They tell me that Winged Foot’s gorgeous Clifford Wendehack clubhouse is in the Tudor Scholastic style, but no one will fault you if you mistake it for Gothic. Not with all the terrors that have unfolded over the historic, venerable West course.
It reminds me of a poem I wrote a few years ago:
---Of cruel and mighty Winged Foot now to you I sadly sing
And all the lost and broken men who felt her deadly sting
Who wander now as shadows in her darkness ever more
To roam her haunted passageways forsaken and forlorn
But chief among the cursed souls that in that valley dwell
A phantasm malevolent, most terrible and fell
The Ghost of U.S. Opens Past is her most deadly shade
All those it beckons to are doomed to helplessly obey
And to the Champion’s Graveyard this Unconquerable King
Our greatest heroes in defeat inexorably brings.
Excerpt from my poem “The Ghost of U.S. Opens Past”---
Winged Foot is likely the most haunted golf course on Earth. In the shadows of its gables, the clubhouse looks down in stony silence upon horror after horror, and golf morality play after golf morality play, as they cruelly unfold at its great grassy guillotine of a golf course. J.R.R. Tolkien himself might have dubbed Winged Foot “chiefest and greatest of calamities,” because no course on Earth has such a synergy of golf history and agony. Part Yankee Stadium of Golf and part Graveyard of Champions, Winged Foot is the perfect embodiment of Golf’s Toughest Test™ and the quintessential U.S. Open venue.
The trickiest moves at a U.S. Open are the mental ones, truer still at Winged Foot sharpened to a national championship edge for this, the 120th playing of the USGA’s flagship event. Boasting four- to seven-inch rough, the most cunning and curvaceous greens of any American major championship venue and the weight of an oppressive, indeed bloodthirsty history, Winged Foot is intimidating enough to rattle anyone’s poise, even golf’s immortals. Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Phil Mickelson – the pantheon of golf greatest names -- have all been humiliated at Winged Foot. A highlight reel of their Winged Foot disasters is graphic enough to make even the thickest skin crawl.
“It's right up there next to Oakmont and I think Carnoustie as far as just sheer difficulty without even doing anything to the golf course,” explained Tiger Woods in today’s pre-tournament press conference.
Tiger actually understated the case, as history shows. Winged Foot has hosted five previous Opens: 1929, 1959, 1974 1984, and 2006, and Winged Foot won all five of those Opens.
Bobby Jones took home the Gold Medal and championship trophy in 1929 with a score of 6-over 294. (That year the course played as a par 72. It still does for the members.) Jones came from a record 11 strokes behind in the final round to tie Al Espinosa, who he then filleted in a 36-hole playoff the following day, winning by a whopping 23 strokes. Jones is still the only true immortal to survive Winged Foot unscathed. Still, 6 over is not conquering the golf course, and even Jones himself was candid about how grueling and relentless the then-six-year-old course had already become.
Quiet, humble Billy Casper took home the trophy in 1959 instead of rising star Arnold Palmer or four-time Open champion Ben Hogan by plodding along patiently, but intelligently and pulling a Houdini act on the greens. Winged Foot’s greens are oceanic but subdivided into cunning sections. Putts swerve every which way, and if a player is on the wrong section he faces a 40-foot putt across a tier or swale. Casper cruised around Winged Foot for 72 holes with just 114 putts. He also played the long par-3 third hole as though it were a short par 4 all four days. Being a poor bunker player, he laid up short of the bunkers, chipped onto the green, and one-putted each time.
For those of you scoring at home, Casper won with 2-over-par 282. (Par was reduced that year to 70.) Do you see a pattern yet?
The infamous Massacre at Winged Foot was in 1974, when Hale Irwin survived the carnage with 7-over 287. How deep was the rough? Lanny Wadkins had the best observation: “It wasn’t so bad. I could still see my knees.”
Like Casper, Hale Irwin was a patient plodder: straight off the tee and an excellent long iron player. He came from behind in the final round when Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer faltered on the back nine. Watson, playing in his first major championship, skyrocketed to a final-round 79. Back then he had a habit of spitting the bit on Sundays, losing late leads several times that season. It caused no end of consternation to his then-wife Linda, who agonized to sportswriter Dick Schapp, “I hope he doesn’t get labeled as a choker.” (Tom won his first of eight majors the following year at the British Open.)
Meanwhile Irwin became Irwin at his post-conference presser, goading the media with some acidic sarcasm.
“I hope this answers all your questions about whether I can win somewhere other than Harbour Town,” he said.
I’m told Irwin and the press had a love-hate relationship back then: They loved hating each other. In prepping for this article, I retold that story to a mentor of mine and asked him what he knew about it.
“Oh, I was there for that. I saw it,” he replied. Then he chuckled. “That Irwin…he’s a real beauty…”
That piqued my interest, my journalistic Spidey senses tingling.
“How come when you say ‘He’s a real beauty?’ It kinda sounds like you’re saying ‘He’s a real [expletive deleted],’” I asked.
“Practice,” he replied.
Irwin returned 10 years later for the 1984 Open and led after three rounds, but Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman were hot on his heels, one and two strokes back respectively. Irwin ballooned to a 79 in the final round, while Zoeller opened Sunday with three early birdies in a row, opening up a four shot lead over Norman after six holes.
