south as one can get in good ol MA.

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19th Hole

15 things to know before booking your Bandon Dunes golf trip

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Bandon Dunes. Almost from the day it opened, the passion project on the Oregon coast by developers Michael Keiser and Howard McKee has been one of the most sought-after golf destinations in the world. Fast forward, and the resort now boasts 5 courses, three of which are rated in the top 10 public courses in America. It started with Bandon Dunes, arguably the first true links course in the United States. Designed by Scottish wunderkind David McLay Kidd. It is the embodiment of pure golf, a revolution and a revival at the same time. If you woke up on the first tee and didn’t know where you were, you would swear that you were on one of the great courses of the Emerald Isle or bonny Scotland.

After Bandon Dunes came Pacific Dunes, the Tom Doak masterpiece that debuted in 2001 with more ocean views than the QE2 and now ranks only behind Pebble Beach among public courses in the United States. Pacific Dunes is as stunningly beautiful as a Hollywood starlet and, when the prevailing North wind is blowing, about as difficult to approach.

Then came Old Macdonald, another links gem that ranks number 10 in the country but may have the most passionate following of all of the courses. Even though it’s only been around for about a decade, it has an old soul. Old Macdonald is a course completely without pretense; walking it is in so many ways like a walk through life, full of beauty and fraught with danger, moments of glory and of potential four-putt despair. Like all great links layouts, Old Macdonald can be successfully navigated by players of all abilities and styles.

And there is the classic parkland beauty of Bandon Trails by the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the partnership that is dropping a trail of golf magic from coast to coast. The cherry on top is Bandon Preserve, the 13-hole short course that is a condensed version of the original and now ranks as the No. 1 short course in the U.S., just ahead of a 9-hole course in Augusta, Georgia that is reasonably difficult to book a tee time for.

Most people rightly compare the Bandon experience to Ireland or Scotland; the golf is stellar no matter which course you play, it is surprisingly affordable, and the off-course amenities are as memorable as the courses themselves. Truth of the matter is that from the East Coast it’s easier to get to Dublin than it is to get to Bandon. But once you get to Ireland you’d have to spend days moving from hotel to hotel on roads the size of cart paths in order to get the level of golf that is available within a five minute shuttle ride of your hotel room at Bandon Dunes. With the golf, the food, and the camaraderie, you are almost guaranteed to have a memorable golf experience at Bandon Dunes. But there are a few ways that you can 100 percent guarantee that it will be extra special…for your consideration, I present some tips to assure a perfect Bandon Experience.

1) Be prepared to walk

With only the rare exception (two or three rounds a day), all of the courses at Bandon Dunes are walking courses and they are not an easy walk . One round takes you on a 5+ mile walk up and down the dunes, and if you plan to play 36 holes on at least one day (see below), it will take a toll on your body. Walk some rounds or get on a treadmill to prepare before you get to Oregon and bring plenty of your preferred pain medication.

2) Book during May or December

The weather on the Oregon coast can be unpredictable to say the least, even in the summer months when tee times are the most expensive and difficult to secure. Booking in the shoulder season means not only greater availability; it’s also about 30% cheaper. And Bandon veterans know that there are days in December when warm Southerly winds bring weather when you can play in shirtsleeves.

3) Bring the proper gear

As mentioned above, the weather at Bandon is predictable and unpredictable at the same time in that you know it’s going to rain but you just don’t know exactly when or how much. Bring quality rain gear and plenty of changes of shirts and socks.

4) Fly into Eugene and drive to Bandon

Coming from the East Coast you can fly into Portland (4-hour drive) or North Bend (30-minute drive), but the best option is Eugene, about a 2-hour drive to Bandon. It is a gorgeous drive that will have you stopping often to snap pictures of some of America’s most beautiful scenery.

