Peter Smith walks the golden landscape of Shinnecock Hills,
radiating the contentment of a man at one with the Earth. His
people, the Shinnecock Indians, have lived in this corner of Long
Island for hundreds of years. Long after they sold their land--or
it was taken from them, depending on your bent--the tribe
maintained a connection with the windswept shores of Shinnecock
Bay, particularly a 300-acre tract in Southampton Township that
gave rise to the famous golf course that bears their name. As day
laborers, members of the tribe built Shinnecock Hills in the 1890s,
and for much of the following century Peter Smith and his ancestors
were entrusted with preserving the celebrated links.
This is an article from the June 15, 2004 issue
A 300-pound gentle giant, Peter was superintendent when Shinnecock
Hills reclaimed the U.S. Open in 1986, after a 90-year wait, and he
was still overseeing the grounds crew when the Open returned in
1995. But Smith will not be on hand next week when the national
championship is again played at Shinnecock. He died in 2002, at age
47, and lives on only through the magic of video-tape. On this May
afternoon, his widow, Diane Smith, has cued up an ESPN feature that
ran during the '95 Open. Watching her husband stroll across
Shinnecock Hills, Diane weeps softly. "This is the first time we've
seen him and heard his voice since his death," she says. As she
rewinds the tape, the fiftyish grandmother of eight summons her
four adult children to watch their father. In the expansive family
room the mood is eerily like a wake. It has been nearly two years
since Peter's death from a heart attack, and there is not a dry eye
as the tape plays. The sadness is punctuated by bitterness.
P.J., 24, the son who most shares his father's girth, recalls the
dark day in November 1999 when he walked into his father's office
at Shinnecock Hills and found him weeping. Peter had just been
informed by the club that he was being replaced as superintendent.
"I had never seen my father cry," P.J. says, "but there he was,
sitting behind his desk, holding his head in his hands. That job
was his life, and losing it broke his spirit."
About 650 Shinnecocks live on an 800-acre reservation a mile south
of Shinnecock Hills, and almost all of them have stories about the
famous course that bears their name. Like chocolate is to the
natives of Hershey, Pa., so is Shinnecock Hills Golf Club to
members of the tribe. The club hosted the second U.S. Open, in
1896, and the competitors that year included Oscar Bunn, a
full-blooded Shinnecock, and John Shippen, an African-American
whose father preached on the reservation. The accounts of their
exploits have been ingrained in the collective memory of the tribe.
But on the eve of this U.S. Open, narratives of displacement, like
that of the Smith family, reflect the Shinnecocks' diminished
presence at the club. Nine years ago, during the last U.S. Open at
this course, the Shinnecocks shared the spotlight with champion
Corey Pavin as reporters lapped up feel-good stories about how 16
of the 20 men on the grounds crew came from the reservation. Peter
Smith, who held degrees from Dartmouth and Rutgers, was the tribe's
media-friendly leading man.
He had taken over guardianship of the grounds in 1980, after his
father, Elmer, died of a heart attack at age 59. Elmer, who was the
superintendent for 24 of his 34 years at the club, had worked
alongside his father, George T. Smith. For years Elmer carpooled,
in a club-issued green Ford pickup, with two of his brothers,
Charles and James, for the short drive from the reservation to the
course. When their sons were old enough to work, they too joined
the grounds crew. "The club was a big job hub for men on the
reservation," says Shirley Smith, Elmer's widow, who at age 76 has
16 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. (Shirley's father,
Charles Dyson, also worked at the club, during the 1920s.) Now only
two Shinnecocks--Ronald Eleazer, 53, and Dudley Nation, 32--remain
on the maintenance crew. "Our people have been systematically wiped
out at that course," says Lance Gumbs, who was elected tribal
chairman in April.
Yet tribal members still have a deep attachment to the 113-year-old
course. Theirs is a land-based spirituality that coexists on the
reservation with TV evangelism and the Shinnecock Presbyterian
Church, the oldest continuous reformed Indian church in the U.S.,
dating to the 1740s. "To [whites] Shinnecock Hills is just a golf
course," says Eleazer, "but the course sits on our ancestral land.
God entrusted us to take care of it."
That's the way it stood until 1999, when the club asked Peter Smith
to accept a lesser position on the crew to make room for a new
superintendent. Though the new post came with the same salary,
Smith was devastated by the demotion. He quickly cut ties with the
club, accepting the position of general manager at Foxwoods Golf
and Country Club, across Long Island Sound in Richmond, R.I., where
he served until his death. When he left Shinnecock Hills, so did
most of the other tribesmen on the grounds crew.
"To this day no one from the club has fully explained why they
replaced Peter," says one of the tribe's religious leaders, the
Reverend Michael Smith, who is known simply as Rev. Mike around the
rez. "[Racial] prejudice had something to do with the club's
decision. Like it or not, we still live in an ol' boy system."
