Winged Foot Golf Club (West), NY, USA

Winged Foot West.  No course besides Oakmont is so synonymous with the U.S. Open.  The name immediately brings to mind images of long par 4s, dense rough, difficult greens and of course, the iconic stone and slate clubhouse built from the rock A.W. Tillinghast dug up while building the East and West courses.

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.

Looking across from the 4th fairway to those of the 5th, 6th and 7th holes, it is remarkable how flat and devoid of natural hazards the front nine of the West Course is despite its legendary difficulty.

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.

No matter how much longer the ball is allowed to become, the art of holing a pressure putt like the twelve footer Bobby Jones holed to get into a playoff during the 1929 U.S. Open will never diminish (the above photo is from the 36 hole playoff the following day, which Jones won by 23 shots).  Note how devoid of trees the course was in its first decade of existence before a non-member donated 2,000 trees from his nursery to be planted in the 1930s.  Phil Mickelson certainly would have preferred this setup in 2006.

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.

Although seemingly devoid of strategy given the lack of hazards, participants in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot are required to make a decision starting with the first tee.  A 3 wood will lay back closer to the bend in the fairway allowing for a straighter shot or even a fade, while a driver will have to be turned over by the right handed player to avoid the rough, but will allow for a short iron into one of the most difficult greens in the game.  Factor in first-tee jitters and the result is the most difficult hole in relation to par on the entire course during the 2006 U.S. Open.

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.

The first hole was listed at 440 yards in the opening day program in 1923.  Almost 100 years later it is only 10 yards longer and still one of the hardest holes in relation to par on the course.  Expansion and some careful subtle shaping of the green by Gil Hanse in 2017 should allow this green to run at the same speed as the other seventeen in the 2020 U.S. Open.

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.

Even in 1923, A.W. Tillinghast found this elm tree so remarkable that he felt compelled to incorporate it into the framing of the second green and named the hole after it.

Today the Elm remains as grand as ever though it is nearing the end of its 150 year expected lifespan.  Such is the sad fate that every old parkland courses must face with their specimen trees.

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.

Consider the self-confidence Billy Casper must have possessed when he intentionally laid up on this par-3 in all four rounds of 1959 U.S. Open on route to victory.  That is equivalent to a player like Jordan Speith laying up in today’s era.  Such is the level of respect that must be given to the greens at Winged Foot when they are firm to avoid ending up with a putt from above the hole.

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.

With both the left and right bunkers having recently been moved 25 yards down range, they become a factor for the elite player again while amateurs now have plenty of fairway to lay back short of them before the downhill approach.

A beautiful opening day picture (hence the hole number sign at the back of the green) illustrating just how severe the swale was originally, particularly on the left.  Also note the wicker basket flag stick which was used in the early days of the club’s existence.

After the swale was filled in during the 1940s, it became clear the hole needed defense of another kind so the left and right bunkers were wrapped around the front corners, turning a hole that favored the ground game to one that required an aerial approach.

During the restoration which included the installation of USGA greens, a record was taken of the archeological footprint of the fourth green to document just how wide and deep the swale was originally.  Hopefully, after the 2020 U.S. Open, restoring this unique feature similar to the 13th green at Tillinghast’s Somerset Hills will be taken back under consideration.

For now at least the bunkers have been returned to the sides of the green and the approach left wide open for a running shot on this downhill second shot as was the original design intent.

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.

Turning back to the south for the first time, the player will likely face a new wind direction on this tee and is encouraged to draw the ball off the far bunker around the corner to give the amateur a shot at getting to the green in two shots.

Many players in the 2006 U.S. Open said their goal was to be only +1 after the first four holes on the West Course and then try to get back to even over the next three holes.  With the fifth playing as a par-4, that first birdie opportunity will now have to wait until the sixth hole.  Obviously par is just a system of accounting and does not change who shoots the lowest score to win in the end, but for the greatest players in the world who are used to shooting well under par in every tournament they play, being a couple over par after five holes can serve as a stern test of a player’s mental fortitude and patience which is the hallmark of the exam that is the U.S. Open.

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.

A picture from Opening Day which now hangs in the Grille Room.  Note the width of the fairway approaching the green, the low profile of the bunker and how much of the green is visible from this ground view in the fairway.

Over the years the fairway became tightened, a bunker on the left was added unnecessarily to add difficulty to a hole that was meant to be a half-par hole, and years of play from the right bunker had built the lip up several feet and obscured a majority of the green from view during the approach.

Change this hole to black and white and stage a few players wearing plus-fours and it would be difficult to tell this isn’t a picture from Opening Day.  Advancement in technology and fitness will have players attacking this hole very differently from the days when Ben Hogan laid back with a 5 iron so that he had a full wedge in to control the distance and spin of his approach.  However, it provides a great change of pace from the strenuous test of the first five holes.

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.

A classic pushup green that Tillinghast created out of an otherwise pedestrian landscape, which again begs the question—why aren’t there more courses like Winged Foot?  Coming after the short par-4 sixth, players in the U.S. Open will have an opportunity to make a move during this stretch, but a loss in concentration can swing it quickly the other way as Johnny Miller learned in 1974 when he took four shots to escape from the right bunker as the defending champion.

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?

This view from the back of the seventh green provides the best vantage of this dogleg right.  The green in the middle of the picture is the 16th on the East Course, while the green for the 8th on the West Course is on line with the two controversial trees to the left of the cart path.  Removing these trees would not only reveal a beautiful pair of elms hidden further behind them, but also normalize the drive and frame the hole better off the tee where first time guests are often unsure of where the hole is going.

The Opening Day program states “The fairways are generous.  They average more than 55 yards in width.  In some places they reach 65 yards.”  That is evident in this wonderful oblique aerial from 1925 which illustrates the width of the 8th hole (top middle) coming out of the woods and extending almost into the second fairway to the right.

A final scan of the eighth green after it was converted to a USGA green to ensure the contours were returned to within 1/100th of a foot during the restoration.  Under U.S. Open conditions the green areas represent useable hole locations.  The white line marked the border 9 feet inside the edge of green (i.e. the area for hole locations) and the black line is the new 9 foot border.  You can be certain that the newly captured green area in the top left corner will be used in the 2020 U.S. Open. The contour lines here also help demonstrate the rolling ocean nature of Winged Foot’s greens mentioned earlier.

This is how the new back left hole location will look as players prepare to hit their approach shots.  Keeping the drive down the right side as much as possible without clipping the trees will be critical in order to have a chance of getting the second shot close.

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.

This view from the new back tee (formally the back tee for 17 East) will measure 575 yards and restore the ninth as a par-5 in the 2020 U.S. Open.  With bunkers added down the right in the landing zone, each player who hits this fairway will pickup at least a half shot on the field both from the additional roll and the ability to control their ball coming into the green during the second shot.  If the Osage Orange tree on the right is kept, this hole may become a fade hole as well due to the offset angle of the new back tee.