Mighty, venerable Winged Foot Golf Club hosts its sixth U.S. Open, 13th USGA event and seventh major championship,(it hosted the 1997 PGA) this week.
This year, the par-70 layout will play to a bloated 7,477 yards. Seven of the 12 par-4s are 467 yards or longer. It also features 4-1/2 to 7-1/2 inch rough and green speeds around 13 on the Stimpmeter.
With a hand-picked panel of Winged Foot insiders and experts, I'm breaking down the swing holes that will determine the championship.
Hole 1 - Par 4, 451 yards, “Genesis”
A.W. Tillinghast was not a believer in letting someone have a break or a warm-up on the opening hole. Instead, he intended the opening hole of every one of his golf courses to be a “Statement of Place,” revealing the course’s identity, its soul, from the first tee.
While the opening hole at Winged Foot is not outstandingly long, it wakes you up with a thunderclap. If you did not fully understand how critical it was to be in the fairway or on the correct segment of the green, you will after either 1) having to chop out of the rough, 2) having to two-putt from 50 feet over a ridge or 3) playing back up the false front that you failed to carry on your approach. No matter what, you're scrambling right out of the gate.
The first green in particular is, perhaps, the fiercest on the course with the false front sending balls scurrying balls 40-50 yards back down the fairway. Jack Nicklaus’s 1974 U.S. Open ended there on the first day. He putted off the green from above the hole and had to pitch back on, ultimately carding a double-bogey 6.
“No question, No. 1 is not just the scariest green on the course, it’s one of the most dangerous greens in life. If you’re above that pin, you’re done,” explained well-decorated amateur champion Parker Smith of Tennessee.
Smith is a three-time Anderson Memorial fourball champion at Winged Foot, which is the de facto world championship of fourball golf, as for over 80 years Winged Foot has hosted the globe’s best two-man teams for a four-day competition held on both West and East courses.
“You may have a short iron in your hands for the approach, but that doesn’t matter,” Smith continued. “If you miss the green you could be 50 yards away from the hole.”
Hole 3 – Par 3, 243 yards, “Pinnacle”
You heard the scuttlebutt correctly. The hazards around the par-3 third green are so deep and dangerous, golfers are considering laying up, pitching on and playing for par the hard way.
“It's definitely a hole where you cannot go long, and a lot of times we're going to have yardages where we're in between clubs and we're always going to hit the shorter club just to be short,” explained 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson.
“I hit a shot today, I couldn't quite get my 3-iron hybrid there, but I still didn't want to hit a 5-wood long, so I hit it and I was five yards short of the green. Perfect. I'm not going to purposefully lay up, but I will purposefully try to hit it short of the hole to the front pins. If I miss the green short, that's fine. I think if you make two pars and two bogeys there, you're with the field or beating the field.”
The idea is not new. Billy Casper laid up all four days in the 1959 Open here at Winged Foot and made par each time en route to a one-shot victory over Bob Rosburg. It is however, anathema to the soul of any long bomber to seemingly retreat in such a cringe-inducing way. Still, it will provide no end of entertainment to the viewing public.
Hole 6 – Par 4, 321 yards, “El”
The shortest par 4 on the course will yield some birdies and maybe even a eagle or two, but there’s danger lurking in this pint-sized little garden gnome of a hole.
Not only does a deep bunker protect the right of the green, but they shaved down the greenside bank on the left and extended the edge of the nearby pond so overly aggressive long drives might roll into the hazard. It’s also the narrowest fairway on the golf course. Try for a birdie or take your par and skedaddle? This small, but strategy-rich hole punches far above its weight when it comes to providing excitement.
Hole 9 - Par 5-565 yards, “Meadow”
This hole played as a gigantic 506 yard par-4 for previous U.S. Opens, and the fifth hole remained a par 5, but the USGA switched the pars on these two holes because they could lengthen the ninth with a new tee box but couldn’t lengthen the fifth. So the fifth is now a 502-yard par 4, but with a green well-suited to receive a shot with a long club.
The ninth is now a par 5, befitting a green that was designed to catch wedge shots. Besides the short sixth, this is the best chance for a birdie on the West course.
Hole 10 – Par 3, 214 yards, “Pulpit”
Ben Hogan said it was like hitting a 3-iron into some guy’s bedroom, and he’s right. That’s about as much room as you have on this par 3. The bunkers are seven to eight feet below the level of the playing surface, and the segmented green demands laser-precision putting to escape with a par. That’s one of the greatest architectural lessons that Winged Foot teaches us. Just because par 3s are short holes does not mean they are meant to be pushovers. And sometimes, at the greatest courses, they can even be the flagships.
Hole 16 – Par 4, 498 yards, “Hell’s Bells”
“The finishing stretch is demanding and relentless and no hole requires better shotmaking than 16,” stated Steve Smyers, another Anderson contestant of great repute.
Runner-up in 2013 with his college-age son Scottie, the pair fired a 63 on that Saturday, including a birdie-birdie-birdie finish to close out the round. Smyers is also a prominent golf course architect with Isleworth, Old Memorial and France’s Evian Masters courses among his diverse portfolio which spans every continent on the globe except Antarctica.
“You have to hit your tee shot right to left or else it might run through the fairway, and you also have to get it out to the corner or you’re blocked out by trees. Uphill all the way to a narrow green, it could be as little as 50% of the field hit that green in regulation,” he concluded.
Parker Smith agreed: “16 is the most difficult hole on the golf course. It’s a murderous approach.”
Hole 18 – Par 4 469 yards, “Revelations”
A great 18th hole is a summation of all that came before, demanding your best drive of the day and your best approach.
“The whole course builds to this crescendo,” writes restoration architect Gil Hanse who oversaw the remarkable work at both the West and East courses, and he’s right.
But the adventure doesn’t end with the tee shot. The green is a shaped like a potato chip, with curled edges and deep hollows. Hockey games break out on it with alarming frequency, usually at the most pressure-filled moments. We all saw what happened in 2006 to Hall-of-Fame name after Hall-of-Fame name, but even at events like the Anderson, where the best amateurs in world have gathered, you can still watch people four- and five-putt that green.
Watch for the pin to be placed dangerously close to the edge of the false front one day and in a tiny bowl in the upper left quadrant on another. The USGA usually places the Sunday pin where it was in 1929 when Bobby Jones made what sports writer Grantland Rice called “The Greatest Putt in History” to tie Al Espinosa and force a playoff the following day which Jones won handily.