Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 20, 2020

As Old As Golf, As New As A Headline

Winged Foot. The mere mention of the name has always sent competing shivers of anticipation and dread down the spines of golfers, for of all the venues used by the United State Golf Association to host the USGA’s various national championships, none has historically been so consistently difficult as the private club tucked in amongst suburban neighborhoods in the hills overlooking the New York village of Mamaroneck, just a short commuter train ride from Grand Central.

The golf club was founded almost a century ago by members of Manhattan’s New York Athletic Club who were looking to expand the organization’s offerings beyond those available in the heart of Gotham. Twin eighteen-hole layouts were routed by the prolific A.W. Tillinghast, the famed American course architect whose more than 250 designs included at least nine in Westchester County alone. While both the East and West courses at Winged Foot are stern tests, it is the West course, with its 75.7 rating and slope index of 141, that has been the site of most of the important tournaments played on the club’s grounds. Restored to Tillinghast’s original contours by designer Gil Hanse in 2018, Winged Foot West is a classic reminder of the heyday of parkland courses. Narrow, tree-lined fairways demand precision off the tee, and what appear to be large and inviting greens are heavily sloped, often with false fronts, both features that reduce expansive putting surfaces to tiny targets for a player aiming to have an approach shot finish near the hole.

The U.S. Open first came to the West Course in 1929, when Bobby Jones claimed the third of his four Open trophies in a playoff after finishing four rounds at 6-over par. Since then the men’s national championship was contested at Winged Foot on four other occasions before this week, most recently in 2006. The club has also hosted two U.S. Women’s Opens and two U.S. Amateur Championships, as well as the 1980 U.S. Senior Open and 1997 PGA Championship. Out of all of those tournaments, only twice was the winning score below par, and one of those times was David Love III’s win at the ’97 PGA, with a course setup less punishing than that typically prepared by the USGA.

Winged Foot’s difficulty first gained broad notoriety at the 1974 U.S. Open. Before Hale Irwin eventually prevailed with a 7-over par total, many of the players in the field complained bitterly about the high rough and narrow fairways. The carping led to the famous retort by Sandy Tatum, then responsible for the course setup and later president of the USGA, who said “we’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the world. We’re trying to identify them.” It was on display again in 2006, when massive galleries did their best to will Phil Mickelson to victory over a scorching hot final weekend. But Mickelson’s driver betrayed him in the final round when he sprayed tee shots around the property. His last miss was on the final hole, where a par would have meant victory and even a bogey would have been good enough for a playoff. Instead his drive sailed left into the trees, where it bounced off a hospitality tent. One double bogey later, Mickelson had one of his six runner-up U.S. Open finishes.

The expectation among both players and fans was that Winged Foot would once again prove daunting when the Open returned to the West Course’s fairways for the sixth time this week, three months later than originally scheduled and without fans in attendance, both because of the pandemic. And that proved to be true for most players in the field, or at least it did after an opening round on Thursday in which the venerable old course played surprisingly easy.

But websites and sports pages are not filled with stories about most players in the field. Headlines are understandably reserved for winners, so the narrative of the moment for golf fans, in the wake of Bryson DeChambeau’s six shot victory, is going to be how raw power has forever changed the ancient game of golf, and how venerable layouts, even ones as mighty as Winged Foot, will soon be relegated to the scrapheap. That’s because, as all golf fans know by now, DeChambeau spent last winter and the subsequent pandemic layoff bulking up by forty pounds and retooling his driver swing. The resultant obvious difference in appearance and climb up the driving distance rankings, along with his heavily promoted brand as a golfing iconoclast applying scientific principles that are beyond the comprehension of other players, created the illusion that DeChambeau is doing something unprecedented. Add a minus-6 total for four rounds at Winged Foot, and the new narrative is off and running. Perhaps time will prove that outlook correct, but like many reactions in the moment, this one just might turn out to be made up of as much hysteria as fact.

That very real possibility can’t diminish DeChambeau’s impressive performance. He didn’t shoot a single round over par, with a level par 70 on Saturday his highest score of the week. On Sunday, when the field returned seven scores of 80 or higher and only four at par or better, DeChambeau’s 3-under 67 was the only one in the “or better” category. Those are numbers that will lead to a trophy presentation at any U.S. Open venue and are particularly praiseworthy at one as tough as this year’s.

He was almost certainly helped competitively when 54-hole leader Matt Wolff ran into trouble early. Two bogeys in the first five holes by the 21-year-old playing in just his second major, along with DeChambeau’s birdie at the par-4 4th hole, quickly turned a two shot deficit into a one stroke lead for the more experienced pursuer. Then, the 2020 U.S. Open turned on the reachable par-5 9th hole. Both DeChambeau and Wolff were on in two, but the latter had a much closer look at eagle and seemingly a great chance to move into a tie with the inward nine still to play. Instead DeChambeau rolled in his forty-footer first, the eagle-3 leaving Wolff stuck in second even after he converted his own putt.

But for all the awe repeatedly expressed by the NBC announcers, DeChambeau was not in a class by himself in the power game. In fact, he ranked seventh in driving distance, a stat that was led by Dustin Johnson. Wolff, Rory McIlroy, and Jon Rahm, among others, also ranked higher than DeChambeau. He was certainly driving the ball stunningly far, just not far ahead of all his fellow competitors. Similarly, while the assertion that the power game so shortens the course that accuracy no longer matters has merit, it too is anything but new. The popular perception is that finding the rough is ruinous at the Open. But a total of 186 golfers have finished in the top five over the last thirty men’s U.S. Opens, and only twenty of those players, barely more than ten percent, also ranked in the top five for driving accuracy. DeChambeau’s method is different, and perhaps not very healthy, but neither his goal nor the results are unique.

Just like the foursome of hackers teeing it up at the local muni on a weekend morning, every Tour pro is always looking for more distance, and even at the U.S. Open with its typically penal rough is willing to trade accuracy for an extra helping of length. Courses like Winged Foot and Oakmont and even little Merion have withstood the onslaught so far, and are likely to continue to do so, even after Bryson DeChambeau’s performance this week. Especially since he delivered the knockout blow on the 9th green not with the longest club in his bag, but with the shortest.


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