Nine Things to Know: Winged Foot Golf Club
A closer look at the site of this week's U.S. Open
September 13, 2020
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Winged Foot Golf Club will host its sixth U.S. Open. (John Mummert/USGA)
Better late than never. That definitely applies to this year’s U.S. Open. Winged Foot Golf Club is a classic U.S. Open test, traditionally producing an over-par winning score. We’ll have to wait and see how the three-month delay impacts the championship, but one thing is certain. After thrilling finish to the FedExCup and with the Masters a couple months away, we’re in the midst of a thrilling stretch for golf fans.
To get you ready for the year’s second major, here are 9 Things to Know about Winged Foot.
1. BETTER BY THE HALF-DOZEN
This will be the sixth U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Only Oakmont Country Club and Baltusrol have hosted more. Oakmont hosted its ninth U.S. Open in 2016, while Baltusrol, another A.W. Tillinghast design, has been the site of seven U.S. Opens.
Winged Foot joins Oakland Hills and Pebble Beach as courses that have hosted a half-dozen U.S. Opens.
Winged Foot hosted its first U.S. Open in 1929, just six years after it opened. This will be its first U.S. Open there since 2006, when Geoff Ogilvy won after Phil Mickelson famously double-bogeyed the 72nd hole. Ogilvy is the only winner of a U.S. Open at Winged Foot who didn’t win multiple majors in his career.
Bobby Jones, Billy Casper, Hale Irwin and Fuzzy Zoeller also won U.S. Opens at Winged Foot.
The club also hosted the 1997 PGA Championship. Davis Love III won, which means four of the six men’s majors at Winged Foot have been won by members of the World Golf Hall of Fame.Davis Love III celebrates winning the 1997 PGA Championship at the Winged Foot. (Jamie Squire/Allsport)
2. THOROUGH EXAMINATION:
Mike Davis, the USGA’s chief executive, calls Winged Foot the “quintessential U.S. Open golf course.”
“With its wonderfully challenging green complexes and dogleg holes that emphasize proper placement off the tee, Winged Foot offers the best players in the world a spectacular test of golf,” he says.
That may be an understatement. The winning score was over par in all but one of the U.S. Opens at Winged Foot. That was in 1984, when Zoeller and Greg Norman tied at 4 under par. Norman shot 75 in the playoff, which means just one player has finished under par in the six U.S. Opens at Winged Foot.
U.S. OPENS AT WINGED FOOT Year Winner Score Margin 1929 Bobby Jones 294 (+6)* Playoff 1959 Billy Casper 282 (+2) 1 1974 Hale Irwin 287 (+7) 2 1984 Fuzzy Zoeller 276 (-4) Playoff 2006 Geoff Ogilvy 285 (+5) 1 * - played as par-72
In 2006, Winged Foot played to a 74.99 scoring average. Only one hole, the par-5 fifth hole, played under par for the week. There were just 12 under-par rounds in 2006, and none lower than 2-under 68.
Winged Foot’s difficulty doesn’t come from intimidating water hazards or stunning landforms. It was built on a fairly flat site, but Tillinghast produced 18 difficult holes.
“The golf course gets tough on the first tee and never gets any easier,” Jack Nicklaus once said. “That’s why it’s a great golf course. You can’t make a mistake and get away with it here.”
Tillinghast’s courses put an emphasis on approach shots, and Winged Foot is no exception. The greens complexes make getting up-and-down a difficult task.
"A controlled shot to a closely-guarded green is the surest test of any man's golf," Tillinghast once said.
Ogilvy won without breaking par in any round. Jones’ final-round 79 in 1929 is the highest final round by a U.S. Open winner since World War I. No one broke par in the final round of the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, and no one was under par in the first round of the 1974 U.S. Open.
3. ‘WE’RE NOT TRYING TO HUMILIATE THEM’
The most famous of Winged Foot’s U.S. Opens was in 1974, when Hale Irwin won with a winning score of 7 over par. No major has had a higher winning score in relation to par since.
The 1974 U.S. Open was dubbed the “Massacre at Winged Foot” and produced one of the most famous quotes in golf history. “We’re not trying to humiliate the best players in the world. We’re simply trying to identify them,” said USGA president Sandy Tatum.
Many believe the 1974 U.S. Open was the USGA’s response to the previous year’s championship, when Johnny Miller shot 63 to win at Oakmont. How thick was the rough at Winged Foot? “They had trouble finding their ankles, much less the golf ball,” said one player. Players lost balls in the rough and putted balls off the greens.
“It was easily the most difficult golf course I have ever seen,” Irwin said.
