2006: Stout Winged Foot will test patience of Open participants

Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Tighter, longer, tougher might not add up to “better,” but it certainly adds up to Winged Foot Golf Club’s West Course, site of the 106th U.S. Open.

The par-70 course measures 7,264 yards, making it the longest in U.S. Open history. Compared with the 1997 PGA Championship, the West Course will play 308 yards longer, with fairways 7 yards narrower and the greens rolling a full foot faster on the Stimpmeter – up to 12 by the weekend, if weather cooperates.

This is a classic layout, part of a 36-hole facility (West Course and East Course) designed in 1923 by A.W. Tillinghast. Located in a leafy, upscale New York suburb only 21 miles north of Times Square, it long has been a favorite of the U.S. Golf Association for national championships. This is Winged Foot’s 12th major, with the West Course alone having been home to U.S. Opens in 1929, ’59, ’74 and ’84.

In 1974, the rough was so brutal and the greens so baked that the 36-hole cut came at 13 over par and Hale Irwin won in a march of sheer survival at 7-over 287.

For the week, there were only seven individual rounds under par. The arduous conditions led Sandy Tatum, then-chairman of the USGA Championship Committee, to respond famously to a question whether golf’s governing body was “trying to embarrass the best players in the world.” His answer was succinct, if elusive: “No,” he said, “we’re trying to identify them.”

An answer that presumes the USGA has been fully responsible for course setup. That presumption was thrown into question two years ago at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club during the final round, when USGA officials found themselves overmatched by a combination of dry, windy weather and a maintenance staff that seemed to delight all week in pushing things to the limit, if not beyond.

Since that much-criticized event, the USGA Championship Committee and its full-time staff have tightened the reins on course setup. USGA president Walter Driver Jr. said Winged Foot would be set up consistent with the association’s overall commitment, namely to make the U.S. Open “a rigorous examination of the best golfers in the world.” That involves, he said, a test of “their character, their perseverance and their sense of humor.”

Preparations by superintendent Eric Greytok, in conjunction with consulting course architect Tom Fazio, have seen seven new back tees added. Several hundred trees have been removed, the bulk of them nuisance conifers. Bunkers have been deepened. The bentgrass/Poa annua green surfaces also have been reclaimed, with many peripheral hole locations adjoining steep falloffs or hazards now available that have not been seen or usable for decades.

Winged Foot, ranked No. 16 on Golfweek’s America’s Best Classic Course list, is relentlessly demanding, especially with fairways averaging only 25 yards wide. Mike Davis, senior director of competitions for the USGA, says that “with doglegs on 10 of its 14 holes,” the course is not a bomber’s paradise and will require length and shaping to hold the fairways. There’s intense pressure to hit fairways, especially since Winged Foot’s robust greens make recovery very dicey. “With the possible exception of Oakmont,” says Davis, “these are the scariest greens we have.”

In order to test-drive the layout, the USGA set up three holes – the par-4 sixth, ninth and 16th holes – last June in an effort to emulate U.S. Open conditions. They achieved desired green speeds, firmness and mowing heights.

Unlike past years, however, the mowing pattern will bell out in areas adjoining main landing areas. Instead of benefiting from rough trampled by spectators, golfers will find wider sectors of rough inside the ropes. tThere will be three separate rough cuts: one, 6-foot wide band that’s 1 1/2-inches deep; a 20-foot wide band that’s 3 to 3 1/2 inches deep, and a peripheral band of far rough that could be upward of 5 to 6 inches deep. Greens also will be framed by that very deep rough (though it will be basic bluegrass, not overseeded rye and thus will allow for skilled recovery rather than just flogging the ball to the greens).

Three holes are likely to be key at Winged Foot.

The par-3 third is tough enough at 216 yards, thanks to an uphill shot to a steep green that won’t handle a right-to-left approach. At least one day during the U.S. Open, they’ll play this from the new back tee at 243 yards.

The par-4 sixth hole, only 321 yards, will tempt players off the tee, but the green is tiny and well guarded by sand and a water hazard back left, all of which will make for dramatic golf.

The newly extended par-5 12th, now 640 yards, is probably beyond reach in two, though on one or two days, it will be moved up to 571 yards, bringing it within range for many players.

The real key at Winged Foot, as with any U.S. Open, is the greens. What really throws off inexperienced golfers is that the first three putting surfaces are the steepest on the layout. After that, they level off noticeably (until the 18th hole). The tendency here is to get so tentative from the bold start that you become overly cautious and leave putts short or on the high side the rest of the way. All of which promise to make for an interesting U.S. Open and a winner who is smart and patient as well as very strong.

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