16 Sep 2020 | Professional golf |

Players confront challenge of Winged Foot

by Martin Blake

Leishman Winged Foot image
Aussie Marc Leishman and caddie Matt Kelly stride out in practise at Winged Foot today. Photo: Getty

Winged Foot is a beast of a golf course, one of the best in the world, and an appropriate venue for a US Open championship. After all, the US Open has a character of its own and tough set-ups are at the heart of that.

Said Jon Rahm, the world No. 2, today as the players gathered for Thursday’s tee-off: “It's sort of like in boxing where Mike Tyson said ‘everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face’. It's the same thing here. We all have a plan, but if you hit it sideways, you got to figure it out.”

Tiger Woods rated the west course, which has previously hosted five US Opens, as one of the toughest on the planet. “Well, I think it's right up there next to Oakmont and I think Carnoustie as far as just sheer difficulty without even doing anything to it,” he said. “I think those three golf courses, they can host major championships without ever doing anything to them. This one or Oakmont here is either one or two.”

And Justin Thomas, the world No. 3: “It's hard, so it's a different kind of fun, but it is fun. It's all right in front of you. It's nothing tricky, nothing crazy. Yeah, you need to play well and have control of your golf ball, otherwise you're going to get pretty exposed.”

It didn’t take long for the photos to emerge of the penal rough at Winged Foot this week. The Australian Lucas Herbert was one of the first to post photos from New York. None of this surprises the players. It’s a US Open, and they know that staying on the fairway is key this week.

Plus, there is the history of Opens at Winged Foot. In five previous Opens, only one winner – Fuzzy Zoeller in 1984 – shot an under-par score. Zoeller posted four-under along with Greg Norman, went into an 18-hole playoff and ended up at three-under.

The last time the Open was held at Winged Foot, in 2006, Geoff Ogilvy won with five-over par and the scoring average was 74.9. This was the worst score to par in a US Open in 32 years, since the previous visit to the famous, old New York area course. In 1974, when Hale Irwin won at Winged Foot, he was seven-over par. That tournament has been known ever since as “The Massacre of Winged Foot”.

Nominally it’s a par 70. Realistically, it plays a few shots higher. What’s more, the club has added length since Ogilvy’s victory in 2006, and the greens have been rebuilt. The rough is sticky, and deep.

Rahm said he found himself hitting a lot of four and five-irons to the greens. That’s because driver is not the automatic club off the tee if you want to hit the short grass, and Tiger Wood spoke out loud about this. “For me in particular I'm trying to play to certain areas,” said Woods. “Whatever club that is, could be five-wood, could be driver or a three-wood. I'm trying to play to a specific spot and then move on from there.”

Dustin Johnson put it simply. “You really have to hit the fairways,” said world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. “The rough is -- it's not super deep, but you just can't play out of it. You can't control the golf ball, and you can't get to the greens from it.”

Many of the players are at Winged Foot for the first time, such as Rory McIlroy. “It's hard, obviously, but I think it's very, very fair,” he said. “I said to someone yesterday when I played Oakmont for the first time, my initial reaction was, this place is impossible, where it's not -- this course doesn't feel quite as -- it gives you a little more chances if you miss it, I guess. You can run the ball up on to the greens and maybe a touch more playable, but it's a tough track, and I'm still learning it as I go here.”

McIlroy said that his length would help him this week, as it generally does. But only if he can hit it straight. “I'd still take hitting fairways over hitting it 350 in the rough here,” he said.

Justin Thomas echoed most of the players in saying that perspective was required. “Yeah, you just have to embrace it, otherwise it's going to eat you alive. I mean, especially a place like this, you're going to make a lot of bogeys. You're going to be put in some uncomfortable places, and you as a person are going to feel uncomfortable. It's really just how can you manage that.”

Someone will figure out a way this week. That’s the fascination.

“I'm not going into this week scared of Winged Foot,” said Thomas. “It is probably the hardest golf course I've ever played, I think. Oakmont is very tough, but I think that can get -- it's just more the speed of the greens than anything. But tee to green, the rough, the greens, everything factored in, I think this is the hardest course I've played.

“But that being said, I'm not going into it scared. I can't play tentative. I can't only try to make pars. If I have a scoring club, I need to try to make a birdie. But then if I get in trouble, I just need to get out. So I think the most important thing is try to take each hole for what it is and not make this place any bigger than it is because it's already big.”

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