The A.W. Tillinghast design has stood the test of time. There are no lakes or large water hazards. Just a couple creeks. There are no dramatic landforms. It just consists of 18 difficult holes.
“The question of the week was why,” famed golf writer Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated. “Where did it say in all of that lore of the game that Winged Foot was a killer? The answer was in the subtle design of the course. No water to speak of, and even the trees do not often come into play, but, ah, the tumbles and turns of those old-fashioned, elevated greens and, ah, the bunkers.”
4. TILLIE THE TERROR
His nickname was Tillie the Terror.
Tillinghast is one of six golf course architects to be elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame, after Donald Ross, Robert Trent Jones, Alister Mackenzie, C.B. MacDonald and Pete Dye.
Tillinghast had his hands on more than 250 golf courses, most of them in the Northeast. His most famous designs include Winged Foot, Bethpage Black, Baltusrol, Quaker Ridge, Sleepy Hollow and Somerset Hills.
He was born in North Philadelphia in 1875, the privileged only child of a rubber baron.
He made his first pilgrimage to St. Andrews in 1896, where he studied under Old Tom Morris.
“I got to know the old man very well indeed in succeeding years, and I spent many happy hours with him in his little sitting room over his shop,” Tillinghast wrote. “It was there that I handled the champion’s belt won by his son, as Old Tom got it out reverently and his eyes filled with tears as he told me many things about his boy.”
Tillinghast returned to St. Andrews several times. He became skilled enough to finish 25th in the 1910 U.S. Open at the Philadelphia Cricket Club.
His architecture career started when a family friend asked him to build a course in Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pennsylvania. His services quickly became in high demand after that course opened.
It was the architect’s job, he wrote, to "produce something which will provide a true test of the game and then consider every conceivable way to make the course as beautiful as possible,” Tillinghast wrote.
He didn’t like overly long courses, hating layouts that emphasized “brawn over finesse.” He liked small, tightly-bunkered greens that put an emphasis on approach play.
After falling on hard times during the Great Depression, Tillinghast died in 1942 at the age of 67.
"He was an unusual man, to say the least," Tatum once said, "but he was a certifiable genius. You always know when you're on a Tillinghast course without being told."
5. HUMPS AND BUMPS
Nicklaus once called Winged Foot’s putting surfaces “the most difficult set of greens I’ve ever seen.”
Colin Montgomerie, runner-up in the 2006 U.S. Open, said they may even be more difficult than the game’s most famous putting surfaces.
“These greens are as quick downhill as Augusta and with possibly more slopes on them than Augusta,” he said. “I think everybody will three-putt out here.”Colin Montgomerie eyes the greens on the 18th hole during the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Winged Foot’s greens were rebuilt by famed architect Gil Hanse a few years ago. Many of the greens were expanded to their original size. Making the greens 15-25% larger has allowed some of the original hole locations to be used.
‘What makes Winged Foot special is the greens,” course historian Neil Regan says.
How sloped are Winged Foot’s greens? “You can see the bottom of the cups from the fairways,” because of the amount of back-to-front slope, joked one PGA TOUR putting instructor.
Jack Nicklaus ran his first putt of the 1974 U.S. Open 30 feet past the hole.
“Putting uphill here, you can take a run at it,” one observer noted. “Downhill, you just touch it and hope that maybe the hole will get in the way. Somebody with a jerky stroke will not stand up at Winged Foot.”
6. CLASSIC FINISH
Tillinghast and the clubhouse’s architect, Clifford Wendehack, used to say that the multi-tiered 18th green was like a set of steps leading from the course to the clubhouse.
Fourteen years ago, several players dejectedly made that trek. There are others who have been exuberant as they ascended the 18th green and walked to the clubhouse.
Winged Foot’s final hole has been the site of some of golf’s most memorable moments, both good and bad.A view of the 18th green during the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
We all know what transpired on that hole in the last U.S. Open at the storied club (and if you don’t, you’ll soon be apprised). It was one of the wildest finishes in golf history. Mickelson’s double-bogey alone is worthy of a documentary. But it overshadows the other collapses that occurred on the closing hole. Colin Montgomerie flared a 7-iron right and made his own double-bogey. Jim Furyk missed a 5-footer for par. They all tied for second, a stroke behind Ogilvy. Padraig Harrington also bogeyed 18, his third bogey in a row, to finish two back.
It seems that each major held at Winged Foot has been capped by a trademark moment.
It started with the first U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Bobby Jones holed a downhill, sidehill 12-foot par putt to force a 36-hole playoff with Al Espinosa. Jones won the playoff by a remarkable 23 strokes. That par putt may have changed the course of golf history.
