SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- Predicting the outcome of most golf tournaments isn't easy. It's an inexact science largely dependent on who shows up. Though the pool from which to pick a winner at major championships is usually smaller, a lot has to do with the course.
And then there's the 95th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.
It might not matter which of the 156 players are in top form for today's opening round, or even whose game seems most suited for a links-type course that has been called "the best British Open course in America." It will depend even more on which Shinnecock shows and which way the wind blows.
Will it be the soggy, rain-drenched course that the players have seen in practice this week, the one that has made a few of the long par-4's unreachable for some using drivers for their second shots? Or will it be the hard, fast and wind-swept course whose tranquil landscape belies a devilish treachery?
"That is the beauty of it," reigning Masters champion Ben Crenshaw said yesterday. "This time of year, [the wind] can come from any direction, and it is wonderful to have a golf course that is so exposed to these elements. That is what you feel golf is really about."
Said defending champion Ernie Els: "It can blow on any hole, at any time, from any direction."
This is also one of the few courses the U.S. Golf Association uses for its Open championships that doesn't require much, if any, manufactured trickery. Except for widening some fairways a few feet on each side and trimming the lush grass collaring the greens, it remains virtually the same course that was played at the last Open here nine years ago. And, perhaps, for Shinnecock's first Open 99 years ago.
The only thing that seems to be missing are the complaints usually made at most Opens. There is no whining about the greens being too fast, or too bumpy. There is no sniping about the rough being too thick or too high. It happens at other venerable courses such as Oakmont and Pebble Beach and Winged Foot. But for some reason, it has not happened here.
"I think you can go and poll the players and you are not going to get a negative [comment] about Shinnecock," said Ray Floyd, who won the Open here nine years ago. "It is very rare to go and talk that way about any other golf course. I love Pebble Beach, too, but not as a U.S. Open setup.
"There is not a blemish anywhere. It is just perfect. It really is. It is phenomenal."
If anything, the steady rains that finally stopped last night have lengthened the relatively modest, 6,944-yard course, giving an early advantage to longer hitters such as Els, Greg Norman, Davis Love III and maybe even reigning U.S. Amateur champion Tiger Woods.
But if the course dries out, as the weather forecasters are predicting and USGA officials are hoping for, then there are other factors. Because the wind seems to blow in all directions, it could favor those who seem to thrive on shot-making instead of sheer power.
"Last year was target golf," Els, 25, said of Oakmont, where the South African won an 18-hole playoff over Colin Montgomerie of Scotland and PGA Tour veteran Loren Roberts. "This year is going to be different. You have got the winds blowing. You might have rain this week, and we are playing a links golf course, so you have to shape the ball from both sides. Left to right and right to left. You've got to improvise a little bit."
Aside from being one of the most interesting courses on which the Open is played, Shinnecock has a long and intriguing history. It was built in 1891 on land that once belonged to the
Shinnecock Indians, whose dwindling tribe still lives on an 800-acre reservation nearby.
Some have made the claim that it was the first 18-hole course built in this country, as well one of the first to allow women to play. Its clubhouse, also believed to be the first of its kind in the United Staes, was built by legendary architect Stanford White.
The Shinnecock Indians still work here. Peter Smith grew up on the reservation, went off to Dartmouth and returned after graduating. He is the club's superintendent; his grandfather worked on the crew that built the original course and was later the head groundskeeper; Smith's father preceded him on the job. His son might eventually follow him.
"Our tribal ancestors once used the area behind the pond on the sixth hole as a campsite," Peter Smith said in a recent article in Golf Digest.
The course itself was built to resemble those in Scotland, with the holes carved into the natural hard and sandy terrain. Unlike most American courses, it is nearly void of trees and thus more susceptible to the winds that sweep in off the Atlantic Ocean from one side and Great Peconic Bay from the other. Charlie MacDonald, the original architect, initially built a 12-hole course that was expanded in order to hold the 1896 Open.
With the rain pouring down the past few days, it seemed as if this could have been St. Andrews, the legendary course that will be host to next month's British Open. The setting prompted former British Open champion Nick Faldo to say, "The U.S. Open is more British than the British Open these days. It obviously has an awful lot of links, more links than any other Open course we played. I think it is such a great golf course."
Faldo, who along with Norman is considered by most in the field to be the favorite, was asked if foreign players would have an advantage here.
"I don't know what individual or where they're from, but I think the way it is playing, it is just going to demand whoever is playing very solid, especially from tee to green," he said. "I think it is just going to be a tough week."
Said Norman: "The tougher it is, the better."
Just how tough, nobody is quite sure. The answer, like picking the next U.S. Open champion, is literally blowing in the Shinnecock wind.
Where: Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Southampton, N.Y.
When: Today through Sunday, with 18-hole playoff Monday in event of tie after 72 holes.
Who: A field of 156 players, including defending champion Ernie Els, Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, defending U.S. Amateur champion Tiger Woods and former Open champion Ray Floyd, who won the last time it was held here in 1986.
Course: Par 70, 6,944 yards.
TV: Today and tomorrow, ESPN, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5 p.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Chs. 11, 4, 12:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m.
HANDICAPPING THE TOP CONTENDERS
* Greg Norman (10-1): Coming off win at Memorial two weeks ago and strong showing at Kemper.
* Nick Faldo (12-1): Has adjusted well to playing U.S. tour, could find links course much to his liking.
* Colin Montgomerie (15-1): Has come close in two of three Open appearances, losing in playoff last year at Oakmont.
* Ernie Els (20-1): Successfully defending Open championship has been done only once in past 43 years, by Curtis Strange in 1988-89.
* Davis Love III (20-1): Had poor record in majors until a second place in this year's Masters; has finished no higher than 11th in Open.
* Bernhard Langer (20-1): Coming off two straight Europe wins, but has missed cut in six of 11 Opens.
* Lee Janzen (25-1): Won Open as relative unknown two years ago at Baltusrol, coming in off win last week at Kemper.
* Nick Price (25-1): Reigning British Open and PGA champion seems to be coming out of post-No. 1 malaise.
* Ben Crenshaw (30-1): Reigning Masters champion is one of most creative players around; tied for sixth here in 1986.
* Corey Pavin (30-1): Best player never to have won major, but seems to be getting closer to elusive goal.
* Ray Floyd (40-1): Won here in 1986 but, at 52, it might be too big a task to become oldest winner again.