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Planning a buddies trip? The Snake Pit at Innisbrook Resort

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Innisbrook

Recently, I was elected by my group of buddies to plan a golf trip for my brother’s 30th birthday. It’s a thankless job with little reward and maximum risk. If it goes wrong, it’s your fault. If it goes right, well, let’s not get carried away…

I polled the guys on what destination they wanted as a humble and democratic leader. The destination had to be in Florida, somewhat affordable, have fun things to do besides golf, with accommodations capable of housing all of us, a great 19th hole for watching the games that weekend, and, the real kicker, it had to be a PGA Tour stop.

Ridiculously lofty demands, I know. Lucky for them, I had an ace in the hole — the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.

The Innisbrook Resort near Tampa is one of those places that can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. With resorts like Sawgrass, Doral, Streamsong, and a slew of others filling the landscape of Florida golf destinations, standing out in the crowd is no easy task. Even Innisbrook’s Tour stop — the Valspar Championship — is somewhat overshadowed thanks to being sandwiched between two titans of the game: The Donald (as in Trump) and The King (as in Arnie).

And yet, Innisbrook was the only logical choice to appease the audacious trip-planning stipulations of my buddies. The enormous two-bedroom villa was plenty of space for our group, and it’s location on the hole No. 14 of the Copperhead course was handy for a bit of glow golf under the moonlight. The bar at Market Salamander was also a great spot to enjoy a few beverages while watching college football and exchanging mildly (read: wildly) exaggerated stories around the outdoor firepit. But what really made Innisbrook the obvious choice for our group had nothing to do with golf, accommodations, or where we watched the big game…

It was all about Ribfest.

Just across the bay, and through an incredible stroke of luck, the annual St. Petersburg Ribfest was being held the very same weekend. If there’s any bit of sage wisdom I can pass along to someone planning a buddies golf trip, it’s to check and see if there is a festival or local event taking place nearby. Trust me when I say it will improve any golf trip by epic proportions — and your buddies might… they just might… commend your wisdom.

Although an abundance of mouth-watering barbeque goodness temporarily convinced us otherwise, golf was still the real reason we made the trip to Innisbrook. That part of the adventure began on the Island course — the lesser known, yet equally impressive layout designed by Larry Packard. The Island started out with a bang, an intimidating stretch of holes right of out the gate, before going tame on the back nine. The par-3 4th hole was particularly memorable, with a single cypress tree standing in a bunker directly in the line of play.

Innisbrook1

The Island made for a great tune-up, but it was the next day’s match on Copperhead that brought us to Innisbrook. Like its sister course, the Copperhead featured a great deal of elevation change — at least relatively speaking for Central Florida — as well as a few blind shots, which always add some excitement to the play. For this reason, I’d suggest picking up a yardage book so you know what lies ahead in these places. Driving the ball is key at the Copperhead, but the course plays very fair and was never unjustly penal, though the greenside rough was no walk in the park. My favorite hole was No. 5 — a beast of a par-5 that plays up and over a ridge, and thanks to the wind, was every bit of 650 yards.

Innisbrook2

It’s a thrill anytime you can tee it up where the pros do, and in this way Copperhead did not disappoint, though my scorecard would disagree. The closing stretch of holes, known as the Snake Pit, gets much of the attention when the Tour rolls to town. But, like the Island course, I preferred the front side to the back. Of course this is highly subjective, but I came away from Innisbrook pondering how great it would be to play a composite course using the front nines of both the Island and Copperhead.

Innisbrook3

For those planning a Florida golf trip, Innisbrook makes a solid choice for home base. In addition to the great golf on property, there are several noteworthy courses around the Tampa area, with Orlando and Streamsong within reach for those looking to branch out for a day. The traveler who also wants the vibe of a city may find Innisbrook’s sleepy atmosphere and location in relation to Tampa a little wanting, but in terms of a true golf resort destination, it’s hard to beat.

Standing out in the crowded Florida golf market is no easy task, but anytime Innisbrook registers on my golf travel radar, I’m always really glad it did.

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D.J. Jones is a lifelong golfer and plays to a 6 handicap when he’s not too busy pursuing his other great passion – travel. Tag along with his golf and travel adventures on his blog, The World of Deej.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. TPgolf

    Jan 5, 2015 at 8:18 am

    All of these are great but I must also recommend Lake Jovita country club. Two courses both a must play when your in the Tampa Bay area. Its not uncommon to see tour players there as they have a few resident pga tour players.

  2. Red

    Jan 1, 2015 at 10:40 am

    I live in SW Florida and my wife and I are fortunate enough to stay at Innisbrook now and then. We prefer the Island course and have been told by staff there that the PGA event would be best played on the Island, but that course has little room for the gallery. That said, we love Innisbrook!!!

  3. Square

    Dec 31, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    I’ve played Innisbrook many times. It’s nice, but there are better courses in the area, Southern Hills Plantation, World Woods, TPC of Tampa Bay. If you want a buddy’s trip, it’s a good place for a resort but the course, meh…..I still don’t know why the pros say they love it so much.

    • Bert

      Jan 27, 2015 at 6:05 pm

      Can’t go wrong at Southern Hills in Brooksville. Had a great time there.

  4. JohnW.

    Dec 31, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Great write up. This place has been on my radar for some time, I cannot wait to go.

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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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19th Hole

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