But a rain-softened Winged Foot that would yield an under par winning score for the only time in its history (4-under 276) finally dried out, and Zoeller gave back all the birdies he made early over the final nine holes. Meanwhile Norman was his usual bumbling, rickety, yet swashbuckling self at a major, hitting tee shots to Larchmont, White Plains and Mt. Kisco, but getting up-and-down from Sleepy Hollow, Bedford Hills and Ossining. It resulted in one of golf most iconic finishes. Tied for the lead at 18, Norman his approach shot into the gallery and then chipped poorly. Facing a 40-foot putt for par that broke severely to his right and ran away from him towards the gargantuan false front, Norman holed it. Zoeller, who bogeyed 17 to fall into the tie, thought the putt was for birdie.
“I turned to Mike, my caddie, and said ‘He just beat us,’” Zoeller said.
Fuzzy, always known for his humor and puckishness, then grabbed a white towel and waved it in mock surrender. It was only after he hit his second shot to the green that a USGA official told him that Norman hit his approach in the stands. Zoeller made par and then “playing offensive golf,” as he later put it, he obliterated Norman in the Monday playoff 67-75.
Despite posting the lowest U.S. Open aggregate at Winged Foot and carding the lowest single U.S. Open round at Winged Foot with a 66 on Friday, Zoeller echoed what players said about Winged Foot throughout the decades.
“Most players would tell you - the hardest tournament to win is the U.S. Open," he said. "Now Winged Foot for the U.S. Open? That’s the hardest conditions ever.”
You won’t get any argument on that score from Phil Mickelson. Nor from Padraig Harrington, Jim Furyk, Colin Montgomerie or Tiger Woods. Some of the greatest names of our generation were laid low in 2006 by the West course. Woods missed a cut in a major for the first time in 38 tries (granted, his father had passed away just before the tournament), while the others all had champagne from the trophy dashed from their lips cruelly on the 72nd hole.
That Sunday in 2006 was golf’s rejoinder to the Hindenburg Disaster.
Mickelson’s grisly fate, losing a three-shot lead in the last four holes, including a double bogey at 18 after hitting into a merch tent, a tree and a bunker was welded into the golf world’s collective consciousness. It was one of the most infamous flameouts in golf history.
“I can’t believe I just did that. I’m such an idiot,” Mickelson said candidly, opening his heart to the media in what was without question the worst moment of his professional career. Soul-crushing heartbreak.
“I couldn’t get out of bed for days,” he later recalled.
It just goes to show: Winged Foot will kill half the field for you…many of them before they tee off on Thursday. There’s the long, lush rough; rough so deep you could lose National Geographic photographers in it. There’s some of the wildest green undulations in the world that send balls scurrying far away from the hole locations. And there’s brutish length: 7,477 yards at par 70, which means it plays like it’s 7,900 yards.
But there is also a psychic weight that bears down heavily. Constructions of the imagination have a way with blurring with reality. Am I really in the same spot where Jack Nicklaus putted off the green to open his 1974 Open with a triple bogey? So that tree in my way is the one that Mickelson hit in ’06? This is life or death golf: every single shot is a potential disaster-in-waiting, each hole a minefield of unexploded double or triple bogeys. Lather, rinse, repeat for 72 grueling holes, over four long days. It’s easy to see why golfers become unidentified falling object, right off the leaderboard with a resounding thud.
At Winged Foot, be ready for war at all times. It’s tough scrambling for pars at the Open. That’s Russian roulette under ordinary circumstances, but at Winged Foot there’s multiple bullets in the chambers. Its sheer size dwarfs the human form to insignificance. And its hazards swallow golfers with a gaping maw. It takes the steely determination and concentration of a golfer like Bobby Jones or Hale Irwin to suppress the heart palpitations, control the breathing and keep the mind sharp to avoid that costly mental error that might undo the entire week’s work.
That’s what killed Phil Mickelson in ’06. Phil didn’t do what Payne Stewart and David Toms did to him in ’99 and ’01 at the Open and PGA respectively: They played safe, laid up, and scrambled for par and a one shot victory. Phil didn’t learn.
“They don’t sink plaques for guys who lay up,” said one of my sports broadcaster colleagues, trying to justify Phil’s choice romantically.
“Yes,” I responded, “But they also don’t give out trophies to guys who take their shot and miss.”
So who will take home the trophy this year? The smart money is on the plodders and the patient, intelligent golfers who’ll keep the ball in the fairway and their emotions in check. Give long looks to Webb Simpson, Justin Rose and Justin Thomas, especially now that one important hurdle, Brooks Koepka, is out of the way. Yes, long bombers have won the last four U.S. Opens – Koepka twice, Dustin Johnson and defending champion Gary Woodland – but Winged Foot is a shotmaker’s course where you have to work the ball both ways. And approaches to the greens test both accuracy and distance control. This week it’s all about greens in regulation and putting, putting, putting.
If there is one bomber to watch for, it’s DJ. Hot as a pistol after winning the FedEx Cup and with his 2016 win at Oakmont to draw from, he isn’t interested in or affected by the metaphysical, mystical or philosophical overtones of golf. If he takes home the trophy from Winged Foot, he’ll be the only player in golf history to bag a major at both Winged Foot and Oakmont.
So as we hit the pillow on the eve of the championship the stage is set for romance and drama, but be careful what you wish for. Last time we were here, instead of Casablanca we got Reservoir Dogs. But that’s the way of the world in Mamaroneck. Who will win the 120th U.S. Open this week? That’s easy: Winged Foot, that’s who! As it should be.
So forth the Graveyard Shift.