As is regular practice, Gary Woodland was chipping balls out of thick rough during his initial prep at Winged Foot ahead of this week’s U.S. Open. But as his caddie, Brennan Little, retrieved the golf balls and tossed them back to Woodland on Saturday, something became amiss as the defending champion tried to get a gauge on the issue at hand.
“We lost a ball for about five minutes and it was right in front of me,” the defending champion said. “We didn’t find it until we stepped on it.
“There was talk of not having marshals the first couple practice rounds. The practice rounds would have been 10 hours out here trying to find golf balls.”
Welcome to the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, where, to properly set the stage for the 120th playing of the national championship, one must address the stage — the West Course in Mamaroneck, New York, some 25 miles from the heart of Manhattan.
The particulars? Designed by A.W. Tillinghast and restored by Gil Hanse, the course tips out at 7,477 yards and plays to a par of 70, with one par-3 at 243 yards, two par-4s longer than 500 yards, and one par-5 breaking the 630-yard barrier.
The history? In five previous editions of the U.S. Open on the West Course, only two of the more than 700 players finished 72 holes under par (take a bow, 1984 champion Fuzzy Zoeller and runner-up Greg Norman). The last winner, Geoff Ogilvy in 2006, won at 5 over. In the 1974 U.S. Open, dubbed the Massacre at Winged Foot, Hale Irwin won at 7 over.
“The golf course is big,” Woodland said. “It’s hard. But I think that’s what you expect when you come to a major championship and especially a U.S. Open.”
“It depends on how difficult (the U.S. Golf Association) want to set up these pins, give us a chance at it,” three-time U.S. Open champion Tiger Woods said. “But with the forecast, it’s going to be difficult no matter what. This golf course is going to be one of the more difficult ones.”
“It’s sort of like in boxing where Mike Tyson said everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. It’s the same thing here,” world No. 2 Jon Rahm said. “We all have a plan, but if you hit it sideways, you got to figure it out.”
In other words, seems like some good old fashioned U.S. Open carnage is on hand for the 144 players in the field starting with Thursday’s first round. An 18-hole migraine headache, if you will. What else is to be expected considering the dense rough – six inches and even higher in some places – that will leave egos, wrists and scorecards bruised? The skeleton fairways? The massive, sloping greens that are mindful of the smaller, wickedly difficult putting surfaces at Augusta National?
With the tournament postponed three months due to COVID-19, the West Course was a tad on the soft side on the eve of the championship. But to a man, everyone expects the layout to firm up, especially the putting surfaces, and become a daytime nightmare.
“This place tests every single aspect of your game, so I don’t think I could single out the toughest thing that you need to do or the hardest thing you’re going to have to do this week,” four-time major winner Rory McIlroy said. “It’s all pretty tough.”
But fair, the players say, with even-par 270 a prophesied winning score to chase. McIlroy, for instance, doesn’t expect the course to descend into “goofy” golf. There are no tricks to the track; the confrontation is right in front of you (even if it looks like a dark alley).
“You’ve just got to step up and hit good shots,” Woodland said. “I don’t think the USGA is going to get too crazy. The golf course is hard enough.”
To the point that a recurring refrain will be called upon by the players this week – take your medicine, whether you’re in the rough off the fairway or near a green; deep in one of the yawning bunkers; or facing a 50-footer with 10-feet of break. Pars are your friend. So, too, are some bogeys.
“It just comes to mental strength, right, who can endure the most and who can endure until the end,” Rahm said. “It’s that simple.”
“Where’s the easiest next putt from and where is the easiest next shot from?” McIlroy said. “There’s a lot of thinking ahead on this golf course.”
“You’ve got to drive it straight, especially at this golf course,” said world No. 1 and 2016 U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson. “You have to hit fairways. But once you hit fairways, it doesn’t get much easier from there.”
In all, doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. Well, it doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun everyone except world No. 3 Justin Thomas.
“I absolutely love,” the course, Thomas said. “It’s probably one of my favorites I’ve ever played, to be honest. It’s hard, so it’s a different kind of fun, but it is fun.
“It’s not a 20-, 25-under kind of fun. It’s a U.S. Open. You know it’s going to be tough, and you know par is a really, really good score.
“I’m not going into this week scared of Winged Foot. It is probably the hardest golf course I’ve ever played. But that being said, I’m not going into it scared. It’s going to be such a grind. You just have to embrace it, otherwise it’s going to eat you alive. You’re going to be put in some uncomfortable places, and you as a person are going to feel uncomfortable. It’s really just how can you manage that.”