Winged Foot Golf Club (West), NY, USA
Historically, Winged Foot’s West Course has been the most difficult venue for the U.S. Open. The course has hosted the national championship five times with a sixth coming in 2020, yet only two players have ever broken par over four rounds (Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman at -4 in 1984) and the single round course record in a U.S. Open is 66 against a par of 70. Compare that to Oakmont, traditionally considered the most difficult venue in the country, which has yielded a winning score under par in six out of the last seven U.S. Opens it has hosted and was the first major venue to yield a score of 63 when Johnny Miller’s shot the finest round of the century in 1973.
Why is Winged Foot so difficult under U.S. Open conditions? The West Course does not possess the wind and terrain of Shinnecock, the ocean cliffs and small greens of Pebble Beach, or the ditches, bunkers and green speeds of Oakmont. Even the venerable Bethpage Black, arguably the most difficult tee to green course in the country after Pine Valley, had winning scores of -3 and -4 when it hosted the U.S. Open in 2002 and 2009, while Merion held her ground with a winning score of even par in equally soggy conditions in 2013.
The point of the question is not to ultimately conclude that the more difficult a course is, the better it is. Golf architecture has thankfully evolved from that Robert Trent Jones mentality of the 1960s despite the fact that Golf Digest still includes ‘Resistance to Scoring’ as an input for their ranking of courses. Instead it is meant to answer why a course like Winged Foot West has been able to so successfully hold its own against the best players in the world for almost 100 years despite the remarkable advancements in technology and physical fitness during that same time.
The primary answer is of course the greens. Only Augusta National and Crystal Downs are in the same class with a set of 18 unique surfaces that contain all kinds of combinations of humps, ridges, spines and, of course, false fronts. The greens at Winged Foot are not simply divided into different leveled sections requiring the player’s approach to finish in an area of the green to have a chance. They are more like a continuous rolling ocean that requires keeping your ball below the hole as the first priority and then getting it close to the hole as a secondary objective when coming into the green.
The second order effect of Winged Foot’s treacherous greens is a great premium being put on driving the ball in the fairway off the tee in order to control distance and spin on the approach shot. This brings us to the secondary (and often overlooked) answer to the question of why Winged Foot is so difficult for the game’s elite players—doglegs. Given how exceptionally narrow the fairways are kept on the West Course, the player is forced to work the ball in both directions to hold the fairway on the many doglegs unless they prefer to lay well back and leave a longer second shot in. Draws are required on 1, 4, 5, 14, 16, and 18 while fades are preferred on 2, 8, 11, 15, and 17. Compare that to Oakmont where straight holes include 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 15, and 18 but the penalty for missing is much more severe.
The treacherous greens combined with the narrow bending fairways and the final ingredient—deep bunkers left and right of every green except the last running flush up against the edges of the greens—present a challenge that requires shot shaping and nerve, not sheer distance. In the 2006 U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson had hit only two fairways during the final round when he reached the eighteenth tee, but it was that final miss that ultimately cost him the championship when the pressure was at its greatest.
Holes to Note
First hole, Genesis, 451 yards; Most descriptions of the first hole of Winged Foot’s West Course focus on two things 1) the hole is flat and 2) the green is diabolical. The second point is undeniable. Before the 2006 U.S. Open, all of the competitors were informed that the greens would be rolling around 12 on the stimpmeter (compared to 14 at Oakmont in 2016) except for the first green, which would be at 11 due to its severity. Clearly the fact that Jack Nicklaus had putted off the first green 32 years earlier in the first round of the 1974 U.S. Open had not been forgotten by the USGA. The first point, however, is a common optical misconception even though the decidedly downhill ninth hole runs back to the clubhouse parallel to the first hole. As a result of misjudging the gradual uphill nature of the first hole, players tend to come up a couple yards short of their expected carry distance into a green that demands precise distance control to the fullest extent.
Second hole, Elm, 475 yards; Ever since the loss of the Great Elm behind the 10th hole of the East Course, the elm tree standing sentinel behind the second green of the West Course has carried the distinction of being Winged Foot’s greatest living tree. The removal of an additional 300 trees during the 2016-2017 renovation further highlights the remaining specimen trees on the property while still keeping a traditional parkland ambience. A fade down the left side of the fairway provides the optimal angle to every hole location on this green, in particularly the more challenging ones on the right side of the green.
Third hole, Pinnacle, 243 yards; While not as long as Oakmont’s 8th, the third hole on the West Course when the back tee is used to a back right hole location can play up to 260 yards to a much less inviting green. The combination of length and a ridge running from the right center to back left portion of this green is enough to demand a draw or a fade depending if the hole is located in the left or right section of the green. However, the front center hole location is deceptively difficult given it is a narrow target between the bunkers with limited space to be below the hole without rolling down the false front. As a result, approaches tend to end up above the hole when the flag is in the front of the green, leaving a defensive birdie putt which often times can be hit right off the green if the player isn’t careful.
