The Shinnecock Curse

By Bruce Buschel
Rain or shine, Rebecca Genia reminded golf fans of local history during the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Bruce Buschel

The circus has left town. And won’t be back until 2026. You missed a doozy. No elephants and only one Tiger (briefly), but lots of clowns and cops and barkers and ushers and walking billboards with names like Justin Thomas and Zach Johnson and Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson.

There were protesters too. While the pros were teeing off, the Shinnecock Nation was pretty teed off too. They were marching and carrying signs. Unlike the insiders, however, they never complained about wind or rain or slope of the earth. The Shinnecocks are accustomed to the natural elements and receive them all as gifts from the Creator.

The golf course logo is a different matter. It’s insulting — it’s a cartoon Indian with a big hook nose wearing a war bonnet festooned with an arrow and a putter. Like a kindergarten coloring book circa 1955. So the tribe requested a redesign or a flat-out removal. They got neither. Shinnecocks don’t have much luck when negotiating with the white man, not here, there, or anywhere. 

Sand traps and bad lies.

On Monday last week, in an 11th-hour compromise, the Shinnecocks were given permission by the U.S.G.A. to lease parking spaces on their own reservation during the tournament. Shuttle buses would collect and deposit golf fans. The tribe would collect $100,000 — if they were lucky. The winner of the U.S. Open got $2 million. The losers shared another $10 million. (Phil Mickelson also lost his priceless cool on Hole 13 on Day 3.) The U.S.G.A. got $93 million from Fox TV to televise golf this year; most of it for the Circus in Southampton.

Some tribal members wanted to make a big deal out of the bigger deal: Who owns the golf course land? Millions becomes billions. The Shinnecocks say the answer is right there in the name: Shinnecock Hills. Near Shinnecock Bay and Shinnecock Park and the Shinnecock Canal.

Rebecca Genia, whose Shinnecock roots go back hundreds of generations and thousands of years, says that every story she heard while growing up began with the same hopeful and baleful sentiment: “When we get our hills back. . . .” That’s what she cares about, reclaiming the land. Ms. Genia was on Old Montauk Highway, near the smoke shops, protesting the Open, in rain and sunshine, all week, and will continue dissenting all year and beyond. Ms. Genia can envision hundreds of far-flung native people marching on Shinnecock Hills as they did at Standing Rock to derail the Dakota pipeline. 

“This week was the wrong time for such a protest. Not during the Open — that would be too confrontational and might bring ugliness. We are a peaceful people. We are warriors, don’t get me wrong, but we are not trying to provoke any violence. The Open is too big to mess with. We’ll pick a better time.”

About 600 Shinnecocks live on the 800-acre reservation. The tribe is reluctant to reveal details; they never know how governments local, state, and federal will use specific names and numbers. You call it paranoia; they call it historical trauma. After you get the short end of the stick long enough, you keep your counsel. 

The U.S.G.A. would have preferred not a single Shinnecock take to the streets, so as part of the payoff, or compromise, they promised a modest training facility to be constructed on the rez, one mile south of the golf course. Make no mistake: The Shinnecocks love golf. Two members of the Shinnecock Nation competed in the second U.S. Open, the first at Shinnecock Hills, in 1896. “Like chocolate is to the natives of Hershey, Pennsylvania,” says Sports Illustrated, “so is Shinnecock Hills Golf Club to members of the Shinnecock tribe.” 

No matter what any white man has written down on yellowed parchment or yellow legal pad, the Shinnecocks have a covenant with Shinnecock Hills and that covenant was ordained in places higher than the State Legislature and goes beyond money and media and treaties.

Treaties? 

1703 — The Shinnecocks sell 3,200 acres to the colonists for $2,500 (or $67,500 in current currency) but retain a 1,000-year lease. Such a decision demands forethought and unity. 

1859 — A document is presented to the New York State Legislature that shows the Shinnecock Tribe has agreed to sell off parcels of that sacred leased land to some powerful businessmen. The tribe calls the document preposterous — they would never sell out their ancestors, and never undermine their own 1,000-year compact. The document has 20 Shinnecock signatures. Of those 20 names, 10 are not Indians and the other 10 are dead Indians. 

Par for the course. There is a railroad coming through and a golf course to be constructed and mansions to be built.

1890 — Shinnecock Indians, getting good pay as day laborers, help build (and protect the integrity of) the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course.

1892 — Willie Dunn, the redoubtable designer, says the land where Shinnecock Hills is built is “dotted with Indian burial mounds.” The tribe says ancestors were disinterred and moved to various sites. 

