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Today’s edition dives into Winged Foot Golf Club, host of the 2020 U.S. Open.
Winged Foot Golf Club
Architect: A.W. Tillinghast, 1923
Restoration: Gil Hanse, 2015
Events: 1929 U.S. Open (Played on the West Course), 1940 U.S. Amateur (West), 1957 U.S. Women’s Open (1957), 1959 U.S. Open (West), 1972 U.S. Women’s Open (East), 1974 U.S. Open (West), 1980 U.S. Senior Open (East), 1984 U.S. Open (West),1997 PGA Championship (West), 2004 U.S. Amatuer (Both), 2006 U.S. Open
There are two golf courses at Winged Foot, both designed by A.W. Tillinghast. While the East Course has a great reputation in its own right, the West Course is often called Tillinghast’s masterpiece and will be this weekend’s venue. “There isn’t a single hole on either [course] that wouldn’t fit perfectly on the other,” says Neil Regan. “The two courses are intentionally designed to be 36 holes. Any hole could be played as if it was part of the other course.”
Members take that notion to heart, regularly jumping between the courses during casual afternoon rounds. Still, according to Regan, there is an undisputed best stretch at Winged Foot. “There is no doubt the back nine on the West is a perfect 10. That’s definitely the best nine on the property.”
Regan acknowledges that most members play the East more than the West, especially around tournament time. The East is simply less demanding. But both courses have hosted major championships and elite amateur events. This week’s U.S. Open will be the sixth held at Winged Foot. Only Oakmont and Baltusrol have hosted more.
While both courses are renowned for their architectural quality, they weren’t at full strength for much of the 20th century. Like many clubs, Winged Foot struggled during the Great Depression of the 1930s. “The Depression had caused [Winged Foot] to seriously cut back on staff,” says Regan. “[Workers] were given orders to mow greens as quick as you can, so they would mow them in circles, more or less.” The fairways also shrunk over time, especially as centerline irrigation systems were introduced.
In recent years, members warmed to the idea of restoring the two courses to their original glory. Gil Hanse was hired to oversee the project, and he completed overhauls of both courses in 2015. Green edges were pushed back out, fairway lines altered, bunkers reshaped, and sight lines and contours brought back. “We had the original contours of the ground in 95% of the cases, and you can trace the contours of those bunkers fifty yards back,” Regan says. “They look like they rose out of the ground.”
Given the West Course’s role as a championship test and a U.S. Open host, Hanse knew that the fairways could not be widened too much. “Gil realized we were going to keep relatively narrow fairways, but we have a 50-yard wide corridor to choose where that [fairway] width is,” Regan explains. “No. 2 West is a perfect example. Instead of keeping the same fairway width, [Gil] said, ‘Why don’t we shift it over to the left half of the original fairway’—meaning it’s more of a dogleg right. It’s a lot harder to cut the corner. The current fairway line is the left half of the original fairway line, as opposed to the dead center of the original fairway line.”
In this way, Hanse’s work at Winged Foot, like much of what he has done at Golden Age courses recently, is an example of his attempt to balance the dueling imperatives of historic restoration and championship renovation.
The aspect of Winged Foot West’s design that you will hear most about this weekend is the greens and their surrounds. “If I have contributed one thing to golf course architecture,” Tillinghast once said, “I think it’s this: the notion that the approach to the green should be designed and maintained with as much care and intelligence as the green itself.”
Nowhere is that sentiment truer than at Winged Foot. “Almost every green has a bunker that’s not in play off the tee and not really in play as you approach the green,” Regan notes. “[The bunkers] are 40, 50, 60 yards short. Sometimes even on a par 3. That was [Tillinghast’s] gateway to the green. Everything past that point is a part of the green—as he called it, the ‘semi-green’ or ‘the approach.’ If you take any contour on any green at Winged Foot and you follow it out into the fairway, the green doesn’t end because the contour continues out into the fairway. Tillinghast was proud of that.”
Sam Horsfield, two-time winner on the European Tour this summer, tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of the U.S. Open and is the second player to be forced to withdraw from the event. Horsfield tweeted that he tested negative prior to flying to Winged Foot but received a positive result once in the States.
For more on the diabolical greens at Winged Foot, watch our video on YouTube featuring Gil Hanse and ’06 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.
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