Fourth hole, Sound View, 461 yards; Two facts about the fourth are rarely known. The first is that that the hole, as stated in the 1923 Opening Day brochure, is “appropriately named Sound View” because the Long Island Sound to the south was visible at the time even from this most northern hole on the property. The second fact is that the green was originally a biarittz style “that is like a piece of paper bent in the middle” but was eventually filled in due to maintenance difficulties sometime in the 1940s. 1929 U.S. Open footage shows Gene Sarazen putting out of this swale (1:03 into the clip). Similar to the large bunker on 17 East, it was decided not to restore this unique feature of the hole unfortunately during the recent restoration. An often overlooked feature is the out of bounds hidden directly behind this green which served as a powerful combination with the original swale and still has some influence on club selection by players today when the pin is in the back of the green.
Fifth hole, Long Lane, 516 yards; The same yardage as Augusta’s famed 13th, but lacking the risk reward required of a great short par-5. Unfortunately, the property line runs directly behind the tee, so the hole’s yardage has not changed since opening day and never will unless the home behind it is acquired by the club to add the extra 20-30 yards necessary to be a short par-5 in the 21st century. As a result it will be played as a par-4 for the first time in the 2020 U.S. Open while the 9th hole will return to being a par-5 for the first time since the first U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 1929.
Sixth hole, El, 321 yards; A short par 4 that should be studied and discussed as much as Riviera’s famed tenth. The template is so simple with a lone bunker on the left side of the fairway which opens up the back section of this “L” shaped green for which the hole is named. A creek that winds its way around the left side of the green provides risk to those going for the green from the tee and a challenge to those who have a poor angle from the right side of the fairway and consider bailing out left to avoid the front bunker.
Seventh hole, Babe-in-the-Woods, 167 yards; Although it is the shortest hole on the course, the elevated green at the seventh prohibits the player from being able to see its surface and judge the hole location by eye (veteran players will note its location while walking down the 6th fairway through the trees). The hole is further complicated by the “woods” surrounding the hole which make it difficult to judge the wind that is hidden above the tree line and will surely impact a short iron approach. However, if the green is hit in regulation there is a great chance for birdie, for this is arguably the flattest green on the course despite its short length.
Eighth hole, Arena, 493 yards; To be honest, this is rarely anyone’s favorite hole, but that is due to its poor maintenance over the years rather than its design. Trees planted on the inside corner of the dogleg have grown to the point where there is little chance of hitting the fairway with a driver from the white tees without driving straight over them, making the hole play unlike any other at Winged Foot. Perhaps there actually is still some carryover of the “hard is better” mentality today and is why the #1 handicap hole is kept this way?
Ninth hole, Meadow, 572 yards; Besides the short sixth, the player has been asked to shape tee shots left and right on every drive to hold the fairway. The straight sightline of the ninth fairway from an elevated tee can therefore look like a bowling alley if the wind is up. A drive landing in the fairway will run and give most players a good chance of going for one of the largest greens on the course in two.
Winged Foot Golf Club (West Course) pg ii
Tenth hole, Pulpit, 194 yards; Like the famous 10th at Riviera or 5th at Pine Valley, Winged Foot West is blessed with having its “signature hole” next to the clubhouse where it can be admired without having to set foot on the course. While Tillinghast is often quoted as claiming 10 West to be the “finest par-3” he ever built, there is no specific reference of such beyond early board meeting minutes where it was reported that the architect admired the hole for its exceptional quality. However, there is no denying it is one of the greatest par-3s in the world, primarily due to its remarkable green. Much like the 3rd, the hole location dictates the challenge of the day, be it front middle with only 30 feet of width between the bunkers, behind the left bunker calling for a high draw, or the rarely seen back center with out of bounds awaiting those who get too aggressive trying to carry the center ridge line. While the right bunker is notably deeper than the left, it is almost always the preferred miss given the majority of the green tilts from left to right, allowing for a better chance of holding the green on the recovery shot.
Eleventh hole, Billows, 384 yards; After experiencing the pedestrian landscape of the front nine, the rolling fairway of the eleventh—where something “volcanic has happened to the terrain” as the Opening Day program describes it—begins to incorporate the added difficulty of uneven lies to Winged Foot’s examination on the back nine. The removal of trees left and right along with significant fairway expansion around both fairway bunkers has brought options back to this short par-4. With the advancement of technology it will be interesting to see if the longer hitters will choose to hit driver up to within 50 yards of the green even if it risks ending up in the rough or second fairway bunker, or if they just lay back short with an iron off the tee for position and leave a wedge in.
