The West Course at Winged Foot has taken center stage this week, as is typical with U.S. Open courses being as much of the story as the players themselves.
Winged Foot is widely revered — Tiger Woods deemed it one of the three most difficult in the world, while Rory McIlroy called it “a wonderful golf course.”
What remains to be seen is what players have to say after the 120th U.S. Open begins.
The USGA’s Mike Davis is one of the most polarizing figures in the game. He is renowned for pushing courses to the brink in an effort to provide the most grueling test in golf.
More than once, that effort has gone too far.
Remember McIlroy comparing Chambers Bay to “playing on the moon” in 2015? After a particularly brutal third round in 2018, the USGA openly apologized for unfair conditions at Shinnecock Hills.
Of the five previous U.S. Opens contested at Winged Foot, four have been won with over-par scores. Davis’ attempt to make even par the challenge is accepted by players, so long as quality shots aren’t routinely punished.
Winged Foot doesn’t present much in the way of hazards. What protects the par 70 course is its length (7,477 yards), tiered greens and rough that players expect to be in the five- to six-inch range this week.
“Something would have to go seriously wrong to get into the realms of goofy golf,” McIlroy said after playing his first practice round this week. “I think good shots here seem to get rewarded.
“Oakmont (in Pennsylvania, site of the 2016 U.S. Open) is a wonderful golf course, but I think Oakmont setup normally is right about on the edge, and if you just go a little further, then that can start to get a little goofy, where here it doesn’t seem like that can happen.
“Certainly, if you get it way too firm and you get some crosswinds and stuff, it can get pretty dicey, but I expect that not to happen.”
In the five previous U.S. Opens held at Winged Foot, two have been decided by a playoff and two have seen one-shot victories. The largest margin of victory was Hale Irwin’s two-shot win over Forrest Fezler at 7 over in 1974, dubbed the “Massacre at Winged Foot.”
“It’s a different kind of fun,” Justin Thomas said of Winged Foot. “It’s not a 20-, 25-under kind of fun. It’s a U.S. Open. It’s tough. You know it’s going to be tough, and you know par is a really, really good score.
“I might not think the same at the end of the week.”
If Winged Foot turns into “goofy golf” this week, Davis will again draw the ire of players who overwhelmingly enjoy the course.
The USGA has fallen victim in the past of trying to ratchet up a course’s difficulty, only to have a heat wave bake it out to the point of being unplayable. Phil Mickelson was penalized after putting a ball that was still moving out of frustration at Shinnecock.
With temperatures expected to be in the 60s and 70s this week, Davis will undoubtedly be the focus of the players’ ire should Winged Foot get out of control.
“It’s all golf course setup,” said Thomas, who has directed pointed words at the USGA in the past. “We’ve never played a course that’s gotten away from us because it’s too hard of a course tee to green, it’s because it’s been poorly set up. That’s just the fact of the matter.
“This place, right now you go play, you put the pins where they should be, the greens are very soft, the fairways aren’t that firm, it’s beautiful weather. Yeah, there’s going to be a lot of high scores, but there will be some good scores, there will be some under-par scores, but if they got firm, they got fast, they got windy, they put pins where they shouldn’t be, then, yeah, it would be stupid.
“So, it really just all depends on how the golf course is stet up.”
Woods missed the cut in ‘06, acknowledging this week that he didn’t have the preparation he needed following the death of his father. He traveled to Winged Foot before the start of this year’s FedEx Cup Playoffs to “get my sight lines,” and put the West Course in the class of Oakmont and Scotland’s Carnoustie as courses that can host major championships without being significantly altered.
“The golf course is going to be hard,” he said. “It depends on how difficult they want to set up these pins, give us a chance at it. But with the forecast, it’s going to be difficult no matter what.”
Expect the half-foot rough to be a major storyline this week. Defending U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland said he and his caddie lost a ball “right in front of me” while practicing his chipping over the weekend.
Woodland pointed to the lack of galleries as an additional factor, as the throngs of people trampling down grass can often save a player from a wayward tee shot. Not so this week.
“There was talks of not having marshals the first couple practice rounds. The practice rounds would have been 10 hours out here trying to find golf balls,” Woodland said.
Winged Foot was famously designed by A.W. Tillinghast and redesigned by Gil Hanse in 2017. The 15 players in this week’s field who played in the 2006 U.S. Open returned to a course that has been significantly lengthened.
“It seems like every green you have to walk back a little bit further,” said Woods.
Several sportsbooks have put the likely cut line around 7-over par. The shortest winning score odds at Bet365 is 4/6 for even par or higher, while PointsBet is offering a -134 moneyline bet that no one finishes the tournament under par.
“I think one of the best that I’ve played for a U.S. Open,” McIlroy said of Winged Foot. “There’s still places where precision beats power, and that’s been the case here at U.S. Opens in the past.
“I think this place tests every single aspect of your game, so I don’t think I could single out the toughest thing that you need to do or the hardest thing you’re going to have to do this week. It’s all pretty tough.