1894 — The Shinnecock Hills Golf Course opens. It is instantly one of the great links courses in America, if not the world. The clubhouse is designed by Stanford White (no irony intended). 

1896 — Because two young men from the reservation, Oscar Bunn and John Shippen, compete in the second U.S. Open, the other golfers threaten a boycott. The powers that be stand strong. The Open at Shinnecock Hills happens. John Shippen finishes fifth. And for the next 90 years, Shinnecock Indians maintain Shinnecock Hills. 

1931 — A revamped course is created by the noted William Flynn. George T. Smith is the greenskeeper. Smith is a Shinnecock. The course flourishes.

1954 — Elmer Smith, son of George T. Smith, is named the first full-time superintendent at Shinnecock Hills. The New York Times will report: “Smith is a legendary figure, famous for his grass-growing genius, his probity, his decency, his way of treating everyone, caddies and members, with the same respect.”

1980 — Elmer passes away. His son, Peter Smith, is named superintendent at Shinnecock Hills. Peter had worked with his father before earning degrees at Rutgers and Dartmouth. Two other Smiths, Charles and James, also help maintain the course. 

1986 — Peter Smith prepares the course for the return of the U.S. Open after a 90-year lacuna. It goes without a hitch.

1995 — Peter Smith again prepares the course for another U.S. Open. No hitches. The Shinnecocks use their powwow grounds for parking, as they had in 1986 and 1995. They earn an estimated $100,000.

1999 — Peter Smith is demoted without stated cause. Crestfallen, he decides to manage a course in Rhode Island. Sixteen of the 20 Shinnecock grounds crew go with him. Shinnecock Hills will never be the same. Tournaments in the future will be criticized and condemned. No one calls this the Curse of the Shinnecocks. Someone should. 

2004 — The U.S. Open is declared a disaster. An embarrassment for the U.S.G.A. and a frustration for the players. The seventh hole, in particular, is too hard and too dry and plays like a trampoline. 

2005 — The Shinnecock Nation petitions New York State to return the 3,200 acres of Southampton that are adjacent to the Shinnecock Reservation. The motion is denied by the New York State Supreme Court. Laches is the basis of the decision. Laches means too much water under the bridge. It means life as it is known would be turned upside down if the land were returned to its rightful owners. Laches. Tough luck. Sextuple bogey.

2013 — Another treaty. This one does not involve the Shinnecocks directly. The U.S.G.A. sells the rights to televise the U.S. Open to Fox TV for $1.1 billion over a 12-year span, $93 million per year. 

2017 — The U.S.G.A. passes over the Shinnecocks and sanctions farmers’ fields for parking, and Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach and the Hampton Classic Horse Show grounds in Bridgehampton. The U.S.G.A. says it wants to clean up traffic congestion and move parking areas away from the course itself. They also mention vandalism. The tribe finds out about losing their slim piece of the Open pie by reading local newspapers. 

Lance Gumbs, the chairman of the Shinnecock trustees, describes it as “a slap in the face. You couldn’t pick up the phone?” Gumbs also thinks the U.S.G.A.’s decision is political. “It happens at a time when we’ve come out of the box and are trying to make ourselves economically self-sufficient. It’s a little too coincidental.”

2018 — Monday, June 11. Three days before the Open opens, facing bad publicity and demonstrations, the U.S.G.A. caves and promises to build a golf facility on the reservation — driving bays, putting greens, and a short-game area — and to allow the Shinnecocks to reap some parking revenues. 

Was it too little too late? Is it all too little too late? The players weighed in on Twitter: “designed by Bozo . . . pure carnage . . . greens are Disney on Ice . . . zero entertainment value . . . make us look like fools . . . I needed 6 mulligans today . . . they ravaged a beautiful golf course.” And from S.I.’s Dan Jenkins: “The forecast for Shinnecock tomorrow looks improved: Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death.”

Many Shinnecocks do not appreciate being called Native Americans. They were here long before America was discovered by Leif Erikson, by Christopher Columbus, and by Amerigo Vespucci. First Nation would be more accurate. Indigenous people would suffice. Even Indian is preferable to Native American.

The Shinnecocks take no glee in the public disasters that have befallen Shinnecock Hills since the tribe was excommunicated, since the indigenous people were removed as caretakers of their own land.

No one talks about karma. And no one talks about the Curse of Shinnecock Hills.

Someone should.


Bruce Buschel, a writer, director, and producer, lives in Bridgehampton.