Youch! Right in the Shinnecock

MAMARONECK, N.Y.—Baking in the sun in their parked golf carts, fancy all-access credentials dangling from their burnt-red necks, the members of the Winged Foot Golf Club fairly gloated as the world’s best golfers stumbled their way around the course.

“This is the best of the New York golf courses,” said Chuck Mercein, a club member and former fullback for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. “I wouldn’t trade Winged Foot for any other golf course in the world.”

This was not just simple, parochial pride. Winged Foot had just hosted a successful, controversy-free U.S. Open—a sharp contrast with Southampton’s venerable Shinnecock Hills club, which hosted a disastrous Open in 2004. The last week had firmly enshrined Winged Foot over Shinnecock as the crown jewel of tournament venues in the New York area.

“Shinnecock just doesn’t have the history or quality of this golf course,” said member Buck French, a former partner at J.P. Morgan. “Winged Foot is the top New York course, maybe even the world. It’s the Yankee Stadium of courses.”

This week, Winged Foot proved challenging enough to produce the highest-scoring winner at an Open in more than three decades—Australian Geoff Ogilvy eventually won by finishing five over par.

Contrast that with the Open held two years ago at Shinnecock, where, in an effort to make that 115 year-old course more challenging for today’s long-hitting professionals, the United States Golf Association allowed the overheated putting-surface greens to harden to a texture resembling asphalt.

It ended up being a disaster, with almost universal complaints of unfairness from players and the media. Recriminations flew. And as things stand, golf’s governing body has no plans to bring the Open—America’s oldest and most exacting major golf tournament—back to Shinnecock anytime soon.

“Shinnecock’s reputation was sullied, and that place didn’t seem like a majestic golf course anymore,” said Frank Hannigan, the executive director of the USGA from 1983 to 1989. “It was a great deal embarrassing.”

In comparing the conditions in 2004 to this year, pro Mike Weir spoke for many of the players this week. “Shinnecock wasn’t right,” said Mr. Weir, a former Masters champion. “This is just plenty tough.”

It wasn’t always this way.

If hosting the U.S. Open is the measure of a private club’s prestige, Shinnecock has bested Winged Foot over the past two decades, hosting three Opens versus Winged Foot’s one. (Unlike the Masters, which is at Augusta National every year, the Open relies on an unofficial rotation of esteemed American golf courses—like Pebble Beach in California—that host the tournament every 10 years or so.)

Moreover, the week before the 2004 Open, it seemed that everyone in golf was effusively gushing over the condition of the links. Johnny Miller, a former Open champion and lead golf analyst on NBC, called it “golf’s holy grail,” and said it was attractive enough to “make you drool.”

But that was before play began. Tucked on a sliver of land between the Atlantic Ocean and an inlet off the Great Peconic Bay, Shinnecock relies on wind to make things difficult. But that Atlantic breeze never came in 2004.

The USGA, which runs the U.S. Open, is known for tough tests—a former executive is famous for saying, “We’re not trying to humiliate the best players in the world. We’re simply trying to identify who they are”—and decided to let the greens dry out, attempting to balance the fair weather by making putting impossible.

“It didn’t make a difference what type of golfer you were, you couldn’t keep the ball on the green no matter how good,” Mr. Hannigan said. “I can’t tell you why it wasn’t watered, but it was poor and confused management.”

As a result, Shinnecock took a hit from which it still hasn’t recovered.

When the general manager of Shinnecock, Gregg Deger, was asked this week whether he regretted the course hosting the 2004 U.S. Open, he said, “No comment” and instead faintly passed the blame to the USGA.

“Obviously, there were issues, but the club had no responsibility for the controversial issues at the time,” Mr. Deger said in a phone interview. “People can say whatever they want—they’re not playing this course today.”

When asked if Shinnecock members would consider hosting the Open again, Mr. Deger stayed tight-lipped.

“We have no comment on future decisions,” he said. “That’s the club’s policy right now.”

The course is not on the USGA’s list for Open courses through 2013—the latest year for which the Open site has been awarded—and one Shinnecock member said the conversation about hosting another one hasn’t even been raised.

Meanwhile, Baltusrol, a lush, tree-lined course in Springfield, N.J., fell out of the Open rotation 13 years ago, when the tournament was last held there, and has now been relegated to hosting the P.G.A. Championship, an ugly stepsister among golf’s four major tournaments. The only remaining local venue for what is arguably the most prestigious golf event held in America is the Black Course at Bethpage State Park, a public course.

Enter Winged Foot. Although the high, rough and sharply sloping greens caused players to blow up in last week’s Open—prompting Tiger Woods to miss his first cut as a pro and making Phil Mickelson look like a weekend hacker on the final hole on Sunday—nearly everyone involved praised the course for offering a test that was tough but fair.

It was icing on the cake for Winged Foot, a bastion of exclusivity that is already steeped in the members-only tradition that golf fans seem simultaneously to hate and desire.

“Heritage is such a big part of the game, and Winged Foot has so much of it,” said golf’s pre-eminent sentimentalist, CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, who is a member of the club. “Where we’re standing right now, this is where Bobby Jones won in 1929. And then take a look at the clubhouse—it’s quite a sight.”

Hence the palpable air of triumph and self-congratulation that surrounded the Westchester club last week.

At the 83-year-old stone clubhouse perched atop a hill, members poured out throughout the first day of play on Thursday with the swagger of honorees at a ticker-tape parade: They laughed, backslapped, and high-fived one another.

“There are a lot of good feelings around this golf course today,” said Bart McDade, the global head of the equities division at Lehman Brothers, and a member of 23 years. “I’m biased, but I’ve always thought this was the best.”

As a young boy, not older than 10, returned to the clubhouse after walking a round on the course with a sign that displayed three players’ scores, an older blond-haired woman in pink sidled up to him and slipped him a $100 bill.

A few holes away, one of the marshals lounging off the fifth fairway greeted his daughter with hugs and kisses, gently sliding a pass into her hand promising “free food and free booze.”

It was a picture of privilege and of smugness, perhaps, in the knowledge that Winged Foot’s local monopoly over the country’s most storied major tournament may be long-lasting.

Pausing from a stroll around the course during the first round of play, the venerable golf architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. made himself momentarily available to render a final judgment on the matter.

“Shinnecock is a nice, solid course,” he said. “But I do feel Winged Foot is the crown jewel of New York courses.”

Youch! Right in the Shinnecock