5) Stop at the Sugar Shack in Reedsport and SharkBite’s Seafood Cafe in Coos Bay

Ok, it’s going to take more than 2 hours from Eugene because you will have to make a couple of stops. The Sugar Shack in Reedsport is an old-school bakery that has warm service, hot coffee and some of the best donuts you have ever tasted. If you are feeling lucky try the Bigfoot, a donut that is roughly the size of an Air Jordan. And just outside Bandon in the town of Coos Bay is the SharkBite’s Seafood Cafe, a relaxed little joint that offers hand-crafted cocktails and quesadillas the size of a boogie board.

6) Stay for at least 4 days and play every course at least once

This is especially true if you are from the East Coast. It is a long trip, maybe once in a lifetime, and there are multiple courses to play. There are some hardy souls that plan 2-3 day trips with 36 holes or more per day. That’s ambitious at best and potentially self-destructive. Plan for at least three days of 18 holes and at least one day of 36.

7) Play The Punchbowl

The Punchbowl is an 18-hole putting course that has become an end of day ritual for Bandon regulars. It’s a great place to have a drink (brought to you on the course from the clubhouse), smoke a stogie and make a friendly wager or two. I find watching a group of good friends play the Punchbowl, with the laughter and shouts of friendship as a soundtrack to the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean, almost relaxing as playing.

8) Have the Lamb Stew at McKee’s Pub

Howard McKee, along with Mike Keiser, was the visionary developer who brought Bandon into being. A gifted architect and an exceptional human being, McKee passed away in 2007 at the age of 68. He is remembered by all who knew him and his spirit lives at McKees Pub. Located near the clubhouse for Bandon Dunes, McKees feels like stepping into a pub in Edinburgh, and tastes like it too. Everything on the menu is good but try the Lamb Stew, a big bowl of slow cooked goodness. You will gain the wonder and admiration of your friends of you finish it.

9) Play At Least One Solo Round

Bandon is all about spending time with old friends and making new ones. That said, I find the solitary round at either the beginning or end of the day to be like going to church. If you have time, book a late afternoon round at Old Macdonald. Walking alone with only your clubs and your thoughts will give you time to truly appreciate how wonderful our game truly is…and how lucky you are to be able to experience it.

10) Book a Massage

On some golf trips, many guys think of massage as something that the significant other goes for while they are out on the course. But after several days of navigating the ups and downs at Bandon the muscles will be screaming for relief. Book a massage at the on- property spa and you’ll get welcome relief.

11) Budget for the Pro Shops

Five courses, five logos and thousands of great gift options await at Bandon. If you are a collector of shirts you might want to bring an extra suitcase for the gear you are going to bring back. Like Vegas, set a limit before you go in the door and walk away when that number is spent.

12) Collect Cheap Souvenirs

Like I said souvenirs can be a costly business, especially if you are buying for friends as well as yourself. Scorecards, ball markers and even empty water bottles are frugal ways to score some memorabilia for your buddies back home.

13) Have a Cigar in The Bunker Bar

As the name suggests, The Bunker Bar is located on the lower floor of the Bandon Dunes clubhouse. There isn’t a lot of signage for it and on the stairs down it seems like you are going to end up in a storage room. But what you find is a cozy retreat that features poker tables, pool tables and a bar with a skilled bartender and a first-class collection of spirits. And since you can smoke indoors there, feel free to channel your inner Don Draper and try one of the fine choices offered at the bar or bring one of your own.

14) Bring a Phone Battery Charger or a Camera on the Course

The courses at Bandon are one big photo op, and you don’t have to be a pro to take snapshots that are magazine worthy. Taking all those snaps will drain your phone battery faster than a pony keg at a frat party so bring a battery pack or a dedicated camera so that you won’t be cameraless when you find yourself standing in front of the perfect sunset.

15) Hit The Boat for Fish and Chips

On the drive home, stop at The Boat Restaurant in Coos Bay. This little gem is packed with locals munching on the some of the best fish and chips in the area. While you wait for your grub you can take a quick stroll through the train museum next door.

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You’ve never played anything like Sweetens Cove

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What do you say about a 3,300-yard, nine-hole course in rural Tennessee with a prefabricated shed for a clubhouse, a port-a-john for a locker room, and a practice green the size of a coffee table? For starters, it’s the most enjoyable golf experience I’ve had in years.

