By Robbie Vogel
Way out on the tony south fork of Long Island, among the hidden inlets and crushed-shell driveways, lies a golf course that doubles as a living museum of the game’s history in America. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club checks in at sixth in the latest Golf.com world rankings, wedged between legendary Augusta National at # 5 and Long Island’s own “National,” neighboring NGLA, at # 7.
It is a spectacular and varied test of golf, with holes that tumble through glacially formed valleys and a routing that forces players to continually adjust for the ever-present wind. The small greens, fescue-lined fairways, and more than 100 bunkers present what many believe to be the ultimate test of tournament golf, so it’s no wonder that the USGA has already agreed to bring the U.S. Open back to Shinnecock Hills in 2026.
But what sets “Shinnie” apart from every other club in the United States is its wealth of groundbreaking historical claims. Some of these are well known, and serve as the foundation for the club’s sterling reputation. But with almost 130 years of history, Shinnecock boasts more than a few milestones that are rarely discussed, but deserve mention.
The Granddaddy of Them All?
Shinnecock’s members will tell you that it’s the oldest golf club in the United States. But is it truly? The club was formed by a group of prominent American businessmen (among them Edward Meade; Duncan Cryder; and William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius) who took a trip to the resort town of Biarritz, France in 1890. In between flights of fine French wine, they ran into Scottish golfer and course designer Willie Dunn, who was building a golf course at the resort. As an aside, yes, this is the same Biarritz from which the classic template hole takes its name.
Vanderbilt and his partners became enamored with the game and hired Dunn on the spot to build them a club on Long Island. After incorporating the club in 1891, they found a suitable location in the sandhills of Southampton, NY, which they purchased for $2,500. A testament to the growing popularity of the game in America (or the persuasive powers of Vanderbilt, Meade, and Cryer): despite not having a single hole designed or laid out, 44 members signed on to be part of the club. Being too eager to wait for Dunn to cross the pond, Vanderbilt and company enlisted another foreign Willie, Canadian Willie Davis, who designed a 12-hole track that opened in late summer of 1891. Three years later, Dunn finally arrived on American soil and added six more holes, bringing the total to a round 18.
So the club was incorporated in 1891, much of the course laid out in the same year, and the 18th hole completed in 1894. Does that make it the country’s oldest? Well, not technically. Savannah Golf Club in Georgia actually traces its roots back to 1794, but did not have a course to call its own until a century later, in 1899. The Quogue Field Club just a few miles southwest of Shinnecock opened as a private club in 1887, but did not include a golf course until ten years later. However, Foxburg Country Club, in the tiny western Pennsylvania hamlet of the same name, was founded and opened for play in 1887. Still in use today, Foxburg Country Club holds the record, if not the same prestige.
Presiding over the golf course from a rise behind the 18th green, the Stanford White-designed clubhouse is a study in American Craftsman architecture. And as it was built in 1892, it lays claim to the title of oldest golf clubhouse in the United States. In 2000, the federal government added the clubhouse to its National Register of Historic Places, recognizing the understated, elegant structure as a significant landmark in our country’s architectural history.
And although it’s somewhat off topic, no discussion of Stanford White is complete without mentioning his murder, and the “Trial of the Century” which stemmed from it. A high-society Manhattan lawyer with a wild side, Stanford White was shot to death in his seat, Lincoln-style, at the Madison Square Garden roof theatre by a Pittsburgh millionaire named Harry Thaw. Thaw was married to the famous actress Evelyn Nesbit, and was incensed by the fact that, years earlier, White had had inappropriate relations with Nesbit when she was 16 and he was 47. But that’s another story.
No, Girls Allowed!
Returning to the topic at hand, Shinnecock’s history of progressive membership is one to be celebrated. The first American club to admit women, Shinnecock had no issues with the fairer sex and admitted them from the moment it opened its doors. A nine-hole ladies’ course was opened in 1893, Shinnecock member Lucy Barnes won the inaugural U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1895, and the club hosted the 1900 event.
And one of the strongest players to emerge from Shinnecock in its earliest years was female, and a teenager to boot. Beatrix Hoyt was the granddaughter of Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary who would go on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Growing up on Long Island, Beatrix picked up golf at 14 while hanging around the club, and two years later, she captured the Women’s Amateur title in 1896. Proving it was no fluke, Hoyt went out and won the event the next two years as well, in addition to winning medalist honors in the stroke play qualifying portion of the event five years running. Not bad for a kid with a handful of years’ experience.
Shippen up to Shinnie
Shinnecock’s hosting of the 1896 U.S. Open was nearly mired in racial controversy, but allowed the club to showcase its openness on a national scale. The backstory: one of Shinnecock’s first caddies was a local kid named John Shippen. Son of an African-American father and a Native American mother, Shippen lived on the nearby Shinnecock Native American reservation. At the tender age of 17, Shippen entered the tournament after having his entrance fees paid by a few club members who had seen his skills on display. Several foreign-born players threatened to boycott the event, but were summarily shut down by the first USGA president, Theodore Havemeyer. Despite the circumstances, Shippen went out and fired an opening-round 78, putting him just two back of the leader. He was in second place, in prime position to win the tournament on the back nine, until a disastrous 11 at the 13th hole took him out of contention. Shippen finished T5, earning him a $25 check.
Interestingly, Shippen may have been the first American to occupy the traditional role of the golf professional. He gave lessons and served as an assistant pro to Willie Dunn at Shinnecock, and competed in six U.S. Opens. He worked as the head professional at Shady Rest Golf Course in New Jersey from 1932 until 1964, and was the only African-American player to compete in the U.S. Open until Ted Rhodes in 1948.
Utter the names Raynor and Macdonald around golf architecture aficionados, and prepare yourself for a lengthy lecture on template holes, genius routings, and confounding green complexes. Seth Raynor and his mentor, C.B. Macdonald, designed some of the finest golf courses in the early years of the sport in the States. An incomplete but star-studded list: National Golf Links of America, Blue Mound, Camargo, Chicago Golf, Fishers Island, Fox Chapel, Greenbrier, Yale, Yeamans Hall, and Mid Ocean Club.
Macdonald designed his first course, which just so happened to be National Golf Links, in 1908. Raynor designed his first course at age 40, in 1914. Only two years after that, the two undertook a massive redesign of Shinnecock Hills, gouging bunkers and building up green sites, including the famous Redan 7th hole, which still stands today. Though Raynor worked on several Macdonald projects before their efforts at Shinnecock, this 1916 collaboration was the first time that Raynor was seen as Macdonald’s peer in golf design circles, rather than just a site worker. While the student didn’t quite become the teacher, he certainly graduated at the top of his class.