Take a typical coffee table, one that's about four feet wide and 16 inches tall, and saw an inch off the front left leg. Then saw two inches off the back left leg. The resulting table is pretty much what the surface of the Redan green at Shinnecock Hills—its par-3 seventh green—looks like from the tee. If you tried pitching pennies onto your sloping coffee table, you’d have a hard time keeping them from sliding off, given its right-to-left slant and front-to-back cant. It’s even harder trying to stop a golf ball on Shinnecock’s Redan green.
Particularly with a long deep bunker along its leading edge and a steep drop-off behind. The correct way to play this Redan, or any Redan, is by the side door, so to speak, aiming for the high back corner, bouncing the ball up the ramp leading to that corner and letting ground contours and gravity tug the ball onto the putting surface and down to the flag, ideally settling slightly beyond the hole so the ensuing putt is uphill. The incorrect way to play any Redan is to go flag-hunting off the tee.
The whole notion of a fall-away putting surface runs contrary to the modern game of golf played by today’s professionals. Clubs are crafted to launch balls high and far. Swings are grooved to deliver shots that bounce twice, then stop with minimal backspin to achieve perfect distance control. Putting surfaces are covered in test-tube turf with uniform blades shaved closer than some players’ facial hair. The Redan was originally designed to be played with a low-trajectory long-iron or wood to encourage bounce. Today, at 189 yards for the U.S. Open, Shinnecock’s Redan is a lofted iron shot for most players, more tempting to hit directly at the pin. None of that fits comfortably atop a cockeyed coffee table.
The original Redan, the par-3 15th at North Berwick in Scotland, was patterned after a Russian fortress built during the 1850s Crimean War along the Black Sea at Sevastopol. There had been similar Redan forts built as far back as the 16th century, but Sevastopol’s was world renown. American generals even visited the battlefield toward the end the war and studied the Redan. Six years later, when the South seceded from the Union, Redan fortresses were built by Confederates in places like Vicksburg, Mississippi, Fort Donelson, Tennessee and Petersburg, Virginia, where 13 Redans extended across a three-mile front guarding the city.
Like the Redan greens it inspired, the Redan fortress had a canted, slanted surface; canted to allow cannons to be rolled up and positioned, and slanted to help provide elevation for cannon fire and conceal the weapons from the enemy. Unlike the golf greens, every Redan fortress was V-shaped. So North Berwick’s Redan, and every such hole that has since followed, lops off one half of the fortress in imitating it.
David Strath, who became North Berwick’s curator in 1875, is generally credited with creating the original Redan par 3 in 1877. He extended the then-nine-hole North Berwick links (which dates from 1832) to 18 holes, and altered an existing one-shot hole into today’s par-3 15th. He lengthened the hole to nearly 200 yards, repositioned the tee to create a diagonal angle of approach and dug a deep bunker across its leading edge, facing it with a bulkhead of timbers, thus giving it a definite fortress-like appearance (although, because of intervening sand hills, the green complex is not visible from the tee, only the flag.) That bulkhead still existed in a 1912 survey of the course, but sometime thereafter, the wood was removed and replaced by a high wall of stacked (rivetted) sod. What’s not clear is whether Strath reshaped the green to flow front-to-back and side-to-side or whether that was just the existing lay-of-the-land green dating from 1832. Nor is it known whether Strath ever saw the original Redan fort in Sevastopol or had even read about it. But someone had, and the hole was dubbed the Redan.
In the early 20th century, C.B. Macdonald proclaimed the Redan, “the finest one-shot hole in the world.” Every course should have one, he added, and he would install a Redan par-3 on nearly every design he produced. Others, including A.W. Tillinghast and H.S. Colt, built a couple of similar tributes, but it was Macdonald’s disciples, Seth Raynor and Charles Banks, who produced most of the Redans built in the 1920s.
Even today, golf architects boldly create Redan par 3s, some duplicating the original’s slant and tilt, others fudging a bit in the name of green speed. Some have built Redan greens sloping the opposite way—left to right—which are invariably called Reverse Redans, even though they’re just the other half of that original Redan fortress.
One of the earliest Redans from Macdonald was the par-3 14th at Shinnecock Hills, a course he dramatically remodeled in 1917. However, that course was totally remodeled again in 1931 by architect William S. Flynn, with the present par-3 seventh, the Redan, now occupying the same spot as Macdonald’s earlier version. Many mistakenly think that Flynn merely retained Macdonald’s Redan, but as Wayne Morrison and Tom Paul point out in their magnificent, exhaustive biography of Flynn, "The Nature Faker" (2006), “…the original Macdonald green was a few feet lower than the redesigned Flynn green…The opening at the front of the green is narrow and the ground contoured so that only the most precisely-played ground approach would succeed in holding the green. Unlike the neighboring Redan fourth hole at National Golf Links of America [a Macdonald hole], there are fewer ways to play Flynn’s Redan at Shinnecock Hills.”
Which brings us to the most recent U.S. Open contested at Shinnecock, the 2004 version won by Retief Goosen. It wasn’t just that the dry, firm, fast, wind-blown Redan putting surface wouldn’t hold ill-conceived shots aimed at the flag, but that even correctly-played shots fared poor results. It also seemed impossible to putt. In the third round, Phil Mickelson faced a 12-foot par putt from above the hole, and then a 20-foot bogey putt from below the hole. He double-bogeyed. In the final round, despite a more benign hole location, Kevin Stadler tapped a two-footer, caught the lip of the hole and watched it roll down the slope and into a bunker. Soon after that, Walter Driver, as chairman of the USGA’s championship committee, halted play and ordered a maintenance crew to syringe the green, spraying water across it briefly with hoses. The effort wasn’t going to appreciably soften the green; they were simply trying to create some friction atop the surface. Then Driver ordered crews to do the same to other greens, and had the Redan periodically misted for the remainder of the round, which led to some boos from nearby spectators.
Players who had teed off early (who, let’s face it, were out of contention) cried foul, claiming Driver altered conditions of play for those with later tee times, providing them an advantage. That was, of course, nonsense. An actual rain shower had halted play during the first round. Did they complain that day? (Come to think of it, the undue influence of rain was once a common complaint among tour players. Remember back in the 1960s when a full day of tournament scores would be “washed out” by a late-day storm?)
Winner Goosen played Shinnecock’s Redan conservatively and parred it every day, a better average on that hole than anyone on the top 10 of the leaderboard. Runner-up Mickelson played it as Mickelson plays nearly every hole, full bore, and was three-over-par on the Redan in four rounds. He lost by two.
In 2012, when it was announced that the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw had been retained to do some work at Shinnecock Hills, it was presumed by many that they would be asked to address the now-notorious Redan green. But although they did expand other greens back to original dimensions, thus regaining some terrific corner hole locations, the two traditionalists would sooner have scratched the Mona Lisa than touch Shinnecock’s Redan green. It remains today just as it did in 2004, although for this year’s U.S. Open, it will perhaps be irrigated just a tad more ahead of the tournament week to make it ever-so-slightly more receptive. But it’s never going to be a hole where golfers can play darts.
A well-guarded secret at last year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills was that USGA officials requested that the par-3 ninth green, with its distinct thumbprint contour that flowed off the green, be mowed at a different height than the other greens. That wasn’t widely broadcast, and players were none the wiser. There’s a better-than-even chance that the Redan green at Shinnecock Hills will be mowed at a different height for this year’s Open, a subtle difference, less than the thickness of a credit card perhaps, but that’ll make all the difference. Just don’t expect USGA officials or the Shinnecock Hills staff to ‘fess up to it.