Sweetens Cove isn’t the kind of course where you can say, “Well, it’s like a little bit of this course and that one put together.” It will never be called “a classic so-and-so design.” I’ve played everything from munis to tour stops all the way to the Old Course, and I can promise you it’s not like anything else you’ve ever played.

Picture a world-class, challenging, and ridiculously fun golf course. Now strip off the 15,000-square-foot clubhouse, the pro shop, the driving range, the short game area, and even the superfluous nine holes you can’t remember anyway. Now, go ahead and shave another 300 yards off the tips. That may sound sacrilegious, but once you’ve distilled the experience into only what is necessary, you’re left with something that takes you back to when you first fell in love with golf. Maybe even something that takes you back to the birth of golf itself.

A view of the sixth green at Sweetens Cove looking back toward the tee box. Photo Credit: Rob Collins

Rob Collins is the man behind the course’s creation. When he started the project, it was May 2011 and golf was in a full recession. Courses were closing their doors, companies were struggling to make ends meet, and Rob was betting everything he had on his brand new company (King Collins Golf Course Design, a partnership with Tad King) and their first project of turning a forgettable muni called Sequatchie Valley G&CC into something memorable.

I was inspired by my favorite courses in Great Britain and Ireland along with Pinehurst No. 2 and Tobacco Road, to name a few domestic courses that provided inspiration,” Rob said.  “Additionally, the 1932 version of Augusta National was a huge inspiration for the architecture. The overall goal was to create a great strategic course that places a premium on approach and recovery shots. Hazards, angles, and green contours all work in concert with one another, laying the foundation for a course where there are no weak or indifferent shots during one’s round.” 

Happily, Rob and Tad’s endeavor fared much better than many of their contemporaries’ projects in the wake of the 2008 recession, though it did have many twists and turns along the way. Chief among them was in 2013, roughly a year after construction was completed, when the ownership group disbanded and left the course for dead.

I was desperate to do anything that I could to get the course open,” Rob said.  “The course was my baby, and I believed that what we had created out there was architecturally significant and deserved to see the light of day. As it turned out, my client [the original ownership] approached me and asked if I would like to take the course over on a long-term lease. I said yes to that proposition and set about trying to find a partner for the venture. I was introduced to Ari Techner through the former superintendent at Lookout Mountain, Mark Stovall. Ari and I hit it off and partnered in a venture to take over operations of the course.  Since that time, our partnership has expanded and includes Patrick Boyd as General Manager as well as a few others.” 

Once securing new ownership, Sweetens Cove took off on a consistent upward trajectory that even has it ranked above some major championship venues in certain publications.

The pot bunker to the left of Sweetens Cove’s fifth green, appropriately nicknamed “The Devil’s A**hole.” Photo credit: Kevin Livingood

Admittedly, arriving at Sweetens Cove for the first time can be a disorienting experience for the recovering country clubber. Meandering through a town of 3,000 people in the East Tennessee foothills, you find a wooden sign marking the entrance that guides you to a gravel parking lot with no marked spaces. Stumbling out of the car, you find a curious hunter green shed for a clubhouse that might lead you to question all the buzz you’ve seen on social media. The walk from your car to the clubhouse, though, provides the perfect perch to gaze out on the King Collins creation… and you start to realize that maybe there’s really something to this place.

When you embark on your journey, you encounter absolutely no resemblance to the mechanical, formulaic assembly of a typical, rubber-stamped golf course design. Instead, you’ll find massive waste areas, perfectly placed pot bunkers, and a movement to the land that captures the imagination. The greens are equally receptive to flop shots and bump-and-runs, but they demand a precise execution of either choice.

