The marching orders were succinct and to the point -- "Build us a man-sized golf course." And architect A.W. Tillinghast dutifully fulfilled that request with not just one course -- but two.
Winged Foot is a 36-hole layout located in Westchester County -- roughly about 45 minutes north of Times Square. The West Course has rightly earned a clear reputation as one of the most demanding of all championship courses and rightly so.
Just six years after opening the West hosted its first US Open -- won by Bobby Jones in a 36-hole playoff but not until the Georgian had holed a testing 12-foot downhill curling putt on the final hole to get into the playoff. Other national championships followed but it was the famed '74 US Open -- dubbed, "The Massacre at Winged Foot," that forever etched in stone the reputation of the West Course. The winning score was 287 -- seven-over-par by a talented up and comer named Hale Irwin. The most recent US Open came in 2006 when several key players lost an opportunity to win the event -- the most notable being Phil Mickelson surrendering a one shot lead with a concluding double-bogey on the 18th hole. A 6th US Open is planned for the West Course in 2020.
Unlike other notable courses in golf-rich Westchester County -- Winged Foot is on fairly mundane parksland. There is a bit of ground movement but no one would call it remotely hilly. The strength of the course comes with the utra-demanding putting surfaces. Tillinghast created pear-shaped greens with abrupt slopes from back-to-front. There are internal contours as well to contend with too. The greens are ably defended by flanking deep bunkers pushed ever so closely to the putting surfaces. Missing a tad either right or left results in demanding recoveries. Hitting too far into the greens to secure a more wider landing area can mean vexing putts await.
In the '74 US Open Jack Nicklaus hit the 1st green in regulation -- having a birdie putt from 25-feet. His next putt was 28 feet coming back to the hole. Two additional putts had the Golden Bear flummoxed as he left the green.
The West begins with a fearsome quartet of holes. There is no "warm-up" hole on the West. The opener is 450 yards and turns ever so gently right-to-left in the drive zone. The drive is demanding but the approach is even more so. Failing to land the approach near enough by the pin location almost ensures a quick three-putt -- akin to what Nicklaus endured.
In the next three holes you encounter two additional long par-4's sandwiched between a demanding long par-3 that features a smallish green that looks even smaller as two bunkers push ever so close to the target. To make matter even more interesting out-of-bounds is right behind the green. In the '59 Open winner Billy Casper wisely layed-up in front and was able to make par with a chip and putt strategy.
Since the West plays as a par-70 during key events it has only two par-5 holes and a quartet of par-3's. However, it is the strong two-shot holes where Tillinghast pushes the player to deliver time after time. Nine of the twelve are at 450 yards or more. Unfortunately, the club has decided to keep fairway widths close to 25 yards and the rough encountered is often dense and quite deep. Why this is done is beyond me. The West doesn't need to be "helped" given the inherent design characteristics.
Unfortunately, there seems to be the belief among too many clubs worldwide -- Royal Portrush does similarly with Dunluce in Northern Ireland as does Muirfield in Scotland -- that additional demands must be included by preparing rough to be a full shot penalty. The recovery shot -- an element central to the playing of the game -- is then frankly eliminated unnecessarily. Widening the fairways in the range of 30-35 yards would add more versatility providing for more playable angles into the greens. The straight razor-cut fairways frankly only allow a predictable "one-way" dynamic and a number of the fairway bunkers are actually not in play because of rough that envelopes them and prevents stray tee shots from running into them.
That's not to say there aren't interesting holes at the West. The short par-4 6th is often undervalued. At just 321 yards the bold play is for strong golfers to give it a go for the green. That's often the wrong strategy. The green is positioned like an upside down letter "L" with a sizeable and deep frontal bunker. Landing the approach on the green when the pin is cut anywhere near the right will demand the surest of wedge shots to both hit and hold the target.
The long par-4 8th at 475 yards is another fabulous hole. The tee shot must be faded on this dog-leg right. The green, like the others, is ably defended and cannot be missed to either side.
The inward nine at WF / West begins with one of America's best mid-length par-3 holes at 190 yards. Ben Hogan was famous for saying that hitting the 10th green was the equivalent in using a 3-iron to land into someone's bedroom. Named "pulpit" by the membership -- the 10th is something to behold when standing on the tee. Getting the right yardage is complicated because unlike the other holes on the West which go on a north-south axis -- the 10th runs in an east-west direction meaning unpredictable crosswinds can happen.
In order to bolster its reputation the club decided to extend the par-5 12th to 640 yards. The added length did not mean a better hole -- just one that mandated three predictable shots to reach the green.
It is the final five holes where the West has earned its reputation as a stout no-compromising course. Each is a par-4 hole and none can be taken lightly when playing for a championship or just a friendly wager. The 14th provides a striking elevated green pad that like so many others on the West plays smaller than it appears. The par-4 15th is superb mid-length hole sliding downhill and then climbing to a magnificent green diagonally angled from lower left to back right. What many may not know is that Fred Corcoran -- the man responsible for the creation of what would become the modern PGA Tour -- had a house immediately adjacent to the green and when in residence would be quick to invite players to his home for a mid-round celebration. Some never returned to the course.
The long par-4 16th adds even more demands -- mandating a very long and well-positioned tee shot on the dog-leg left. Played as a member's par-5 the hole again provides for a small putting surface ably defended by sand. The penultimate hole goes the opposite way -- calling for a controlled fade to a very deep and long green.
The final hole -- aptly named "Revelations" -- is one of the strongest concluding holes in American golf. A lone right fairway bunker is there to push players back to the middle and is well-positioned. The approach must then carry a false front that can derail many a player. One need only ask Colin Montgomerie whose approach at the 72nd hole in the '06 Open came up woefully short after deciding to take one less club when Monty's original decision was likely the right call.
The final green on the West is demanding to accurately read and arguably is the finest putting surface Tillinghast created.
What makes the West so unrelenting is how difficult it is to get near the pin on so many holes. Without finding the fairways the wherewithal to hit greens in the regulation stroke becomes near impossible with the ever present coffin-like rough. The club sadly has decided to hunker down on the ornery side in terms of course preparation and, as mentioned earlier, is totally unnecessary, given the inherent elements Tillinghast beautifully created.
Playability is compromised on the altar of sacrificing players with unyielding difficulty. A pity. Truly, less can be more in this specific instance.
By M. James Ward
Date: January 05, 2017