U.S. Open: Winged Foot is a monument to golf, curated by lovers of the game

MAMARONECK – When the imposing stone clubhouse was constructed in the early 1920s, the builders, Smith and Leo, left Winged Foot Golf Club a gift: Leo the Lion, a large, snarling sculpture that guards the building’s front entrance.

That fierce protector, baring his teeth while overlooking the now-historic club’s circular driveway, was stolen in the middle of the night 28 years ago — before security cameras were installed to keep watch.

Winged Foot quickly commissioned a replica and the new Leo, with his paws affixed to the portico around him, is practically immovable now. Even so, according to longtime general manager Colin Burns, the club still purchases a full-page ad every year with Art Recovery International asking for any information related to the original’s whereabouts.

As that story indicates, no effort is spared to craft, cultivate or curate the history and traditions at the site of this year’s U.S. Open.

Winged Foot has spent recent years carefully restoring its 97-year-old clubhouse and many decades preserving its place in golf. The 2020 version will be the sixth men’s Open on the West Course, which has also hosted a PGA Championship, two U.S. Amateurs and a U.S. Senior Open.

The East Course had the U.S. Women’s Open twice.

The clubhouse at Winged Foot which will host the 2020 U.S. Open. (Frank Becerra Jr./ The Journal News)

“If you just walk through there very quickly, you get a sense of the history of Winged Foot and the history of the game,” said member Robert Williams, who became a junior member in 1986 and now sits on its Board of Governors. “That is always first and foremost. You’re not awed by all the trappings. It’s, ‘There’s the golf ball Bobby Jones played in 1929. There’s a picture of Babe Ruth.’ It captures all of that.”

And that’s no accident.

Just consider the artifacts displayed in the clubhouse hallway. They include an 80-percent replica of the U.S. Open trophy, and highlight various momentos from key moments in past Winged Foot championships.

Winged Foot will host the U.S. Open Sept. 17-20.

A display case in the lobby of the clubhouse at Winged Foot Golf Club Sept. 1, 2020. (Frank Becerra Jr./ The Journal News)

Some of the most rare artifacts are Bobby Jones and Al Espinosa’s scorecards from the 36-hole playoff in the 1929 Open, an event Jones won just six years after the club opened. The scorecards were found in someone’s desk drawer in Georgia and Winged Foot paid “a small fortune,” Burns said, to win them at auction.

But the purchase stayed true to the membership’s mission, which has long been dedicated to honoring the game’s history on its grounds.

“I view myself as a steward, a steward in a long line of other stewards that have taken over the club and really carried on that tradition,” said Bryan Marsal, who has been a member since 1976 and now serves as the club’s U.S. Open chairman.

The 18th green at Winged Foot Golf Club. (Frank Becerra Jr./ The Journal News)

A golf club first

Having hosted five previous U.S. Opens, four of which have resulted in a winning score over par, the West Course has traditionally been considered one of the most challenging in golf. Neither course was designed for the weekend golfer in mind.

“I think from time to time you heard that debate about what golf club has the most single-digit handicaps,” said Brian Devaney, a member for 40 years who serves on the club’s golf and tournament committee. “I think Winged Foot is always mentioned about one of the ones near the top. There are tons of single-digit handicaps and a lot of competitive players — guys who played in college and who have played in amateur events in the area. That’s a big part of the tradition of Winged Foot.”

So was the lack of set tee times, a tradition that ended (for the meantime) this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The club decided tee times would limit the number of players congregating near the first tee on both courses.

Prior to this year, games had been scheduled by placing a ball — one per group — on the back of the first tee box. It wouldn’t matter who placed the ball where. Even the most prestigious members waited their turn.

“If we had this conversation a year ago, I would have said the one thing that we’ll guard with our lives is no tee times. Yet here we are,” Devaney said.

On some weekends — especially if one course or the other was hosting a club tournament — there could be 10 or 12 golf balls, which, at roughly 10-minute intervals, meant a two-hour wait to play.

“And you couldn’t put a ball down until all of your group was on the premises,” Devaney said.

Whether Winged Foot returns to that tradition in post-pandemic remains to be seen, but members believe those special touches helped create a culture of golf over status.