Twelfth hole, Cape, 633 yards; A true three shot par-5 to complement the more getable par-5 ninth for the professionals. The second three shotter is a long dogleg left around a line of trees protecting the inside corner and thus requires the tee shot to be played down the right side challenging the fairway bunker in order to have a clear look at the green.
Thirteenth hole, White Mule, 219 yards; Playing in the exact opposite direction of the third hole, this second long par-3 ensures that the player’s long game is tested during the round regardless of the wind direction. With the front third of the green too severe for a hole location, the hole is almost always in the back half of this green making it play even longer than the distance on the card. Recent widening of both the fairway and the green allows for a running shot when conditions are firm and the hole is playing downwind.
Fourteenth Hole, Shamrock, 452 yards; Unlike any other U.S. Open venue, the last five holes of Winged Foot West are par 4s and none of them would be considered a birdie opportunity. On top of that, 14, 16 and 18 ask for a draw of the tee while 15 and 17 demand a fade. Many mistakenly believe this hole is named Shamrock after the left fairway bunker, but in fact the Opening Day program again reveals the truth that it was actually named after the shape of the green which Gil Hanse restored to its original design.
Fifteenth Hole, Pyramids, 426 yards; The author’s favorite hole on the course and one whose properties Tom Doak featured in his book “Anatomy of a Golf Course”. Once again this Western border of the property provides exceptional topography for golf as illustrated below, but its name derives from the huge piles of dirt that were compiled prior to shaping a green site with over five feet of elevation from back to front.
Sixteenth Hole, Hells-Bells, 490 yards; A beautifully framed tee shot particularly after the back tee was extended an additional twenty yards ahead of the 2020 U.S. Open. Like many of Tillinghast’s doglegs at Winged Foot, playing to the outside of the doglegs affords the better angle rather than challenging the inside corner as players instinctively try to do.
Seventeenth Hole, Well-Well, 469 yards: A new back tee stretching this hole 30 more yards also makes the drive even more difficult as the hillside obscures much of the landing area making the trees on the horizon line the aiming points. A fade down the left will kick forward and down the left to right banking fairway leaving a flatter lie and better angle from the right side of the fairway into a left to right sloping green which calls for a draw.
Eighteenth Hole, Revelations, 460 yards: Arguably the greatest inland finishing hole in the world and deserving of a name of biblical proportions like “Revelations”. Winged Foot was certainly fortunate to have Bobby Jones win the first U.S. Open here in 1929 so early in the Club’s existence. But time and again the West Course’s finishing hole has been the story line of the U.S. Open from Hale Irwin’s 2-iron from 220 in 1974, to Greg Norman’s 40 foot par putt leading to Fuzzy Zoeller’s “surrender” in 1984, to Phil Mickelson’s heartbreaking collapse after being one shot ahead with one to play in 2006. Historic moments have happened on this finishing hole because of the thought, execution and nerve it demands of the player when the pressure is at its greatest.
Winged Foot West is sometimes described by first-time visitors as a slog of indistinguishable long par fours. However, while it is true that as a par 70, nine of the twelve par fours are over 450 yards, the course is also very balanced with par 3s of 167, 194, 219, and 243 yards, a short and a long par 5 of 572 and 633 yards, and a short par four on each side (321 and 384). Furthermore, a 450 yards hole can be played as a 3-wood and a 9 iron for some of the today’s longest players. Compared that to former head professional Claude Harmon’s 1974 tour of the West Course he did before the U.S. Open that year where he described the first hole as “playing about 450 yards, slight dog leg right to left and should be played as a drive and a 2 or 3 iron.”
Erin Hills played over 7800 yards in the 2017 U.S. Open as a par 72 with five par fours playing over 500 yards in an attempt to put driver back in the hands of the competitors. It did, but the wider fairways allowed the players to hit their go to shot shape off almost every tee and still hold the fairway. That strategy will not hold at Winged Foot in 2020 where players will have to find fairways in order to score on the greens by shaping tee shots in both direction or laying back with a shorter club without challenging the doglegs.
While technology has improved distance it has also improved agronomy and that may also be on display in 2020 as well. Thanks to the installation of USGA greens with Sub-Air, it will take a lot of rain to soften the greens at Winged Foot which provides the true challenge for the game’s elite. The 2017 PGA at Quail Hollow was a great example of this where rain softened fairways made the course play long but Sub-Air kept the greens quite firm making approaches from the rough incredibly challenging.
Both courses at Winged Foot outperform the land that they are on as much as any in the world and for that reason they should be on the short list of required courses for architectural study. While the game would benefit for many reasons if the ball were rolled back 80% including pace of play, economic cost and environmental savings, putting more thought into the creation of thoughtful green complexes and less on length and hazards would provide more enjoyment for players of all abilities without sacrificing challenge. Not every player can carry the ball 290 yards, but everyone has the ability to be a good putter and that will always be the greatest equalizer in the game in matches between a David and a Goliath.