Winged Foot stands undefeated
Tillinghast gem is one of New York’s finest, but very, very hard
September 15, 2020
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
- Winged Foot has showed its teeth plenty of times in major championships. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Johnson. Rahm. Thomas. McIlroy. Predicting who will raise the trophy at the 120th U.S. Open at Winged Foot is easy.
Winged Foot will win. It always does.
“It was really hard,” Justin Thomas, coming off a three-win PGA TOUR season, said after an early scouting trip before THE NORTHERN TRUST last month. He then went on to rave about how much he loved it.
That’s not an atypical response to this Tillinghast gem that dates to 1923, which has been lengthened 213 yards and will play as a 7,477-yard par 70. Hard but still great. Padraig Harrington, who needed three pars to win the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot but made three bogeys, calls it, “A great, classic golf course.” See? No hard feelings.
“You have to hit all the golf shots,” Harrington says. “It does ask a lot of questions.”
Not everyone has the answers, but the U.S. Open grades on a curve. Hale Irwin won the so-called Massacre at Winged Foot in 1974 at 7 over par. An aberration? Nope. Geoff Ogilvy won the 2006 U.S. Open at 5 over (71-70-72-72) after late gaffes by Harrington, Colin Montgomerie, Jim Furyk and, most famously, or infamously, Phil Mickelson.
“The word in the locker room was, ‘How hard is this thing going to play?’” Irwin says of the ’74 U.S. Open. “It was not an optimistic locker room, let’s put it that way. Forget birdies. My plan was to accept par at face value and be very happy with it. Also, don’t make double-bogeys, because there were just no real obvious opportunities to get those back with birdies.”
Jim Colbert was so wrung out by ’74, when he tied for fifth, that he later told ESPN he considered Winged Foot, “Probably the hardest golf course of all time.”A look at the ninth hole at Winged Foot in 2005. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
Narrow fairways. Thick rough. Long par 3s. And steeply pitched greens that slope and move like Augusta National’s and are so nuanced that the Golf Channel’s Arron Oberholser (T16 in ’06) predicts they will be very hard to learn in a matter of days, or even over the course of the week.
Then there’s the finishing stretch of 16, 17 and 18 – three exceedingly difficult par 4s.
“Of the three U.S. Opens that I played before I hurt myself,” Oberholser says, “there was no finish like it, nothing that difficult. If you get it done at Winged Foot, you are earning it.”
The thing about Winged Foot, say Oberholser and others who know it, is that it can be very hard to stop making bogeys once you start. (Harrington can attest to that.)
“It was your typical old-school U.S. Open,” Furyk says of ’06, when he missed a 5-foot par putt on 18 that would have forced a playoff. “Tight fairways, heavy rough, have to get the ball in play. It puts stress on you over and over and over again. It’s going to withstand the test of time.”
Thomas calls Winged Foot really hard but also fair and “not tricked up” and “right in front of you.” Webb Simpson, who lost in the first round of match play at the 2004 U.S. Amateur at Winged Foot, sang a similar refrain when asked about the course.
“I love it,” Simpson said. “I feel like it's just a brutally hard golf course, but they do it the right way. We come to a lot of these courses and they've got bunkers, you carry it at 295 or 300. Winged Foot, it's like Harding Park, it's right in front of you. It's long, it's hard, there's really not a whole lot of birdie holes, so I think that's a perfect venue for a U.S. Open golf course.”
Of the five U.S. Opens at Winged Foot, ’74 was probably the hardest (especially with old equipment), but ’06 was hardest to watch. Other than the 1999 Open Championship (Jean Van de Velde) it might be the most “lost” major ever, a sort of golfing five-car pileup from which only one man walked away. Not for nothing was it dubbed the Massacre at Winged Foot II.
Few remember the misadventures of Harrington, Furyk and Montgomerie. They just remember Mickelson making double-bogey on the last hole of the tournament after hitting his tee shot off a hospitality tent, then trying a crazy second shot that turned out more die than do.
“I am still in shock that I did that,” he said. “I just can’t believe that I did that. I’m such an idiot.” Now 50, he has been U.S. Open runner-up a dispiriting six times.
Winged Foot is just 30 minutes north of New York City, about which Frank Sinatra crooned, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” A Winged Foot U.S. Open is the golfing equivalent of that – take crazy weather out of the equation and there’s just no tougher test.
“I hit a lot of fairways and consequently hit a lot of greens,” says Irwin, who would win two more U.S. Opens among his 20 TOUR wins. “So those kinds of courses were less problematic for me than they were for other people, and my career showed that.
“But that kind of a win can propel you on,” he added when prompted by the Sinatra line about New York. “Once you’ve come through a Winged Foot situation, other than coming up against terrible weather, you’re not going to encounter much that’s more difficult than that.”