Few courses evoke the type of excitement, emotion and memories of championship-level golf that Winged Foot Golf Club evokes. It is on a first-name basis with serious golf fans in the same way as Augusta National, Oakmont, Shinnecock and Pebble Beach. There is great reason for that.
Some places are just ... different. They're special. They're preternaturally loaded with all the aura and depth that every course essentially strives to achieve. Some courses just have it.
Winged Foot is one of those courses. You will hear this from players throughout this week of U.S. Open golf, and while some of it resides in the mystical, inexplicable realm where great golf courses go to become iconic, there are also actual reasons behind Winged Foot's reputation. Here are a few of them to know ahead of the 120th U.S. Open.
1. It makes grown men scream: The tentacles of thick rough, the greens that are more Rubik's cube than golf course and the fact that the entire thing is right in front of you but you still cannot solve it. All of it is enough to make professionals scream, literally. One golfer named Jim Colbert went to his car and did just that after playing the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. "I was so angry and frustrated, after I signed my card I walked to the parking lot, got into my car and screamed for 15 minutes," Colbert told Golf Digest. "I mean, I just screamed."
2. One player under par: I'm sure others have screamed as well. Especially considering the reality that this golf course has only surrendered one U.S. Open score under par. Only Fuzzy Zoeller in 1984, after beating Greg Norman by eight strokes in a playoff, drove away from this golf course able to utter the following sentence: I played Winged Foot under par in the aggregate for the entire week. Nobody else has been able to say that. Nobody has ever shot better than 66 at Winged Foot in a U.S. Open. Think about that for a minute.
3. Two-course major: There are 36 championship-level holes at Winged Foot in the form of both an East Course and a West Course. The East Course has hosted U.S. Women's Opens and a U.S. Senior Open but never the big one. Jim Nantz recently wrote that a combo of the two courses at Winged Foot would make for the most compelling version of the U.S. Open. And while the West Course will do just fine this week, I'd love to see that marriage come to fruition at some point in the future..
4. All about the complexes: As Golf Atlas points out, Winged Foot has few of the elements other iconic courses have to protect her against the world's best. What she does have is maybe the hardest set of 18 greens in the world.
... It is meant to answer why a course like Winged Foot West has been able to so successfully hold its own against the best players in the world for almost 100 years despite the remarkable advancements in technology and physical fitness during that same time. The primary answer is of course the greens. Only Augusta National and Crystal Downs are in the same class with a set of 18 unique surfaces that contain all kinds of combinations of humps, ridges, spines and, of course, false fronts.
Any course that causes Jack Nicklaus to putt off the first green has my attention for the entirety of the week.
5. Oh yes, the rough: It's a U.S. Open, so of course, we must discuss the first and second cuts of grass. Interestingly, over the past few years, the rough at U.S. Opens has not been as big of a talking point because of wider fairways on some courses and less graduated thick stuff on others. Those days are over, though, as Golf Digest points out here.
Winged Foot director of golf courses Steve Rabideau and the club are aware that thinned out rough would be a disappointing consequence of the schedule shift. "At an old, classic-style golf course like this, rough is one of our defenses," he says. "That's what it's about here."
Patrick Reed said it's the most difficult U.S. Open rough he's ever seen. So yes, it's safe to assume that the next time the U.S. Open comes to Winged Foot, I can recycle point No. 2 above because once again nobody is breaking par this time around.