“You could be out with members here and you’re not talking about deals you’re making on Wall Street or issues outside of the world of golf,” said NBC’s lead golf announcer Dan Hicks, who has been a member for 10 years. “You’re talking about, ‘Man, I hit a shot at 10 yesterday and got up and down from here. It was so good.’ It’s all about the golf.

“There are so many good players, too, but it’s not stodgy at all. Sometimes you can feel intimidated going to a club and you kind of walk on eggshells a little. Here there’s a definite importance of tradition, but you don’t feel like you’re tiptoeing around.”

The legendary grill room at Winged Foot Golf Club. (Frank Becerra Jr./ The Journal News)

It’s in the details

The clubhouse restoration that occurred two years ago was intended to amplify that atmosphere, harkening back to the club’s beginnings.

The East Room, a lounge with a fireplace and bar, has exemplified that with great pains taken to match the original 1923 design. A local painter revived tired beams on the ceiling by repainting the original stenciling etched into them. The original windows, which were built and shipped from Great Britain, were repaired rather than replaced.

Even the original doorknobs of the hallway restrooms were removed, sent to the manufacturer and restored.

“It’s a small detail, but the type of detail that was important to us,” Burns said.

Down the hall in the famed grill room, the original tables and chairs still greet golfers settling bets and sharing pints after a round. There are several wood plaques on the walls overhead with winners of the Anderson Memorial, club championships and other traditional events.

And the old, dark wooden walls are lit by chandeliers where the restoration highlighted iron work in the shape of clubs and light fixtures designed to resemble golf balls.

“I’m biased as all get out when it comes to Winged Foot. I have a lot of great friends there. I just love the place, but Winged Foot has the best grill room in America,” said Curtis Strange, now a golf commentator who won the 1988 and 1989 Opens. “It’s the best. Winged Foot has so much tradition. It’s a place where the greatest in the game have played.”

The men’s locker room at Winged Foot Golf Club. (Frank Becerra Jr./ The Journal News)

And played after changing into spikes in the original two-story locker room. That space was central to the club’s renovations when, at the overwhelming request of the membership, all 600 steel men’s lockers were sanded down and refinished. Even the bronze handles, which had turned black over the years, were removed and restored.

Burns said the project created “a mess” two winters ago, but one the members considered more than worthwhile.

The rattling steel part is of Winged Foot’s soundtrack.

“I think if a founding member came back 100 years later,” Williams said, “they’d probably feel pretty much at home.”

The original hardware on the lockers inside the men’s locker room at Winged Foot Golf Club. (Frank Becerra Jr./ The Journal News)

Unchanged by time

And Williams would almost know. Not only did his family first join in 1959, he eventually inherited his dad’s locker. But past and present often intersect at Winged Foot, which will watch today’s best players face largely the same challenges at this year’s Open that Jones faced in 1929.

From the standpoint of the players, the West Course has remained largely unchanged outside of a few new tee boxes, tree removal and green complexes restored to their original size and shape.

“There’s not much of a push for change here,” Devaney said. “I think everybody really gets into the environment of rich tradition of golf and golf excellence. The opportunity to host the Open again reinforced that. The number of members who vote in favor of the event speaks loudly to that. I think we feel an obligation to host. How many courses in the country can say it’s essentially the same course as when Bobby Jones won it in 1929?”

The members point to this year’s Open as the latest opportunity to prove that the course they play can still befuddle the game’s best. They insist the conditions are largely unchanged now outside of the USGA’s preferred longer, thicker rough.

Winged Foot doesn’t adjust, the players do.

“We love to showcase the place,” club president Brendan Boyle said. “It is our legacy and every member who is here has wonderful memories and stories of the championships they’ve been to.”

The club, which was founded in 1921, began with the intention of creating those memories. Today’s Winged Foot endures by preserving them.

The public might believe that it’s architect A.W. Tillinghast’s courses that have conquered time, but Winged Foot was built to last.

“You see that massive clubhouse built of stone,” Williams said. “I think you see that and it’s obvious the founding members of Winged Foot planned on being there a while.”

Josh Thomson is the Local Sports Editor for The Journal News and Poughkeepsie Journal. He can be reached by e-mail at jthomson@lohud.com, on Twitter at @lohudinsider, and on Instagram at @lohudinsider.

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