Winged Foot Golf Club (East)
NY, USA

Taken just days after completion (hence why there is no flagstick), the par-3 third hole of Winged Foot’s East Course was the first hole to be restored when Gil Hanse’s team began work in October 2013

Taken just days after completion (hence why there is no flagstick), the par-3 third hole of Winged Foot’s East Course was the first hole to be restored when Gil Hanse’s team began work in October 2013.

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.

An example of a Winged Foot bunker pre restoration with a clean lip and smooth curvature

An example of a Winged Foot bunker pre restoration with a clean lip and smooth curvature

The same bunker post restoration with a more natural shape and grassed over edges.

The same bunker post restoration with a more natural shape and grassed over edges.

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.

Above are the 2016 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball team scoring statistics from the stroke play qualifying rounds. Although the East played less than a stroke easier than the West in the 2004 U.S. Amateur stroke play qualifying rounds, it played two strokes easier in the 2016 U.S. Four-Ball team format, where having two balls in play encouraged competitors to risk taking on some of the more daring shots that the East presents compared to the West.

Above are the 2016 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball team scoring statistics from the stroke play qualifying rounds. Although the East played less than a stroke easier than the West in the 2004 U.S. Amateur stroke play qualifying rounds, it played two strokes easier in the 2016 U.S. Four-Ball team format, where having two balls in play encouraged competitors to risk taking on some of the more daring shots that the East presents compared to the West.

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.

By moving the bunker on the left down range 25 yards and reconnecting the fairway all the way to the left with the tenth fairway, the first hole is an inviting start for players of all skill levels.

By moving the bunker on the left down range 25 yards and reconnecting the fairway all the way to the left with the tenth fairway, the first hole is an inviting start for players of all skill levels.

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.

For the amateur, the ideal third shot will come from the flat here before the fairway cants severely on approach to the green. While subtle, Gil Hanse’s fairway expansion on the left brought the fairway bunker and greenside bunker back in play for any player who tries to run the ball up the left side onto the green in two.

For the amateur, the ideal third shot will come from the flat here before the fairway cants severely on approach to the green. While subtle, Gil Hanse’s fairway expansion on the left brought the fairway bunker and greenside bunker back in play for any player who tries to run the ball up the left side onto the green in two.

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.

Over time the third green had become smaller and circular, requiring a long carry over rough with spin out of the left bunker. The large trees around the green also limited sunlight and air circulation in this corner of the property making growing conditions difficult for a hole that received numerous pitch marks given its distance and elevated tee.

Over time the third green had become smaller and circular, requiring a long carry over rough with spin out of the left bunker. The large trees around the green also limited sunlight and air circulation in this corner of the property making growing conditions difficult for a hole that received numerous pitch marks given its distance and elevated tee.

 

With the expansion of the left bunker around the front of the green and removal of the short right bunker (which was not original to the design) there are now several new hole locations available that can lead to almost a guaranteed bogey depending on where the player misses the green.

With the expansion of the left bunker around the front of the green and removal of the short right bunker (which was not original to the design) there are now several new hole locations available that can lead to almost a guaranteed bogey depending on where the player misses the green.

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.

Although the carry over the first pond is a only 100 yards from the middle tee, the enjoyment of sending a drive soaring over it never diminishes on this brawny par 5.

Although the carry over the first pond is a only 100 yards from the middle tee, the enjoyment of sending a drive soaring over it never diminishes on this brawny par 5.

Those not taking the heroic second shot to the right of the trees over the second pond will lay up to the corner here while avoiding the bunker for a flat approach in. Originally, Tillinghast left only a single Elm on the corner, which was sufficient in making player decide if the risk of carrying the pond on the second shot was worth the reward.

Those not taking the heroic second shot to the right of the trees over the second pond will lay up to the corner here while avoiding the bunker for a flat approach in. Originally, Tillinghast left only a single Elm on the corner, which was sufficient in making player decide if the risk of carrying the pond on the second shot was worth the reward.

Looking back from behind the green pre-restoration shows how one dimensional the fourth hole had become. Now the only trees that still remain are the three on the right, allowing a player with the length and courage to go for the green in two over the pond from a sloping fairway—a similar decision to the 13th at Augusta but with the reverse lie.

Looking back from behind the green pre-restoration shows how one dimensional the fourth hole had become. Now the only trees that still remain are the three on the right, allowing a player with the length and courage to go for the green in two over the pond from a sloping fairway—a similar decision to the 13th at Augusta but with the reverse lie.

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.

Perhaps the most demanding drive on the course. Top amateur competitors in Winged Foot’s annual Anderson Memorial Four-Ball tournament will tend to bail out left into the rough off the tee if the wind is into them in order to avoid being blocked by the trees on the right, but that further lengthens the approach shot.

Perhaps the most demanding drive on the course. Top amateur competitors in Winged Foot’s annual Anderson Memorial Four-Ball tournament will tend to bail out left into the rough off the tee if the wind is into them in order to avoid being blocked by the trees on the right, but that further lengthens the approach shot.

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.

The removal and thinning of many trees and shrubs results in…

The removal and thinning of many trees and shrubs results in…

…a more open setting where the wind is allowed to play a bigger factor on this long uphill par-3

…a more open setting where the wind is allowed to play a bigger factor on this long uphill par-3

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