The bermudagrass fairways are relatively firm and generously-sized, but uneven lies are a common occurrence. Should you find yourself outside those fairways, prepare to take your medicine. Waiting for you there are those waste areas, as well as tall fescue and even clover and thistle in some areas. While some may scoff at such a notion, this is a microcosm of Sweetens Cove’s ethos. It’s a palace for the golfing purist: a minimalist, essential experience that harkens back to when golf geniuses like Old Tom Morris knew exactly where (and where not) to focus their energy. If something adds to the golfing experience, Sweetens Cove has it in spades. If it doesn’t add to the golfing experience, the folks at Sweetens Cove don’t bother.

Sweetens Cove course layout designed by Tom Young at Ballpark Blueprints. Image property of Ballpark Blueprints, Ltd.

The opening hole (pictured to the far left of the above image) is a par-5 of 563 yards. It’s a three-shot hole for most mortals, but your best chance of getting home in two is to start by carrying the bunker on the left about 270 yards off the tee. Be very careful about how you approach the green. It’s guarded by a gnarly pot bunker bordered by vertical railroad ties. The green on this hole is a foreshadowing of what’s to come on the next eight with bounding ridges and multiple potential pin locations that each provide a totally different perspective.

The greenside bunker at Sweetens Cove’s first hole, nicknamed “The Mitre” after its resemblance to the Pope’s hat. Photo credit: Kevin Livingood

The second hole is a par-4 of 375 yards, and the star of the show is the nastiest little pot bunker. It’s placed squarely in the middle of the fairway about 260 yards from the tee. If you miss it, you’re likely fine, but if you don’t… well, good luck. The smart play is hybrid off the tee to stay short of the bunker, leaving yourself a short iron into the green.

No. 3 is a par-5 of 582 yards. Feel free to let fly with the driver off the tee, but beware how you approach the green. The green is perched high above the fairway and guarded by a massive tree in front and a waste area to the left. If the pin is located on the left side of the green, you’re in for a surprise when you walk up to the flag. The ideal landing area isn’t much larger than a couple hundred square feet.

No. 4, King, is the only hole with a name. It’s a 169-yard par-3 according to the card, but the green is 90 yards long. The shot can play anywhere from 120-200 yards depending on pin location and the direction of the swirling winds. And did I mention the tee shot is blind from the tips?

View of the fourth hole, King, from the tee box. Photo credit: Rob Collins

No. 5 is a 293-yard par-4. For longer hitters, it’s reachable from the tee with the right wind, but be careful where you miss. Short right of the green is all waste area that is relatively escapable, though your second shot will likely be to a blind pin. Short left is another nasty pot bunker.

No. 6 is a massive 456-yard par-4 with a sweeping dogleg left that tempts you to hit a hard draw. What you are likely to find out after the fact is that a good portion of the fairway slopes to the left and into a water hazard that runs the length of the hole. This will be one of the hardest holes on the course for most golfers. The only way to miss this green and still be in play is to be short and/or right of it, but getting up and down from there will definitely test your nerves, skill, and imagination.

No. 7 is a 328-yard par-4. It’s all about what club you select off the tee. Driver straight at the flag (which must carry a bunker on the right) is aggressive but likely safe. A driver left will leave you with that dreaded 60-yard bunker shot, and driver right could be behind a tree. Be smart and hit a hybrid. If you miss the green left or right, you may waste a shot or two going back and forth due to the steep drop off on either side.

No. 8 was my personal nemesis. It’s a 387-yard par-4 that, in retrospect, places an emphasis on an accurately planned tee shot (notice a theme here?). By that I mean at the tee, you need to evaluate where the pin is and pick the club and line that will give you the best angle — while keeping in mind the location of the bunkers and trees that could impact your intended path.

The eighth green at Sweetens Cove. Photo credit: Rob Collins

No. 9 is an uphill, 148-yard par-3 with a massive waste area in front, another bunker beyond, and a back-right to front-left sloping green. Matt Cardis’ photo below from his @golfinyourstate Instagram account is taken from the No. 9 tee box.