Peter Smith was replaced by Mark Michaud, whose star had risen as
superintendent at Pebble Beach, where he set up the 2000 U.S.
Open. No one from the Shinnecock Hills board of governors would go
on record about its decision to replace Smith, but one club member
told SI, "Peter was simply not qualified to take us through the
changes that we were implementing to stay in the U.S. Open
rotation. It would have killed him."
Michaud has been credited with leading the effort to restore the
course to its original grasslands landscape; most of the trees and
underbrush that blocked the wind have been cleared from the course.
But according to members and maintenance workers from Peter's
tenure, the clearing project actually started in 1988 under Peter's
Some of Shinnecock Hills's members have misgivings about the
departure of Smith and his men. "Peter's situation wasn't handled
right," says Robert Stevenson, a fourth-generation member of
Shinnecock Hills and a three-time club champion. "It is unfortunate
what has happened to the relationship between the club and the
Shinnecocks. Not all of the members in the recent past have fully
considered or understood the historic relationship that the club
has had with the Shinnecock Indians."
With their history of disenfranchisement, the Shinnecocks are
particularly sensitive to slights coming from their namesake golf
course, which for so long was a source of pride and recognition.
Joey Smith, 41, the youngest of Elmer's four boys and the
superintendent at Heartland Golf Park, 45 miles away in Edgewood,
N.Y., was confounded by comments from Tim Moraghan, director of
championship agronomy for the USGA, who told Newsday in April that
"in 1995, [the course] was a little overgrown, a little unkempt."
Says Smith, "I remember Moraghan telling us in '95 that we had done
an excellent job." Other Shinnecocks take issue with the notion
that Peter Smith couldn't have overseen the changes to the course.
"Our forefathers never attempted to disturb the land but to
preserve what is there," says Rev. Mike. "Mother Nature designed
it. This is why it was easy for the men off the reservation to
build the course."
While talk of estrangement from the club has lingered, the
Shinnecock Nation suffered further strife as it tried to get a
piece of the estimated $85 million economic windfall that the Open
is expected to bring to the region. When the USGA decided last fall
not to use the reservation for parking, as it had in '95, Gumbs was
unsparing in his criticism. "The USGA, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club
and the town fathers have the audacity to hold a tournament on our
land--which up until recently was maintained by our people--and not
throw us a bone," he told SI. Over the winter Gumbs met with
Suffolk County officials and the USGA in an effort to lease tribal
lands as staging areas for the Open.
In late May, after weeks of negotiations, the Shinnecocks finally
reached a deal to provide land for four companies' hospitality
tents. According to Gumbs the deals are worth a combined $100,000,
less than the tribe's $120,000 take for parking and a tent at the
'95 Open. The USGA has also agreed to donate tickets to the
championship and leftover building materials to the tribe, as well
as host up to 20 children from the reservation for a junior golf
day during tournament week. "All the tensions with the town leaders
and the USGA have been smoothed out," says Gumbs, who has called
off his plans to picket Shinnecock Hills during the Open.
Still, the club is keeping the Shinnecocks at arm's length. A
request by the nation to perform an opening prayer at the start of
the tournament was denied. "It's really sad," says Gumbs. "It would
have been nice to bless the land."
The celebrated Stanford White-designed clubhouse at Shinnecock
Hills is adorned with memorabilia of U.S. Opens past, but there
is no indication that Elmer or Peter Smith or any other tribe
members helped nurture and prepare this field of dreams. Elmer's
old, gray maintenance building, which sits across the road from
the 13th green, is the only reminder of the family's tenure at
The Smith women, though, still hold on to their memories, and some
mementos, of the club. Diane proudly displays the 6th hole flag
from the '95 Open in a corner of her den. Her mother-in-law,
Shirley, still has the official program from the 1977 Walker Cup.
But Shirley used to display all 18 flags from the '86 Open. Their
removal betrays the conflicted feelings toward Shinnecock Hills
that she shares with the tribe. Why hang on to souvenirs from a
club that doesn't value her family's services? "Peter and Elmer
gave their lives to that club and were never appreciated for it,"
It is a sad fact of life on the reservation that even as tribal
members denounce Shinnecock Hills, they desperately want the course
to continue as part of their heritage. Diane will not be attending
next week's Open, however. "If I went, I would feel as if I were
betraying Peter," she says. Father's Day, which falls on the Sunday
of the U.S. Open, will be a tough one for her and the kids. For
comfort she will have the ESPN tape of her husband, presiding over
his treasured links. Like the man on the TV screen, Shinnecock
Hills is something that she still loves, and its absence from her
life continues to hurt.
"but the course sits on our ancestral land. God entrusted us to
take care of it."
members denounce Shinnecock Hills, they desperately want it to
remain part of their heritage.