Feisty Shinnecock fans add to US Open experience

It might lie at the blueblood heart of the Hamptons, but history tells us that a U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills isn’t always a genteel tea party.

Historic Shinnecock lies among a swathe of big-money, uber-exclusive golf clubs at the eastern end of Long Island, but the private enclave welcomes the paying public for the year’s second major this week.

And for non-U.S. players, the atmosphere generated by a raucous and patriotic New York crowd has been more akin to a bear pit than a cultured country club mixer.

When Shinnecock hosted the last of its four U.S. Opens in 2004, a quiet South African named Retief Goosen shook off personal abuse like water off a duck’s back to win his second title.

“These guys are steely, but he was the iceman,” Goosen’s then caddie Colin Byrne, who now works with Spain’s Rafa Cabrera-Bello, told CNN Sport.

“They were shouting insults to his face on the Sunday. It was quite hostile. That’s something I might alert Rafa to — the New York crowd aren’t exactly the most welcoming to foreigners.”

Goosen led by two on the Saturday night but became embroiled in a tense battle with home hero Phil Mickelson on a tumultuous and controversial final day. Elements of the crowd at Shinnecock weren’t backward in telling Goosen what he should do and who they wanted to win.

“Guys were running up as he was coming off the green, shouting at him to three putt, or saying ‘all yours to lose,’ just nasty stuff and everything in his face,” added Byrne, talking at the European Tour’s flagship PGA Championship event at Wentworth to the southwest of London.

“There are two ways to deal with hostility — either you back off it, or you embrace it and get stronger. The more they abused Retief the better he got. That was the worst thing they could have done.”

‘It was carnage’

Conditions on the Sunday were brutal, with sun and strong winds rendering the course firm and fiery and making balls bound through greens, penalizing even seemingly good shots.

Waiting outside the locker room, Byrne saw a succession of scoreboards come in with huge numbers — “12 over or 15 over” — and he realized they would have to change their perception of what a good score was.

On the practice putting green, Byrne saw Goosen’s playing partner Ernie Els’ ball slide miles past his target hole.

“I caught his eye and he looked at me as if to say, ‘what is ahead of us?’ It was carnage, the scores were outrageous,” he says.

The average score for the final round was 78.7, and no one was under par.

“The set up was so difficult, they didn’t water it and it was verging on the farcical,” said Byrne. “It was unplayable at stages, that’s why they had to water it halfway through the last round. It was certainly a tipping point.”

Roared on by an increasingly vocal crowd, Masters champion Mickelson overhauled Goosen with birdies on 15 and 16 and the insults intensified. But the South African just fed off it and retook the lead on the 16th before parring home for a two-shot win. It was the third runner-up spot of Mickelson’s now record six U.S. Open seconds.

‘Most important places’

U.S. Open organizer the United States Golf Association — often criticized for the demanding nature of America’s national championship — came under fire for the course’s set-up. USGA executive director Mike Davis admitted last month the body deserved a “double bogey” for how it handled the 2004 event.

“It was a different time, different people and we as an organization learned from it,” he told reporters.

“When you set up a U.S. Open it is golf’s ultimate test. It’s set up probably closer to the edge than any other event in golf and I think the difference then versus now is we have a lot more technology, a lot more data in our hands. Frankly, what really happened then was just a lack of water.”

Shinnecock was built in 1891 and boasts the first golf clubhouse to be built in the U.S. It hosted the second U.S. Open in 1896 and is “one of the most important places in all of golf in the United States,” according to Davis.

Club president Brett Picket told reporters Shinnecock was conceived “when golf was just a cultural curiosity in America by some enthusiastic summer colonists who learned the game on their travels in Europe and thought these grounds were particularly well suited to it.”

The course, bounded by other exclusive Hampton icons such as Southampton Golf Club and the National Golf Links of America, overlooks the Peconic River and Shinnecock Bay and is as close to true links course as there is in the U.S.

Wind is one of its main defenses.

“I’m a believer that the difference between a soft, still U.S. Open versus a firm and windy one could be as much as 20 strokes,” said Davis.

‘Ultimate test’

The course will measure 7,445 yards this week, up about 500 yards on 2004 to bring earlier landing zones off tees back into play. In 1896 the course was 4,423 yards long. Fairways have been widened in places and green complexes enlarged.

“Shinnecock Hills is going to be a wonderful canvas to present that ultimate test,” said Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and Open Championships.

“It’s about testing the players’ shotmaking, their golf course management skills and their mental and physical resolve. Make no mistake about it, the U.S. Open is a grind. There’s an emotional roller coaster there.”

Managing emotions and remaining in a “state of zero, no ups or downs,” while executing your carefully prepared strategy is the key, according to Byrne.

“That’s the perfect character for winning U.S. Opens, not reacting badly to anything and just growing off it rather than crumbling from it,” says Byrne, whose celebrations 14 years ago amounted to a couple of cans of beer from a petrol station while stuck in traffic heading back into New York.

Overzealous fans, an unforgiving course and your own demons all await players in the 118th U.S. Open.