Hard times beckon on a bitch of a course

Guy Hodgson assesses a demanding links venue with a whiff of scandal

There are some sports you would associate with Joan Collins but golf is not one of them. There is a link with the actress, however, and one that reveals itself at the US Open which starts today. The Bitch and the birdie are not as removed as might be imagined.

There is a high tone to the clubhouse at Shinnecock Hills, the venue of this week's tournament, a solid sobriety befitting its status on a course built by American high society, the Vanderbilts. Grey is the colour and respectability oozes from every pillar.

But this refined face masks a scandal which once titillated London, Paris and New York. The Shinnecock clubhouse has a past, a stain on its reputation put there by its architect, Stanford White and, curiously enough, preserved for posterity partly by Miss Collins.

Early in her career she appeared in a film, The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing, playing the true-life part of Evelyn Nesbitt, an actress seduced by White, whose abilities on the drawing board were matched by an appetite for young women. The attraction proved fatal, however, because five years later Nesbitt's jealous husband shot the architect three times through the head.

So much for Shinnecock's upright standing, and so much too for the US Open's image as a tournament where the one thing a golfer does not need in his bag is imagination. The archetypal course for America's premier tournament has narrow fairways, pernicious rough and provides little or no opportunity to be creative.

This time the character of the tournament will take a violent mood swing. Shinnecock, built on a narrow strip of land on the extreme eastern tip of Long Island, is a links course for a start, its landscape more akin to Muirfield and Turnberry than Oakmont, Pennsylvania, where the tournament was played last year.

Named after the Indian tribe that still has its reservation little more than a mile away, the course has virtually no trees and the problems it poses for golfers live and die with the wind.

On a still day it is a benign lay-out from which the likes of Seve Ballesteros would expect to shoot the flags out, but those days come around with only a little more regularity than Christmas. Normally the wind crashes in from over the ocean at around 25 to 30 knots.

At 6,944 yards and a par of 70 it is not back-breaking by modern standards, and its fairways - 28 to 35 yards - are wider than most USGA officials can remember. But when the wind is really spiteful, making regulation can be the height of a player's ambition.

In 1986, the last time the US Open was played here, not a single player broke par on a particularly savage first day after, which Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times wrote: "This was like climbing Everest after a lifetime of taking elevators."

Nevertheless, Shinnecock is regarded with affection by its victims. Ernie Els, the defending champion, regards the course as one of the best he has played on. "Oakmont was target golf," he said. "You had to bring the ball down soft on to the greens and there was no wind to talk about. This year will be very different. It is very close to Scottish links type of golf and you get to play different shots. You have to run some in and hook and cut, too."

In short, Shinnecock can be bitch to play around with. Joan Collins knows a thing or two about that too.

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