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.

Ben Hogan famously described the tenth as a “3-iron into somebody’s bedroom”.  Technology has reduced that 3-iron to a 7-iron for today’s professionals, although there is a possibility that a temporary back tee will be built for the 2020 US Open to put a long iron back in the professional’s hands.  Being the only hole to play Southwest on the entire property, the angle of the wind is typically a new challenge for players as they make the turn.

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.

The ideal position is at the bottom of the slope in the fairway short of the left bunker which leaves a flat lie and 125 yards to the center of the green.  Getting to that position, however, requires a ball landing on the right half of the fairway to avoid getting kicked into the left rough.  The fairway beyond the left bunker where the player is standing is somewhat crowned making it exceedingly difficult to hold off the tee with a driver.

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.

This hump in the fairway had served as a back stop against the longest hitters getting too much roll out on this par-5 for many years.  However, in the 1997 PGA a young long hitting Tiger Woods was able to carry it on the fly and send his ball careening forward to the corner of the dog-leg.  With only a 7-iron needed in for his second, the hole was stretched from 540 to 630 yards for the 2006 U.S. Open to make this architectural feature relevant again.

One of the early stages of creating a USGA green is the installation of a French drainage along the length of the green as seen here at the 12th.  At the same time, the front left bunker is being reshaped to fit the new green expansion.  It is remarkable to see the 18 inch lip along the back of the green that demonstrates just how far down this process requires the crew to dig.  Don’t try this at home!

A view of the finished product from the same angle.  Given the USGA’s penchant to move the tees around in the past ten years, expect the tee to be moved up a couple times on this hole in the 2020 U.S. Open when back ledge hole locations like the one above are used.  The left bunker now wraps halfway around the back of this green providing a real hazard for those who go long trying to get home in two.

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.

Of the par-3s on the West Course, the thirteenth was the most in need of restoration.  The hollow of a filled in fairway bunker on the right side remained, the lip of the right bunker had risen several feet over the years making recovery shots from it completely blind, and the rough line had advanced several yards into the left side of the green limiting hole locations.

With the green fully expanded, the USGA will have several challenging hole locations at their disposal now, none more so than the back center shelf which will make hitting the back right shelf on the sixth hole at Augusta National during the Masters seem easy in comparison.  With a firm green and exposure to the wind, this tee shot will be the most demanding for U.S. Open contestants and a fantastic place for those who know the course to spectate and appreciate the abilities of the greatest players in the world.

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.

In the 2006 U.S. Open an unusual north wind had the fourteenth play as the most difficult the first two rounds and shorter players like Corey Pavin and Mike Weir complained about not being able to carry the left bunker and having to hit a 19-yard wide fairway to the right of it instead.  Now that bunker has been moved 25 yards further out and a right bunker added as well but the fairway has been expanded so the hole should play fairer in 2020 regardless of wind while still providing a risk reward advantage for those who challenge the left bunker and catch the downslope.  Surprisingly, many claim this to be this to be their favorite driving opportunity on the course despite the landing area being blind.  A remarkable design solution and again one worth further study.

Several bunkers were added over the years around this green, most notably the one on the front left which changed the shape of this green.  The back portion of the green had also been flattened to try and accommodate more hole locations as a result of losing the ones in the front left. Note again the excessive amount of rough between the right bunkers and the green pre-restoration as well.

Removal of the non-original greenside bunkers and restoration of the fairway bunker, which had to be estimated based on old aerials, was half of the restoration of this hole.  The other half of was the removal of more than ten trees behind the green, making the green a horizon green against the back woods so that depth perception is now difficult to judge on the approach.  Keep in mind that players were expected to judge distance simply by eye back in the 1920s, not off a sprinkler head or with a range finder.

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.

By extending the fairway out and shifting it to the left, Gil Hanse brought more risk reward to the tee shot at the fifteenth.  The USGA has tried to exaggerate this further by bringing the right rough in for the 2020 U.S. Open (seen in dark green in these photos).  Somewhat reminiscent of the 5th at Merion, a drive that is long and down the left near the hazard will not only be rewarded with a shorter approach from a flat lie, but also provide a better angle to most hole locations.

Looking back down the fairway toward the tee it is easier to understand why Ben Hogan preferred to lay back off the tee to the top of the hill to gain a level lie with no elevation change on the approach instead of driving his ball down closer to the creek leaving an uphill approach from a hook lie.  It is doubtful that today’s professionals will show such restraint…perhaps some will be so daring as to attempt carrying the creek altogether?

This pre-restoration picture of the back of the green illustrates how much of the green pad had become consumed by rough over the years.  Incredibly the back right hole location was still used as the Sunday hole location in the 2006 U.S Open even before it was expanded 25 feet.  Unfortunately it cost Jim Furyk a three putt bogey on route to a runner up finish by one stroke.

Now fully restored, the fifteenth rejoins the first and eighteenth among the world’s truly remarkable green complexes.  Creativity is encouraged here not just on recovery shots but also putts where there are as many as four lines of play for those who have enough imagination!

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.

Making the final turn back to the clubhouse, this par-5 converted to a par-4 asks a player to open up with a big draw without clipping the trees down the left.

Trees are often the most controversial part of any master plan to restore or renovate a golf course.  While 90% of those removed go unnoticed by the membership, ones as prominent as the two guarding the left side of the 16th green become a source of contention.  At the very least it should be agreed that the trees have overgrown their original purpose (if Tillinghast indeed intended them to be there at all) and should be trimmed back to allow approaches for a hole that even most amateurs now take a shot at reaching in two.

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.

Prior to Gil Hanse’s restoration, trees down the right obscured the green from the tee and often made it difficult for first time visitors to discern where the hole was going from the tee (much like the eighth).  Tee shots finishing in the bunkers were forced to play out sideways back to the fairway.

Now the fairway extends over to the bunkers and the removed row of trees tempt players to go for the green on the second from the bunkers instead of being forced to pitch out sideways.

The seventeenth green had shrunk a lot like the thirteenth over the years with the left rough line creeping several paces into the green.  Given the left to right slope of the green and the narrow fairway approach, it was incredibly difficult to access hole locations on the left side of the green without one-hopping it out of the rough.

Here is an intermediate stage of the USGA green construction process where a rock layer is laid above the drainage and then locked into place with a polymer solution before the USGA sand mix is poured in.  This picture provides a great contrasting image to the one prior of the amount of expansion this green received both on the green itself and the fairway opening into it.

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’s long time historian Doug LaRue Smith famously said “Golf is Winged Foot and Winged Foot is Golf”.  There is no better way to express the feeling that comes over you walking up the eighteenth, whether it be in a friendly match or the final round of the U.S. Open on Father’s Day.

The eighteenth is the only green on the West Course with bunkers on one side and is one you have to see to believe.  Expect hole locations along the left (front, middle and back) requiring a drive down the right near the bunker, before the “Bobby Jones” hole location is used middle right on Sunday in 2020.

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.

The End