Will the Real Winged Foot Please Stand Up?

By: Jay Flemma

Remember the old TV game show “To Tell the Truth?” With this year’s U.S. Open in mind, the opening queries could go something like this:

“Contestant Number 1?” “My name is Winged Foot West.”

“Contestant Number 2?” “My name is Winged Foot West.”

“Contestant number 3?” “My name is Winged Foot West.”

This will be a difficult U.S. Open to handicap since we have not held a U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 22 years. With a wider, shorter first cut of rough than ever before, some believe it will be the kinder and gentler Winged Foot than 1997 when Davis Love finished with an 11-under 269 aggregate.

Or will Winged Foot revert back to the ‘70s and ‘80s U.S. Open venue that chewed up the field? Or will there be just enough cushion to allow players to make some birdies and generate some excitement rather than the filtering, percolating effect that has robbed the Open of the leaderboard of the fireworks that are the hallmark of the Masters? This is not your father’s Winged Foot – but whose Winged Foot is it? Will the real Winged Foot please stand up?

Past Majors

Winged Foot has one of the most storied histories of any American major championship venue. Most U.S. Open scores have been notably high. Bobby Jones won there in 1929 in a playoff over Al Espinosa with an aggregate of 294 (6-over for four rounds at the par 72-layout). The win buoyed Jones on his epic march to the Grand Slam the following year.

Then there was the 1974 Open . . . the “Massacre at Winged Foot.” For a frame of reference, think back one year prior. At Oakmont in ’73, Johnny Miller torched the course on Sunday for a major championship record 63 (which he still shares with Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Lee Janzen). It was the greatest single Sunday score in the history of the majors.

Before the 1974 Open began, USGA representatives were quoted as saying “we are not about retribution.” Maybe what everyone remembers is “we’re not trying to embarrass the greatest golfers in the world . . .” but the “retribution” sound bite sure looks funny when you see the ’74 opening round scores. The leader was Gary Player at level par. Irwin, Watson and Palmer shot 73, Nicklaus shot 75 and “Mister 63” himself, Johnny Miller, shot 76.

“Not about retribution?” My fanny! I’m surprised they got off that easy. With six to eight inches of rough, fairways only 23 yards wide and green speeds that topped double digits on the Stimpmeter on some of the most severely pitched greens in the country, the pros never had a chance. Exhausted and baked by searing heat for a week, Hale Irwin’s winning score in 1974 was 7-over par 287 – the course had played to par 70 that year – the highest score in relation to par in a major championship. Irwin won by two shots over Forrest Fezler who shocked the world not only with his tenacious play but by changing into shorts on the back nine on Sunday to beat the ghastly heat.

When the Open returned in 1984, nobody remembered teasing Fezler about having, as one pro quipped, “the best shins on Tour.” But they sure remembered the tall rough and green speeds. The fairways were as narrow as the Open at Oakmont the year prior and the greens just as fast.

Interestingly, the winning score to par in both the ’83 and ’84 Opens was the same, 4-under. While few remember Larry Nelson edging Tom Watson by a shot (on a Monday finish) and fewer still remember Fuzzy Zoeller’s 1984 aggregate of 284, some recall he denied Greg Norman the title by routing him in a playoff 67-75.

A 67 at Winged Foot. Prepped for an Open! Why do we never remember that round? Oh yeah. Monday finisher.

Far more fearsome than Oakland Hills, Baltusrol, Olympic, Pebble, Olympia Fields, The Country Club, Medinah, Southern Hills, (do Southern Hills and The Country Club do anything for you?) and even Inverness, only Oakmont claims as much of a synergy of U.S. Open history and misery as Winged Foot.

However, Davis Love scorched Winged Foot at the 1997 PGA Championship to the tune of minus-11. Granted, the PGA and USGA set up tournaments completely differently. And there are 13 years of equipment advances to consider. After all, Fuzzy and Irwin all used Persimmon, not titanium. Moreover, we have a new tournament director, Mike Davis implementing the course set-up.

So which set-up will we get this year?

The USGA Set-up and the Rough: Same as It Ever Was?

