17 Sep 2020 | Professional golf |

History precedes a beastly test

by Contributor

Hideki Matsuyama's practice round challenge will be typical for those who stray at Winged Foot this week. Picture: USGA
Hideki Matsuyama's practice round challenge will be typical for those who stray at Winged Foot this week. Picture: USGA

By Richard Allen, courtesy of AFR

A century ago, when American course designer A.W. Tillinghast was asked by keen golfers of the New York Athletic Club to produce a “man-sized course”, he was more than happy to comply.

He moved 7200 tonnes of rock and removed 7800 trees to meet their brief, creating a course with several long and tight par-4s and greens with false fronts guarded by deep and unforgiving bunkers. Tillinghast said shots to the greens would need to be played with “rifle-like accuracy”.

Winged Foot Golf Club, with its gabled stone clubhouse – 35 minutes’ drive north on the I-95 from Manhattan and just outside the town of Mamaroneck – remains one of the country’s most iconic and difficult championship courses, particularly when the USGA sets it up for a US Open, letting the rough grow, pinching in the fairways and speeding up the greens.

Despite the fact that more than 14 years have passed since Australian Geoff Ogilvy won the last US Open to be held at Winged Foot, the players in this week’s US Open will be well aware of its reputation.

They will know of the dramas of 1974 when American Hale Irwin won the event with a score of seven over par. After the first round – when not one player was under par and the greatest of them all, Jack Nicklaus, had putted off the final green – Sandy Tatum, chairman of the USGA's competition committee, responded to critics with his now infamous line: “Our intention is not to embarrass the greatest players in the world, but to identify them.”

The press dubbed the event “Massacre at Winged Foot”; many said the set-up was a complete over-reaction to what happened the previous year, when Johnny Miller shot a once unthinkable 63 in the final round at Oakmont to win his first US Open.

Winged Foot has hosted five previous US Opens and none has been straightforward for the winner. In 1929 great American amateur Bobby Jones won after limping over the line to get into a playoff against Al Espinosa.

In 1959 Billy Casper won by a shot after one-putting 31 of the 72 greens, and in 1984 Fuzzy Zoeller beat Australian Greg Norman in a lopsided playoff after Norman made several improbable pars during the final round.

In 2006 Ogilvy triumphed in one of the wildest finishes in the event’s history. Neither of the three runners-up parred the final hole, while two of them – Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson – recorded inexplicable double-bogeys. Montgomerie’s six seemed almost careless, while Mickelson blazed away off the tee, hit a marquee, and couldn’t recover. Never was David Feherty’s observation about him more apt: “Watching Phil Mickelson play golf is like watching a drunk chase a balloon near the edge of a cliff.”

History – and the world rankings – tell us to expect an American to triumph this week. Although non-Americans have won nine of the past 20 US Opens, Americans have won each of the past five. Today they occupy eight of the top ten rankings spots.

As the stars of players like Mickelson and Tiger Woods begin to wane, the American college system produces a seemingly endless line of young players to take their place. Collin Morikawa, the 23-year-old who won last month’s PGA Championship at Harding Park, is a case in point. One minute he is playing for the University of California, Berkeley, and seemingly the next he’s winning a major crown.

Notably, eight of the top 15 players in the world are Americans aged 30 or less: Justin Thomas, Morikawa, Brooks Koepka (absent this week), Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay and Daniel Berger.

There will, of course, be much interest in Woods – world No.21 – and his quest to overtake Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Woods, 44, sits on 15 majors, but must surely know that time is running out. In fact, only five golfers have ever won majors at an age greater than Woods will be at the US Open: Julius Boros, Jerry Barber, Old Tom Morris, Nicklaus and Irwin. One of them, Old Tom, won the 1867 Open Championship in Scotland in a field of 14.

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