When asked where Winged Foot ranks among the professional golf courses he’s played in his career, Tiger Woods smiled and chuckled.
“I think it’s right up there next to Oakmont and I think Carnoustie as far as just sheer difficulty without even doing anything to it.” Woods said to reporters in his pre-tournament media availability. “This one or Oakmont here is either one or two.”
Not every course is associated with the word “Massacre.”
Winged Foot is…twice.
In 1974, Hale Irwin won the U.S. Open shooting a 7-over-par finishing score. To this day, it remains the highest 72-hole score to win a major championship. This tournament is known in golf folklore as “The Massacre at Winged Foot.”
The sequel to the Massacre came in 2006, the last time the U.S. Open took place at Winged Foot. Geoff Ogilvy survived to capture his lone major championship, with a 5-over winning score. Most famously, however, were those golfers Ogilvy beat to win the U.S. Open, including six-time runner up Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, and Colin Montgomerie.
Beauty and beast.
Winged Foot GC is a classic U.S. Open test. pic.twitter.com/65DusnLw9n
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 15, 2020
Only two majors in PGA Tour history were won by players who did not break par in any of their four rounds. It happens to be the aforementioned 1974 and 2006 U.S. Opens, both at Winged Foot. With four of the five U.S. Opens held at Winged Foot producing an over-par winning score, it demonstrates the course’s punitive difficulty across generations.
“It seems very, very hard, one of the harder ones I’ve ever played,” 2020 FedEx Cup Champion and World No. 1 Dustin Johnson said. “But it’s fair. There’s nothing real tricky about it. You have to hit good shots.”
Designed by A.W. Tillinghast, Winged Foot hosted its first U.S. Open in 1929. Even with changes to the course after the 2006 U.S. Open, it still remains penal as ever.
Many of the holes contain narrow fairways, requiring golfers to be precise in their shot selection. Avoiding the long grass is vital since the heavy rough makes it very difficult for golfers to get their approach shots to the green. 2020 PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa is aware of this, even with playing just 9 holes in a practice round on Tuesday.
“I threw some balls in just walking down the fairways,” Morikawa said. “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.”
In addition to the tight fairways, Winged Foot boasts its undulating greens. The unique shapes to the greens lead to profound slopes, making the placement of iron shots important. Depending on where an approach shot lands, it can lead to long birdie putts, creating difficult up and downs for par. It’s no wonder 1959 U.S. Open champion Billy Casper laid up on every tee shot on the par-3 third hole, en route to his championship victory.
“You can be pin high and not have a putt at the hole. That’s just how tough this course is,” Morikawa said. “You have to know where to hit it.”
While “hard” and “challenging” are apt descriptions of Winged Foot, other golfers are embracing the challenge. When asked about his thoughts on the golf course, World No. 3 Justin Thomas described Winged Foot as “fun.”
“I absolutely love it,” Thomas said. “It’s probably one of my favourites I’ve ever played, to be honest. It’s hard, so it’s a different kind of fun, but it is fun. You need to play well and have control of your golf ball, otherwise you’re going to get pretty exposed.”
2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy echoed these sentiments, particularly in comparing Winged Foot to the other monster championship golf course, Oakmont.
“Something would have to go seriously wrong to get into the realms of goofy golf,” McIlroy said. “Oakmont is a wonderful golf course, but I think Oakmont setup normally is right about on the edge, and if you just go a little further, then that can start to get a little goofy, where here it doesn’t seem like that can happen. Certainly if you get it way too firm and you get some crosswinds and stuff, it can get pretty dicey, but from what I’ve seen yesterday and today, I expect that not to happen.”
The strategies will vary for the golfers in the field. There’s some like defending U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, who value precision and accuracy. Others like Jon Rahm will mix driver and with a 3-wood. There’s no doubt Bryson DeChambeau will try to swing it as hard as possible to maximize distance.
As time separates Winged Foot’s last exposure on the U.S. Open stage, change in golf has occurred. The distance has increased. Technology has shifted.
Despite this, Winged Foot remains the ultimate test. And the winner on Sunday, will no doubt have to battle not just their own mental battles but the demands of an illustrious golf course forever etched into the annals of U.S. Open history.