Like Oakmont, the measuring stick of Winged Foot’s Opens from a penalty standpoint was the rough. At previous U.S. Opens, the rough was 6 to 6 inches high. Miss the fairway – chip out. Well, maybe not this year. With the USGA saying they added between 8 and 20 paces of room for a short playable first cut on either side (after years of growing a consistent, jungle-thick rough to make its national championship the most difficult test in golf), the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot will supposedly offer some leniency to errant drives.

Mike Davis, successor to Tom Meeks, said, “We're going to try something new for us this year in the sense we're going to prepare the rough so that the farther you hit it off line, the worse the rough is going to be. You'll have the fairway and then you'll have an intermediate rough that's about 2 yards wide. Then for about five or six paces, we'll have the primary rough that's going to be penal, but where you can still advance the ball. And then beyond that to the point of the rope line it will be higher rough that's going to be more penal."

Davis didn't go into specifics about how high each tier of the rough would be but said, "We're trying to fit the penalty with the crime a little better than we have in the past, so the guy who misses the fairway by a little bit has a better shot than the guy who misses it by 15 or 20 paces." Additionally, on shorter par-4s the rough will be longer and the transitional rough narrower than on longer par-4s where there will be more room side to side.

This is an enormous departure from past Opens, where the straightest hitters and best putters won. Depending on the speed of the greens, this could lower the score in relation to par a small degree. Perhaps as low as –4 . . . if the green speeds stay playable. That’s the other critical factor.

The new approach, in theory, may perhaps favor Tiger. He can spray a little with the driver and not be penalized like in more traditional Open setups. His unbelievable length will once again be at advantage. Once upon a time it was more simple: miss the fairway, chip out.

But the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Rough length must also be analyzed with respect to the size and strain of the grass blade. Certain grass types are strong enough to “hold the ball up” making for tougher, cuppy lies instead of the ball settling. The rough of the ‘70s and ‘80s – due to the structure of the strain used – was tougher on settled lies than today’s more modern strains. The modern strains are less resistant to the club than their older counterparts – just look at how last year’s Open competitors said sometimes you had a better angle to the greens at Pinehurst out of the rough and that players had green lights at pins even out of the rough. (Remember: the players’ main complaint was that the greens didn’t hold their wedges. We could see the same effect here, only fewer wedges.)

Moreover, Meeks’ policy was to keep the course as close to unfair as possible without going over the line. Problem was, Meeks often drew the line too close – ’98 and ’04 – the poor setup became the focal point. I’m all for having the course be the star at the U.S. Open (as it should be), but not for the wrong reasons. One can sum up the Tom Meeks era in one sentence: If I wanna watch guys shoot 84, stub chips and three-jack all day, I’ll bring my camcorder along to my Sunday match with my lunkhead entertainment industry golf buddies.

Why is the setup so important? Well, as one of my colleagues at Golf Observer opined, in trying to identify (not embarrass) the best players in the world they do separate the truly great from the merely good . . . and often award the trophy to the merely good. As another irreverent Golf Observer colleague quipped in summing up last year’s Open “well now that we’ve identified par . . .”

Let’s see the best golfers in the world we’ve “identified:” Orville Moody (WHO???), Hubert Green, Lou Graham, David Graham (no relation), Scott Simpson, Steve Jones (STEVE JONES!), Andy North twice, Lee Janzen twice, and (drum roll please) Michael Campbell.

Now check out this list of guys who were a heartbeat away form the title: Chip Beck (twice), Denis Watson, T.C. (Two-Chip) Chen, Dave Barr, Mark Brooks, Stewart Cink and Isao Aoki. In fact if North hadn’t backed into the ’85 title, we’d have had a four-way Monday finish between North, Chen, Barr and Denis Watson. They’d actually preempt Days of our Lives for that.

The moral? We’ll have to wait and see what Davis does. He is a wild card in the equation. The course will be ready and the rough length will be one of the two key variables.

The other key variable? The keystone, indeed the Rosetta Stone of the course, is its greens – the greens are frequently high pedestals surrounded on all sides by deep bunkers. The greens are very small and severely canted; they have the greatest amount of contour of any Tillie ever did. Solve the greens and you will have done the lion’s share needed to win the tournament. In this respect, the course is the complete opposite of Bethpage. At Bethpage, the greens were flat, it was the punishing shot-shaping requirements and brute length that provided the bulk of the challenge in 2002.

