Winged Foot Golf Club (East)
Similar to Riviera, Winged Foot should be at the top of any young architect’s list of courses to study, for there is really no reason a course of similar caliber cannot be built anywhere in the world. The site is relatively flat and tight—Winged Foot’s 36 holes together occupy roughly the same acreage as the National Golf Links of America’s 18 holes—and there are no water views. So why are the East and West Courses perennially considered among the best in the world?
Gil Hanse started off presenting his East Course restoration plan to the Winged Foot membership in the Spring of 2013 by thanking them for giving him the opportunity to spend so much time studying both golf courses and how his time on the grounds at Winged Foot had helped him evolve personally as an architect. In particular, he noted that Winged Foot’s 36 green complex were the most fascinating collection he had ever seen—even beyond Augusta—and gave him a new appreciation for the incredible imagination of A.W. Tillinghast.
While the West Course had been well maintained over the years as a result of hosting a major championship each decade, the East Course had drifted into the shadows, having not hosted a major event since the inaugural U.S. Senior Open in 1980. Like many golden age courses, the East Course was a bit too short for championship play by today’s standards, its fairways and greens had shrunk over time leaving bunkers isolated in the rough and many greens inaccessible to the ground game, and the overplanting of trees by green committees in the 1960s and 1970s had created poor turf conditions and concealed many of the property’s specimen trees.
To celebrate the completion of the restoration, the East Course hosted the 100th Met Open in 2015 where a score of even par won on a course with generous fairways and a total yardage between 6750-6860 yards all three days—a shining example of how the strategic placement of bunkers and creative shaping of greens is a course’s best line of defense, not length. Less than a year later the East Course played host to the second U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship where its many risk reward holes were on full display in match play.
While much less invasive than the work he performed on Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course, Gil Hanse’s restoration of Winged Foot’s East Course is a brilliant example of how subtle changes in course maintenance and mowing patterns can greatly improve the experience had by golfers of all abilities and should be reviewed continually by superintendents. Special acknowledgement should also be given to Director of Golf Courses, Steve Rabideau, and his team at Winged Foot for their incredible contributions to this successful restoration.
Holes to Note:
First hole, Reveille 400 yards; One of the most ideal opening holes in the game, but one that never receives the attention it deserves because it is always overshadowed by its famously difficult brother on the West Course. An ideal opener should have a generous fairway and not be too long—in the spirit of first holes in Scotland—in order to allow weekend golfers to get off and playing quickly without a warmup. While being open and short, however, there should be some element of risk/reward to keep the confident player going for an early birdie in check. The first hole on the East Course combines elements of many of the great openers in the game, including St. Andrew’s double wide fairway, Prestwick’s O.B. down the right side (always in the back of a right handed slicer’s mind), and National’s challenging green complex, to provide any level of player with a wonderful balance of difficulty, risk and reward to start of the round.
Second hole, Man O’War 515 yards; Played as a par 4 for major tournaments, the second quickly turns up the degree of difficulty from the first hole with no real birdie holes remaining on the front side until the 9th. Named after one of the greatest race horses of all time, the canted fairway requires the player to keep a “pole position” down the left side to hold it. If the player finds the rough, the ideal layup is to the end of the flat 130 yards short of the green before the fairway takes a long dip and starts to cant severely again from left to right. Those who hit a good drive and go for the green in two can only run the ball up onto the green from the far left side of the fairway to avoid the severe false front on the right, but doing so brings the green side bunkers into play. Due to the threat of the false front on the approach, most players will find themselves putting from above the hole which causes them to hit their first putt tentatively for fear of putting it off the false front they were trying to avoid in the first place.
Third hole, Cave 145 yards; One of the holes that first time visitors to Winged Foot look forward to playing the most given its Augusta like setting and tempting proximity to the driveway as you enter from Old White Plains Road. The third hole had the most ambitious work done of any hole on the course during Gil Hanse’s restoration including removal of the front right bunker, taking down the trees on the ridge on the right hand side, and restoring the original green shape to recapture the full false front and the lost spine in the back left corner of the green. While the hole from the tee looks like an easy birdie, only the middle to back right section will hold a ball, making the true green size much smaller than the actual (a la Pinehurst). A miss in the left bunker will leave the player with a blind recovery shot from well below the green but this is a much easier up and down than from the shallower right bunker where most lies are on the downslope and the green falls away. Like the 12th at Augusta of similar distance, this hole begs the player to be aggressive and make a birdie, but in a stroke play event the center of the green and a par is the smart play.
Fourth hole, Old Soak 610 yards; The new back tee not only provides a more seamless transition from the 3rd green to the 4th tee, but also the extra length this par 5 needed to make going for the green over the second pond a real test for today’s top players (around 570 yards to cover in two shots). For mere mortals, this is a three shot hole where many will try to cut their second shot to get it to roll down and around the far corner of the fairway. Often times the slope of the fairway will turn the ball more right than the player desires and leave the approach to the green partially blocked by the three trees that remain on the corner. The proper play is to aim for the left side of the corner which leaves a 135 yard shot from a flat lie, but aiming there brings into play a new bunker added by Gil Hanse’s restoration. Given the length of the hole, the green requires no bunkers and is receptive to shots coming over both the pond and straight on. Balls not hit solidly or with too much spin will funnel off the front right of the green back 40 yards.
Fifth hole, Bootleg 440 yards; A true 90 degree dogleg right protected on the inside corner by out of bounds. The green is bisected by a spine from the front right bunker to the back left corner of the green creating a half pipe section on the left and a difficult to access back right section. The further right the hole location is, the longer the drive must be to achieve a proper angle to attack it from.
Sixth hole, Trouble 195 yards; Playing slightly uphill to an elevated green with a large false front, this one shotter requires a long iron or hybrid often into the breeze which tumbles over the now exposed seventh tee behind the green. Due to the steep pitch in the green from back to front there aren’t many internal contours to it, but it is easy to hit shots from the back left bunker as well as putts from above the hole right off the front of the green.