CAPE TOWN – Years ago, Albert Einstein spent summers on the fashionable East End of Long Island, New York. It is the area known as the Hamptons, where mega-rich Manhattans own weekend retreats worth millions of dollars, and it is also home to Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, where this week’s US Open is being played from tomorrow.
The great Einstein was working on his theory of relativity, and trying to master the art of sailing a boat while reading at the same time. According to a veteran East Ender, the experiment nearly ended in disaster.
“There was this fellow with flyaway hair, scudding along with his nose in a book. He forgot to tack and capsized. A local lad rowed out and rescued Einstein, although he didn’t recognise the famous scientist. ‘How come,’ the kid asked, ‘you’re so dumb?’”
I was fortunate enough to be at the 1995 US Open at Shinnecock and while American fans for the most part know their golf, there were certainly a fair percentage of curious onlookers unschooled in the complexities of this great layout who must have been asking themselves a similar question to the one directed at Einstein: “How come these guys are playing so many dumb shots?”
To say this links-type course proved a difficult test is an understatement. The wind, the narrow fairways, the deep rough, the glass-like putting surfaces and the long, brutal par-fours combined to yield an even-par winning score from American Corey Pavin.
There was no rush of birdies and eagles that year. Instead, I have memories of Ernie Els (who was defending the title he had won at Oakmont the previous year) missing the cut, Greg Norman hitting it into the spinach at 10 and making a double-bogey, Tom Kite shooting his age (45) on the back nine, Jumbo Ozaki (on the leaderboard in the third round) being transformed from the Rising Sun to the Setting Sun with 11 shots dropped in 10 holes, and a sheepish Nick Faldo stumbling home in 79 on day three.
Nine years later at Shinnecock Hills, as South Africans will fondly remember, Retief Goosen won the 104th US Open after a titanic battle with Phil Mickelson, the Masters champion at the time, with rounds of 70, 66, 69 and 71 for a four-under-par 276 total.
The Goose took just 11 putts over the final holes on lightning fast, treacherous greens to edge out Mickelson by two. It was heroic stuff and hopefully one of “ours” can repeat the dose this time.
Incidentally, the very first US Open at Shinnecock was in 1896, played over 36 holes on the original course (replaced in 1931 by the present course).
According to the Official US Open Almanac, John Shippen, an African-American caddie at the club, was in fine position to take the title until he made 11 at the 13th hole in the second round. His subsequent 81 left him tied for sixth.
“The day prior to the event a number of all-white professionals held a meeting about playing in the championship with Shippen and Oscar Bunn, a full-blooded Shinnecock Indian. They signed a petition stating they wouldn’t play if Shippen and Bunn were in the field. Upon presenting it to USGA President Theodore Havermeyer, the group was told play would go on even if it meant Shippen and Bunn were the only players in the field.”
No-one did pull out and Scot James Foulis, a club and ball maker who had emigrated to the US, won with rounds of 78 and 74.
Einstein’s relativity aside, our South African boys in this year’s line-up (Els, Grace, Oosthuizen, Schwartzel, Frittelli and Burmester) will have figured out their own theories about how to play the course. Let’s just hope they’ll prove to be right.