Winged Foot Golf Club (East)
New York, USA
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, 585 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 545 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.
Winged Foot Golf Club (East) pg. ii
Seventh hole, Quaker, 480 yards; A similar approach to the 8th hole on the West Course two fairways over, the 7th is a long par 4 which allows for a properly flighted second shot to run up onto the green. Given the right to left tilt in the green, any miss on the approach must be to the left to have a chance at saving par. The back right thumb of the green is one of the toughest hole locations on the course given the hole’s length and the risk of missing the green right, but it is an excellent way to make the hole play as a half par in match play.
Eighth hole, The Hook, 450 yards; A dogleg left par 5 as the hole’s name implies that now plays as a par 4 due to advances in technology and deforestation of the inside corner of the dogleg. A new bunker on the inside corner, however, gives something else for the long hitters to think about before trying to draw it around the corner too much. The problem with converting short par 5s to par 4s though is that architects of the Golden Era made difficult greens on short par 5s to act as the main defense, expecting a short approach on the third shot to be taken. This is the case here where the green has two ridges that bisect the green into four quadrants with pronounced slopes making it arguably the toughest green to two putt of the 36 at Winged Foot regardless of the hole location. The center hole location where the ridges intersect is the easiest looking but hardest to putt to on the green with approach shots often roll off into one of the four corners and any putt up to it quickly falling away downhill past the hole.
Ninth hole, Mercury, 410 yards; In a similar fashion to Merion, the East Course at Winged Foot has its own Drama (1-8), Comedy (9-15) and Tragedy (16-18) flow to it and the ninth marks the start of the second act with no par four over 410 yards from the tips. Playing straight away off the tee before bending to the left, the hole location dictates the precise combination of distance and spin to hit the approach close.
Tenth hole, Parade, 355 yards; Echoing back to an era when architects fit the course to the land, the East Course heads for home on the 10th hole instead of the 9th with a beautiful view looking towards the iconic Wendehack clubhouse, which was built with stone dug up from the property during construction when the courses were originally built. Depending on the wind direction and location of the tee marker, the cross bunker 75 yards short of the green can be carried by the longer hitter, making it driveable.
Eleventh hole, Broadway, 360 yards; Similar to the tenth, a delightful short par four that can be attacked laying up short, alongside, or carrying the fairway bunker on the right. The depth and extreme proximity of the greenside bunkers at Winged Foot provide a real challenge to the amateur player and are on full display here. After being expanded during restoration, the green now runs over 50 yards long, but the distance to the hole is tough to judge by the naked eye given the green’s slight elevation.
Twelfth hole, Long John, 562 yards; Similar to the second and fourth holes, the only par 5 on the back-nine requires a specific shot shape to hold the canting fairway, but this time it is a fade. The longest hitters can reach the flat at the corner, but the green here is fronted by a bunker requiring a full carry. Like most holes at Winged Foot, the green is the defense of par with extremely difficult rear hole locations on this three tiered green requiring complete spin control on the approach to access them.
Thirteenth hole, Cameo, 145 yards; The author’s favorite par 3 at Winged Foot where scores can range from two to eight depending on where the tee shot finishes. While not quite as short, the 13th shares the do or die qualities of the Postage Stamp at Troon with a severe false front deflecting shots that come up short and one of the deepest and largest bunkers on the property guarding the right. The most difficult hole location is the back right section which slightly protrudes out at an angle requiring right handed players to execute a gutsy fade with a short iron to access it. However, the worst miss is a pull over the left side of the green which falls off twelve feet and leaves a recovery from either hardpan or thick rough, depending on the season, to a green that runs away into the bunker on the other side.
Fourteenth Hole, Hell Bent, 410 yards; Although both courses at Winged Foot run primarily North/South, the constant change of ideal shot shape required to hold the fairway during the round grinds away at the player, especially if they can only shape it one way. The 14th requires a strong fade to not only carry the bunker on the corner but also to avoid the one straight away on the other side of the fairway.
Fifteenth Hole, Shrine, 335 yards; The end of the Comedy section requiring only a 210 yard shot off the tee due to a pond hidden 70 yards short of the green, thereby forcing a final examination of spin and distance control into an elevated green. The approach is more challenging than it appears because only the severe false front of the green is visible making it difficult to trust the true yardage to the hole location on the horizon line. A miss to the right leaves the player in the deepest bunker on the property, which was not original to the course but added later on to stop balls from rolling down into the wetlands further to the right.
Sixteenth Hole, Hope, 450 yards; The brutal three hole finish, typically all into the wind, begins with this long uphill par four to one of the largest greens on the course. The key on the approach is to get the ball on the correct side of the ridge running down the middle of the green which will then leave some chance for a birdie.
Seventeenth Hole, Lightnin’, 225 yards; During the 2015 Met Open, the 17th played the toughest in relation to par. Originally the hole had the largest bunker on the course but it was removed early on due to drainage issues. In fact it was so vast and deep it was said that the only way to escape from it was with a bolt of lightning, hence the hole’s name. Gil Hanse proposed to reinstate the bunker given the capability of today’s bunker drainage technology, but it was decided not to reinstate it at this time, unfortunately. Regardless, the difficulty of the hole comes from its length playing downhill into the prevailing wind to an extremely small target when you consider the undulation caused by the 6 foot false front and large knob on the left center of the green.
Eighteenth Hole, Taps, 470 yards; A grand finish up to the clubhouse, aided by a new back tee which doubles as a forward tee for the 12th and lengthened the hole from 410 yards to 470 yards. A ridge in the fairway tends to keep balls from rolling out, but the approach remains to the largest green on the course and a makeable putt by Winged Foot standards if the distance is right.
Thanks to Gil Hanse’s research and extraordinary team, Winged Foot’s East Course has come back to life and shows how even the best courses can change slowly overtime without close supervision. In many ways Winged Foot East is the ideal course. It is exceptionally walkable, has a wonderful variety of hole lengths, including two par 3s under 150 yards, and the one-of-a-kind green complexes provide more than enough defense for the elite player while allowing the amateur to run the ball up in most cases. Like the Old Course at St. Andrews, it demonstrates the greatness that can be achieved on almost any piece of property if enough thought is put into the green complexes and should be the standard aspired to by every architect regardless of the canvas they have to paint on.