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Opinion & Analysis

Shinnecock Hills and a Golf Pioneer

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There are a handful of courses throughout the United States that stand out as keepers and curators of golf history. Chief among those courses is Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. Founded in 1891, Shinnecock is four years older than the United States Golf Association and is one of the five founding member clubs of the USGA. As were many courses before the turn of the 20th century and many of the clubs in Scotland, Shinnecock was originally designed as a 12-hole course by architect Willie Davis, but six holes were added in the spring of 1895 with the anticipation of the following year’s U.S. Open.

In the second year of the USGA’s existence, it hosted by the Men’s U.S. Open and the Men’s U.S. Amateur in 1896. Since Shinnecock hosted its first U.S. Open, it has hosted several more USGA events over the past 122 years. The club’s championship resume includes U.S. Opens in 1896, 1986, 1995, 2004 and 2018, U.S. Amateurs in 1896 and 1900 (Women’s U.S. Amateur) and a Walker Cup in 1977.

The course we know today as Shinnecock is quite different from the original 12-hole design from 1891 by Mr. Davis. William Flynn conducted a complete redesign of the course prior to it being reopened for the 1931 season, bringing to life the natural topography and embedding the DNA of a true links course. And while the design history of both the course and clubhouse are remarkable, there are a few other details that make this course a pioneer in the golf history books.

John Shippen Jr. was born in Washington, D.C. in the winter of 1879 to John Shippen Sr. and Eliza Spotswood Shippen. His father was an African American Presbyterian Minister, and his mother was a Native American. Sometime in 1888, John Shippen Sr. was called to serve a congregation on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation just outside of the property that would soon become the famed golf course. When the course opened, John Jr. worked as a caddie. The club’s Scottish-born professional, Willie Dunn Jr., taught Shippen Jr. how to play the game.

As Shippen Jr. progressed, his golf game became superb. When the 1896 U.S. Open rolled around, several club members at Shinnecock offered to pay Shippen’s entry fee. At that time, golf was still an “exclusive” game in the U.S. and Shippen was allowed to enter the tournament only if he registered as a Native American along with another Native American caddie, Oliver Dunn. As one would expect in 1896, Shippen and Dunn’s registration sparked a minor racial controversy. When the other professionals found out Shippen and Dunn had entered the event and that they were not Caucasian, they threatened to boycott the event. When the USGA President at the time, Theodore Havemeyer, learned of the impending boycott, he informed the players that the tournament would continue even if it were only contested between Shippen and Dunn. The professionals backed down and play began.

Shippen Jr. made a name for himself that week as he finished fifth in the tournament and contested as a professional. He became the first African-American to tee it up in a U.S. Open, he also became the first American-born professional golfer.

John Shippen Jr. would go on to play in four more U.S. Opens in 1899, 1900, 1902 (where he finished fifth once again) and 1913. Shippen continued to live and work in the Shinnecock area until he retired from competition in 1924. In 1931, he became the head Professional and Greenskeeper at Shady Rest Golf and Country Club, the first African-American country club, where he worked until 1964.

Shippen would be the only African-American to compete in a U.S. Open until 1948 when Ted Rhodes qualified and entered the tournament. Shippen was barred from membership into the PGA of America because of its “Caucasian-only” clause, which was eradicated in 1961, only seven years before his death in 1968. It wasn’t until 2009 that the PGA of America bestowed posthumous membership to Shippen along with fellow African-American pioneers, Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller.

Shinnecock was also a pioneer in another way. As with our country’s open race bias, turn of the century America had a clear opinion on the place women held in society. At the time the USGA was founded, it was incredibly difficult to find locations for women’s golf tournaments to take place. And even when they did find locations, the support they received from the local community and the course itself was diminished in comparison to their male counterparts. Not only was it difficult for women to host tournaments, it was nearly impossible to find a club where women could be members outside the “social” side of the memberships their husbands maintained. Shinnecock Hills, however, admitted women into its club from the day it was founded.

As we watch the U.S. Open this week, we’ll hear a lot about the conditions in 2004. We’ll hear a hundred times how the USGA had to water the seventh green in between groups on Sunday. We’ll see clips of Corey Pavin’s walk up No. 18 on Sunday in 1995 to win his first and only major championship. Maybe we’ll also see a little glimpse of the pioneer John Shippen Jr. and the first women members into the club.

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Adam Crawford is a writer of many topics but golf has always been at the forefront. An avid player and student of the game, Adam seeks to understand both the analytical side of the game as well as the human aspect - which he finds the most important. You can find his books at his website, chandlercrawford.com, or on Amazon.

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  1. Darren W McGowen

    Jun 13, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    It was Oscar Bunn, not Oliver Dunn.

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Opinion & Analysis

Squares2Circles: Course strategy refined by a Ph.D.

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What do you get when you combine Division I-level golf talent, a Ph.D. in Mathematics, a passion for understanding how people process analytical information, and a knowledge of the psychology behind it? In short, you get Kevin Moore, but the long version of the story is much more interesting.

Kevin Moore attended the University of Akron on a golf scholarship from 2001-2005. Upon completing his tenure with the team, he found himself burned out on the game and promptly hung up his sticks. For a decade.