Jones once led by as many as seven, but he triple-bogeyed the 15th hole. He needed a par on the final hole just to get in a playoff, but missed the green with his approach shot. His touchy chip shot stopped 12 feet short. The shaft of his famed Calamity Jane putter had been cracked and was held together with cords but he used the damaged implement to sink the putt.
O.B. Keeler, the Atlanta Journal’s golf writer and Jones’ biographer, believes Jones would have retired if he had missed that putt on the 72nd hole and blown such a large lead.
“I knew in a sort of bewildering flash that if that putt stayed out, it would remain a spreading and fatal blot, never to be wiped from his record,” Keeler wrote. “I will always believe that the remainder of Bobby’s career hung on that putt and that from this stemmed the Grand Slam of 1930.”
In 1974, Irwin lashed a 2-iron to 20 feet and two-putted for victory. It was the first of his three U.S. Open titles. Ten years later, Greg Norman holed a 40-footer for par on the 18th hole. Zoeller, standing in the fairway, waved a white towel in surrender, thinking that the long putt was for birdie. Zoeller went on to win the next day’s playoff.
When Winged Foot hosted the PGA in 1997, Love capped his five-shot win with a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole. A rainbow appeared behind the green, which many felt was Love’s late father, Davis Love Jr., a PGA professional, smiling down upon his son.
7. THE “OTHER” COURSE
Winged Foot is considered the finest 36-hole club in the country, and possibly the world. And for good reason.
The West Course, which is hosting this week’s U.S. Open was 11th in Golf Digest’s list of the United States’ top 100 courses in 2019.
Winged Foot’s East Course, which was also designed by Tillinghast, came in at No. 52 on the same list. The East Course is shorter, but it’s no pushover for players who may be seeking a reprieve from its difficult sibling.A view of the 13th hole on the East Course at Winged Foot. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
The East Course hosted U.S. Women’s Opens in 1957 and 1972. Betsy Rawls shot 7 over par and won after Jackie Pung was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. Susie Maxwell Berning shot 11 over par but it was enough to win by one.
Rawls (4) and Berning (3) combined to win seven U.S. Women’s Opens. They are both in the World Golf Hall of Fame, with Berning being elected this year.
The East Course also hosted the inaugural U.S. Senior Open in 1980. Roberto De Vicenzo won by four shots with a 1-over 285 total.
8. CLUB PROS
Jenkins called Winged Foot the Yankee Stadium of golf because of its history.
“Its monuments are not in centerfield. They’re in the bar,” Jenkins wrote in 1974.
World Golf Hall of Famer Tommy Armour was a member, as was Fred Corcoran, who was instrumental in the creation of the professional tour. Babe Ruth was a regular. There is a photo of Bobby Jones teeing off on 18 in 1929, and Ruth is just a few paces behind him.
“It has often been said that the quickest way to get over-golfed is to spend an afternoon on Winged Foot’s terrace,” Jenkins added. “Armour used to sit there telling tales for hours. (Claude) Harmon and Corcoran still do. Because of the character of the membership, Winged Foot, more than any other club in the metropolitan area of New York, has been looked upon as the Yankee Stadium of golf.”
The club also has a long lineage of accomplished club pros.
The club’s first head pro was Mike Brady, who was runner-up in the 1911 and 1919 U.S. Opens. Winged Foot’s next two head pros won majors during their tenures.
Craig Wood, who succeeded Brady in 1939, won the Masters and U.S. Open in 1941.
Claude Harmon, who was the club’s head professional from 1945 to 1978, is the last club pro to win a major (1948 Masters). He is the patriarch of the first family of golf instruction, as several of his sons also went on to become noted teachers.
Major champions Dave Marr and Jack Burke Jr. spent time as Harmon’s assistant professionals.
Harmon was succeeded by another TOUR winner, Tom Nieporte, a former NCAA champion at Ohio State and three-time PGA TOUR winner. He served as the club’s head professional until 2006.
9. ATHLETE’S FOOT
So, why Winged Foot?
It comes from the logo of the New York Athletic Club. Though the two organizations have never been affiliated, the group that founded Winged Foot included several NYAC members. The group was led by Charles “Nibs” Nobles. They tabbed Tillinghast with simple instructions.
“Give us a man-sized course,” they told him, according to legend. He listened.
Clifford Wendehack, one of the foremost residential architects of his era, designed the clubhouse. The cornerstone was laid by the membership on April 14, 1923. Players teed off on Tillinghast’s masterpiece two months later.