A course with virtually no excess is a challenging proposition. Everything has to be in exactly the right place, as there’s nothing to divert your attention away from anything that doesn’t meet expectations. Sweetens Cove is definitely up to the task, forcing you to constantly zoom in and out mentally to evaluate the macro and micro of every single shot. There are no less than three shots that can be played from any given situation on the course, but you had better commit to the strategy you’ve chosen and execute or you will pay the price.

The entire journey is spent on the razor-thin edge between heroism and disappointment. Sure, there are elements of this designer and that designer; of links golf and American golf, but Sweetens Cove is truly a golf course without a parallel. It’s a place that serves as a refreshing counter-culture to the vast majority of 21st-century golf courses and, frankly, to the American lifestyle in general. In a world with so much excess, Sweetens Cove will remind you that if all you had left was just a fantastic golf course, all would still be very much right with the world.

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The Winds of Change At Shinnecock Hills

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Two-hundred and seventy-six. That’s the number of strokes it took for Retief Goosen to secure his second U.S. Open Title in 2004, but the number of strokes is the last thing anyone would remember from that year’s toughest test in golf. Take this article from ESPN’s David Kraft and Peter Lawrence-Riddell summing up the final round of Goosen’s triumph:

“The seventh green at Shinnecock Hills was so hard to play for the first two groups Sunday morning that USGA officials decided to water it between every pairing for the final round of the U.S. Open.”

Just as with the 1974 “Massacre at Winged Foot,” the 2004 U.S. Open will forever be remembered as the day the USGA dropped the ball. The USGA claimed that the seventh had been “inadvertently rolled” on Saturday. Walter Driver, chairman of the USGA Championship Committee at the time, told reporters on Saturday, “I found out after play was completed today that, for some reason, a different person on the grounds staff rolled that green today despite the orders that we had given not to roll the green.” Even a typically mild-mannered Jerry Kelly had harsh words, according to the same ESPN piece, “They lied [Saturday],” said Jerry Kelly, who finished with an 81 after shooting 71 Saturday. “Talked to the superintendent. Superintendent said, ‘Hey, I’m not getting in the middle of this. They told me to roll it.’”

Whether the grounds crew was told to roll the seventh green or not, it gave up three triple bogies in the first two groups, so the USGA watered it between each group for the rest of the day. As the 2018 U.S. Open returns to Shinnecock for the first time since that fateful day, the USGA looks to redeem itself this year. With some subtle changes, maybe they can.

In 2004, Shinnecock played 6,996 yards at par 70. In the past 14 years, there have been no major renovations to the course, but once the decision was made to bring the Open back to one of the founding clubs of the USGA, the American Governing body was determined to ensure Shinnecock was presented with its best foot forward. According to a Golfweek report from October of 2017, the following changes have been made to accommodate not only the tournament but the redemption of a reputation:

  • There are 17 new back tees that will stretch the course from the previous 6,996 yards to a total length of 7,445 yards.
  • The par-4 14th hole has been extended 76 yards and will now play 519 yards. The par-5 16th will now play 616 yards.
  • While the fairways will still be more generous than most U.S. Opens, they have been narrowed by Shinnecock’s standard. They will play between 28-32 yards on average.
  • The greens have not been recontoured, but on the greens with the “most severe contouring,” an extended collar of rough has been added between the edge of the greens and the greenside bunkers.

With the course is still expected to play at a par of 70, it will likely be a tougher test than 2017’s expose at Erin Hills, even if there is little wind. In 2004, all eyes were on the par-3 seventh on Sunday. From the time the first minute of Live From The U.S. Open airs on TV, all eyes will be on the same hole: 189 yards with a raised green that runs away from the players and to the right… but so much more.

As there always is with the U.S. Open, the course will be a character in the story more so than any other championship. Hale Irwin won his first of three majors (all U.S. Opens) at the “Massacre at Winged” with a score of seven over par, and 32 years after that championship Peter McCleery of ESPN was still writing about it. And with Shinnecock hosting the U.S. Open the year after Brooks Koepka swept the field with a 16-under par victory at a helpless Erin Hills, who knows what will happen as the horses are released from the gates on Sunday of this year’s U.S. Open?

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