After completing his BS and MS degrees at the University of Akron, Kevin then went to Arizona State to pursue his Ph.D. Ultimately what drew him to the desert was the opportunity to research the psychology behind how people process analytical information. In his own words:

“My research in mathematics education is actually in the realm of student cognition (how students think and learn). From that, I’ve gained a deep understanding of developmental psychology in the mathematical world and also a general understanding of psychology as a whole; how our brains work, how we make decisions, and how we respond to results.”

In 2015, Kevin started to miss the game he loved. Now a professor of mathematics education at the University of Georgia, he dusted off his clubs and set a goal to play in USGA events. That’s when it all started to come together.

“I wanted to play some interesting courses for my satellite qualifiers and I wasn’t able to play practice rounds to be able to check them out in advance. So I modified a math program to let me do all the strategic planning ahead of time. I worked my way around the golf course, plotting out exactly how I wanted to hit  shot, and minimizing my expected score for each hole. I bundled that up into a report that I could study to prepare for the rounds.

“I’m not long enough to overpower a golf course, so I needed to find a way to make sure I was putting myself in the best positions possible to minimize my score. There might be a pin position on a certain green where purposely hitting an 8-iron to 25 feet is the best strategy for me. I’ll let the rest of the field take on that pin and make a mistake even if they’re only hitting wedge. I know that playing intelligently aggressive to the right spot is going to allow me to pick up fractions of strokes here and there.”

His plan worked, too. Kevin made it to the USGA Mid-Amateur at Charlotte Country Club in September of 2018 using this preparation method for his events just three years after taking a decade off of golf. In case you missed the implied sentiment, that’s extremely impressive. When Kevin showed his reports to some friends that played on the Web.com Tour and the Mackenzie Tour, they were so impressed they asked him to think about generating them for other people. The first group he approached was the coaching staff at the University of Georgia, who promptly enlisted his services to assist their team with course strategy in the spring of 2019. That’s when Squares2Circles really started to get some traction.

At that point, UGA hadn’t had a team win in over two seasons. They also hadn’t had an individual winner in over one season and had missed out on Nationals the previous two seasons. In the spring of 2019, they had three team wins (including winning Regionals to advance to Nationals) and two individual wins (including Davis Thompson’s win at Regionals). Obviously, the credit ultimately belongs to the players on the team, but suffice it to say it appears as though Kevin’s involvement with the team was decidedly useful.

“One of the things we really focused in on was par 3 scoring. They finished 3rd, 2nd, 4th, and 3rd in the field as a team in their spring tournaments. Then at the SEC’s they struggled a bit and finished 6th in the field. At Regionals, they turned it around and finished 1st in the field with a score of +6 across 60 scores (186 total on 60 par 3’s, an average of 3.10).”

Sample Squares2Circles layout for the 18th hole at Muirfield Village. Advanced data redacted.

Kevin is available outside of his work with UGA and has been employed by other D-I teams (including his alma mater of Akron), Mackenzie Tour players, Web.com Tour players, and competitive juniors as well. Using his modified math program, he can generate generic course guides based on assumed shot dispersions, but having more specific Trackman data for the individual allows him to take things to a new level. This allows him to show the player exactly what their options are with their exact carry numbers and shot dispersions.

“Everything I do is ultimately based off of strokes gained data. I don’t reinvent the wheel there and I don’t use any real new statistics (at least not yet), but I see my role as interpreting that data. Let’s say a certain player is an average of -2.1 on strokes gained approach over the last 10 rounds. That says something about his game, but it doesn’t say if it’s strategy or execution. And it doesn’t help you come up with a practice plan either. I love to help players go deeper than just the raw data to help them understand why they’re seeing what they’re seeing. That’s where the good stuff is. Not just the data, but the story the data tells and the psychology behind it. How do we get ourselves in the right mindset to play golf and think through a round and commit to what we’re doing?”

“Even if you’re able to play practice rounds, this level of preparation turns those practice rounds into more of an experiment than a game plan session. You go into your practice round already knowing the golf course and already having a plan of attack. This allows you to use that practice round to test that game plan before the competition starts. You may decide to tweak a few things during your practice round based on course conditions or an elevation change here and there, but for the most part it’s like you’ve gained a free practice round. It allows you to be more comfortable and just let it fly a lot earlier.”

Kevin is in the process of building his website, but follow @squares2circles on Twitter for more information and insight.

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Podcasts

The Gear Dive: Mike Yagley and Chad DeHart of Cobra Golf

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In this episode of The Gear Dive, Johnny chats with Mike Yagley and Chad DeHart of Cobra Golf Innovation on Cobra Connect, new ways to evaluate good play, and the future of golf improvement.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

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Mondays Off: U.S. Open wrap-up | Steve plays against the new assistant pro

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Would Woodland have won the U.S. Open if he had to hit driver on the 18th hole? Knudson doesn’t think so. Steve loved the U.S. Open, but he didn’t really love the commentator crew. Also, Steve tees it up with the new second assistant pro at the club, how did he do?

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

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