To Tillie's considerable credit, at Winged Foot he imbued all the elements of detail and contour – especially on the approaches and putting surfaces – in order to bring out the character still present decades later. A number of the greens are set upon natural rock outcroppings, given the severe nature of stone and rock that cuts through not only Winged Foot but a number of other Westchester County layouts. The upshot? You can’t flag hunt and miss. Up and downs will be at a premium – more so for the man who short-sides himself.

Again, the USGA will have direct control on how fast the greens will be . . . and more than any other course in America’s informal Open Rota, Winged Foot’s green speeds will be critical. The faster they are, the less contour that can fairly be brought into play and the less pinnable space on the already small greens. Watch carefully to see if Davis masters the delicate combination or does a ham-fisted job and fails to learn from the errors of his predecessor.

Lengthened Holes

One of the swing holes will be the long par-5 12th (previously 550 yards but now to a max of 650 yards). The new length is simply an addition of yards but little else in terms of strategy. They wanted to keep it as a three-shot hole . . . well for everyone except Tiger, Phil Mickelson, John Daly and a few others. However, the USGA has said no less than one round will be played at the other tee box – 560 yards – and that makes for much more interesting possibilities, to wit: eagles. Lord knows the tourney could use wider leaderboard swings to inject excitement in the crowd.

Next, the 14th (previously 415 yards but now 460 yards) used to be one of the easier holes on the closing stretch. Some critics like the added yardage. One golf architecture expert wrote, “It makes you think about hitting driver for the top players. You can slide a draw and gain considerable advantage on this turning hole.”

The 16th (previously 457 yards – now to a max of 485 yards) never surrendered anything when it was at its previous yardage. The added length means driver for just about anyone in the field. The green has been added onto a bit, but it's still designed for the shorter club as the hole generally is a par-5 for the members. That means it still will not be receptive to and contain low, hot approaches with long irons and fairway woods. Whether the player carries a hybrid is uncertain, but look for balls in the back of this green complex the first few days.

Speaking globally, the first four holes and the last four at Winged Foot will not yield many birdies – you can lose it completely at the start and never recover.

The rest – well you need lots of shot-shaping to get close to pins. With trees frequently lining both sides of the fairway long bombers will be eliminated quickly if they spray. The front is flat, the back is more rolling. But the old adage about Winged Foot still holds true. The holes are like men – from foot to neck (tee to green) they are the same, but the greens are the faces. Therefore, the winner will have a hot putter, be a solid ball-striker, have length and accuracy combined, and need patience bordering on the robotic.

Bobby Jones and Hale Irwin won here . . . who plays like them? Oh, Tiger. Vijay. Retief, Sergio (well, when he can putt). Phil. Oh, and maybe even the guy like Orville or Michael or Lee or Hubert or Andy (twice) or Steve (STEVE!), a guy who catches lightning in a bottle at a place that could hold everybody else down. They could play the least (most?) mediocre.

Will the Real Winged Foot Please Stand Up?

No, this is not your father’s Winged Foot, but whose Winged Foot is it? The “kindler, gentler Winged Foot” Mike Davis is trying to sell us? If so, it’s a stark departure from his predecessor’s days. Tom Meeks was married to “Even Par” more than he was to an exciting tournament. I’ll believe a departure from his regime when I see it. Yet, with new faces come new ideas. Some work, others don’t. Others are the same as it ever was. Maybe Davis thinks, like Meeks: “I paid my dues,” and now it’s his turn to try out his ideas for tournament set-up.

While the new tournament set-up team muddies the waters on picking a winning score, I’ll hope we get 3- or 4-under and a tough test, with enough room for some exciting swings. But come Sunday watch out . . . the USGA paranoia may kick in and the need to protect par and Winged Foot’s scary reputation will rise up again. If so, it’ll be percolation and triage. Just like David Byrne sang with the Talking Heads, ”Same as it ever was.”

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.blogspot.com, Jay Flemma’s comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America’s great public golf courses (and whether they’re worth the money), Jay has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf – or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.