For nearly as long as he can remember, playing golf has been a singular obsession for Donald Williams Jr. He first honed his skills as a teen, working as a caddy at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, the famed course that has hosted the U.S. Open five times, and bears the name of his tribe. His love for the game never abated — even after a below-the-knee leg amputation in 1982, he continued to play some of the country’s most notable courses, such as Pinehurst in North Carolina, on the amputee golfer’s tour.
In more recent years, physical challenges and an impending knee surgery have kept Williams from getting out on the course, but he continued to share his love of the game with his fellow Shinnecock Nation members, often taking youngsters or newcomers to the game out into the open grass field that hosts the tribe’s annual powwow to learn the basics of the golf swing, chipping and putting. If they stuck with it, and showed continued interest — which included having to chase down the balls they’d pelted across the grass field — Williams would take them out to golf at courses like Pine Hills in Manorville.
Thanks to a collaboration between the USGA and tribal leadership, Williams and other golf enthusiasts from the tribe will have more tools at their disposal to learn the game, right in their own backyard. Last month, the USGA and the Shinnecock Nation unveiled the new Oscar Bunn Tribal Golf Facility on Shinnecock territory. The facility, located adjacent to the basketball courts, includes a 6,500-square-foot short game practice area with a putting green and chipping green as well as three 10-by-15-foot hitting bays that allow players to take full swings. The facility was created to help foster a love of the game for junior and beginner players, at no cost to play.
The USGA has pledged to provide ongoing maintenance of the facility, and plans to host clinics and other events there, once restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic are eased.
The facility bears the name of Oscar Bunn, a Shinnecock tribal member and former caddy at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club who became the first ever Native American professional golfer and played in the second U.S. Open in 1896, which was held at the course on his homeland.
Williams is a big fan of the facility, and said it has been getting good use so far.
“It means a lot to everybody up here,” he said.
The legacy Bunn helped create more than a century ago is still alive and well today, Williams said, and he added that the new facility will help ensure that love for the game and the carrying on of a tradition of fine Shinnecock golfers will continue.
“There are kids playing now,” he said. “My nephew’s son is a good little golfer, and he’s at a young age. When they see their fathers and uncles and cousins playing, they want to play, too. It’s not just about basketball, it’s about golf, too, and that’s the way it’s always been on the reservation.
Williams spoke about the many tribal members who have worked at the course as caddies over the years, and how that fostered a love for the game.
“When I was growing up, I heard about Oscar Bunn, and how Shinnecock was open to [Shinnecock tribal members] back then.
“They had a big concern for us, and they’d let my father and uncles play on certain days,” he said, adding that he appreciated the generosity of former longtime head professional Don McDougal, who would still let Williams come play on caddy days long after Williams’s caddying days were over, even allowing him the use of a golf cart to get around the course easier.
The closeness between the club and the tribe has waned in more recent decades, and the tribe’s relationship with the USGA was rocky in the years leading up to the 2018 Open as well. Tribal leaders were frustrated that they weren’t included early on in discussions in the lead-up to the most recent Open, where they could have been given more opportunity to benefit from the event in terms of parking, plans for road closures, and other revenue opportunities for the tribe. Those frustrations boiled over into protests during the week of the Open, with tribal members feeling they were not given the appropriate respect and level of inclusion when it came to a course that was built on their tribal land and that bears their tribal name.
Outreach and discussions between the USGA and the tribe followed, and eventually the idea for the golf facility was created.
Tribal ambassador Lance Gumbs was heavily involved in those discussions, along with Tribal Council member Randy King, who is also an avid golfer and member of the Shinnecock Golfers Association.
“The USGA knows that a lot of our people are golfers, and that we have the Shinnecock Golfers Association, and the USGA is really into the youth movement and the idea of getting young people involved in the game,” Gumbs said. “That’s something we’re looking to do, too, so the idea sort of manifested out of that. A lot of people are using it, and hopefully it will get a lot of our youth interested in the game.”
Gumbs referred to the creation of the facility as a “bridge builder” in terms of the tribe’s relationship with the USGA, and he’s hopeful that when the Open returns to Shinnecock in 2026, the relationship between the tribe and the USGA will continue to improve.
Craig Annis, the chief brand officer for the USGA, said the facility was an effort to help support the tribe “in a more tangible way,” and to benefit the tribe in ways beyond the transactional nature of other partnerships, like offering the chance for parking revenue during the week of the event.
“To be able to have something that was long-lasting in the community was important,” he said.
Annis added that the USGA plans to host clinics and other programs at the facility in partnership with nationwide youth programs, such as Girls Golf and The First Tee, as well as local groups, as soon as it is safe to do so.
“Taking some of these partnerships we have in junior golf and applying them to this facility is something we’re looking to do, to continue to build and nurture the relationship,” he said.
Annis added that honoring the legacy of Bunn was important for the USGA as well, and in line with the spirit of the U.S. Open, which, as its name implies, is built around inclusivity, and the idea that anyone, regardless of race, gender, background or professional status, has the right to compete for the championship. That was the case in 1896, when Bunn, a Native American, and John Shippen, who was Black, were both allowed to compete in the Open despite objections from some white players.
“That’s so significant, and it demonstrates our commitment as an organization to openness, and the special platform the U.S. Open creates, where anyone that has game can try to qualify,” Annis said. “It’s really important to shine a light on the trailblazing nature of both Oscar Bunn and John Shippen.”