News & Opinion

U.S. Open contenders must ‘take their medicine’

Adam Hadwin at 2020 U.S. Open
Canada’s Adam Hadwin finds that the rough is no place to be during a practice round Tuesday at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Winged Foot promises a rough round for errant drivers, so a premium on accuracy will be rewarded this week

MAMARONECK, N.Y. – A golf course’s reputation often is built on the architect who designed the track and the champions who have won major titles on its grounds.

So, the fact that the great A.W. Tillinghast created Winged Foot Golf Club’s original West Course in 1923 and Bobby Jones won the first U.S. Open here, in 1929, provides a substantial pedigree.

But Winged Foot has earned its reputation as a beast, starting in 1974, when Hale Irwin won with a 7-over 287 score at what came to be known as the “Massacre at Winged Foot.”

The moniker stuck after New York sportswriter Dick Schaap wrote a book by that title about the grueling event.

In a newspaper article on the Monday after Irwin won what would be his first of three in the national championships, Winged Foot was described as not a test of golf but a test of sanity, with 18 holes of silent screaming.

Of course, that was 46 years ago, and the world of professional golf has changed considerably. This week will be like going back in time for some of the competitors old enough to remember the harsh, almost-dictatorial setups of the USGA’s past national championships.

In those days, a missed fairway could be a crapshoot, with a golfer left hoping for a lie that might let him advance the ball down the fairway. Otherwise, the alternative is merely to pitch out into the fairway.

This week, Winged Foot will be the most traditional U.S. Open setting since Dustin Johnson won at Oakmont in 2016. Johnson, who is No. 1 in the world ranking and recently was named the PGA Tour’s player of the year, noted one key difference between the New York and Pennsylvania clubs: Winged Foot has trees.

Scotland's Connor Syme at 2020 U.S. Open
Scotland’s Connor Syme gouges an errant drive out of the rough during a practice round Tuesday at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

“The U.S. Open, you've got to drive it straight, especially at this golf course,” said Johnson, who won the Northern Trust and Tour Championship in two of his past three starts. “You have to hit the fairways. And then once you hit the fairways, it doesn't get much easier from there.”

Length on the PGA Tour has been hugely beneficial in recent years as the average drive approaches 300 yards. The shorter hitters must try to add length or perfecting other parts of their game to try to compete.

This week, accuracy will be rewarded more than at some other U.S. Open venues, where the premium on finding the fairway was diminished.

“D.J. [Johnson] and I played yesterday, and there's just a lot of holes we were hitting driver and 2-iron on the same holes that are 500 yards because it doesn't matter, if you're not in the fairway,” defending champion Gary Woodland said. “You're probably better off with a 4-iron from the middle of the fairway than you are a 7-iron from the rough because you're not going to be able to advance that 7-iron to the green.”

In 1995, Corey Pavin won his only major championship at Shinnecock Hills after hitting a 4-wood into the 72ndhole, a 450-yard par 4, during Sunday’s final round, proving that a short hitter can win against the game’s bombers.

Though a 4-wood likely will not be necessary into Winged Foot’s par-4 18thhole which measures 469 yards, the length of clubs used for the second shot into many of these greens could range from hybrids to 4- and 5-irons, a considerably different test than what these players see weekly on the PGA Tour.

“There's lies that you know you're just going to have to wedge it out, and that's why I say you've got to take your medicine,” PGA champion Collin Morikawa said. “You're going to hear that all week. Guys that are going to play well are going to take their medicine and scramble really well. That's just the way this course is going to play out.”

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