Approaching the Unpinnable

Why the greens at Winged Foot West are great


“I wish we played a course like this every week. We’d learn how to putt.” -Jack Nicklaus at the 1974 U.S. Open

People often describe the greens at the West Course at Winged Foot Golf Club as treacherous, or scary, or beautiful. I would call them enduring.

Designed by A.W. Tillinghast in 1923, the greens at Winged Foot West are the definition of severe. Getting up and down from around them is very difficult, which puts a premium on precise approach shots. Also, the greens have an abundance of unpinnable surface: the false fronts, back wings, and sideboards make short-sided misses a nightmare and reward creative pitches and chips.

These features make Winged Foot a great course in spite of its geographical shortcomings (rocky slate soil and relatively bland topography) and have helped it endure the onslaught of advances in equipment technology. Nearly 100 years into its life, Winged Foot West is still one of the world’s great championship tests.

The 5th green at Winged Foot West. Photo credit: Andy Johnson

The U.S. Open last visited Winged Foot in 2006, when Geoff Ogilvy won at 5-over. Since then, the players have picked up yet more technological aids. This will be the first time that the world’s best male players will take on the bold, sloping Tillinghast greens with the help of green-reading books that will show them every intricate contour. Winged Foot’s counter will be its restoration, finished by Hanse Golf Course Design in 2015. Gil Hanse enlarged the West Course’s greens by 23.8%, regaining tucked pins not seen since the 1920s and increasing unpinnable surface, which drives the strategy of the course.

Winged Foot West’s strategy is best understood from the greens backwards. It’s all about knowing whether or not you are in position to approach certain pins. Of course, for the most part, Winged Foot is a test of execution. The fairways are narrow and lined with thick rough and deep dunkers. But players who walk the course backwards and figure out where they can and can’t attack certain greens will stand the best chance of avoiding those zero-penalty-stroke double bogeys, which the West Course is famous for inflicting. At this week’s U.S. Open, recovery shots will be more about getting back into a position to make par or bogey rather than pulling off a heroic shot for a chance at birdie.

The 17th green at Winged Foot West. Photo credit: Andy Johnson

Gil Hanse’s restoration of the greens adds a new dimension. When we last saw the West Course host the U.S. Open in ’06, the greens were shadows of their original selves. They had shrunk, and many of their pronounced corners and fronts had been covered in rough. While often unpinnable, these contours on the edges of the greens produce the theatrics that make Winged Foot truly compelling. The severe grades, often above 10%, punish not only approaches from bad positions but also marginal shots from good positions.

Hanse and his team brought back a considerable amount of pinnable surface as well. In the graphic below, provided by Winged Foot Golf Club, you can see that the expansion of the 15th green boosted the average slope by 14% but also increased the amount of pinnable area by 43%.

Courtesy of Winged Foot Golf Club

The 15th green at Winged Foot West. Photo credit: Andy Johnson

What does all of this mean? Simply that there are now more options for pins and more contours to bedevil shots from poor angles. Unlike at many PGA Tour stops, where any pin on a grade of more than 1% is frowned upon, there will be many putts at Winged Foot that turn hard at the hole. There will be short-sided pitches that bound forward after landing on the recaptured unpinnable sections. On the flip side, there will also be shots, played from the right positions, that use the same contours to funnel the ball closer to the pin. Basically, these greens will reward players who keep a clear head and pay attention to the ground.

There’s an important takeaway for the golf world here. It’s time to embrace undulating greens rather than calling them “unfair” or “Mickey Mouse,” or making the same tired joke about how “all that’s missing is a windmill.” Winged Foot West’s greens are what made the course interesting and challenging in the 1920s, and what will continue to make it interesting and challenging in the 2020s. Yes, they’re playing a lot faster now—probably faster than they should—but their essence has endured. At many modern courses, on the other hand, the greens already seem dated, partly because they don’t have the courage to be wild.

The 1st green at Winged Foot West. Photo credit: Andy Johnson

So next time you find yourself on a crazy green with a long putt and a slim chance of par, try not to think, “This is dumb.” Instead, look back at the rest of the hole and consider how you got where you are.