My invitation to play Winged Foot came unexpectedly. I received an email from a friend at my home club reading simply, “When can you play Winged Foot?” From that point, everything fell into place. A quick phone call lined up a morning to play the very next week. My host member for the day insisted that we play 36 holes, both the East and West courses. After having heard and read so much about the underrated and very good East course, I was in golfing heaven. As the day of the round(s) approached, the weather forecast looked more and more grim. The morning was supposed to be partly cloudy, breaking into heavy storms around mid-day. Undeterred, I met my host at 6:45 AM in upper Manhattan and we headed north to Winged Foot and a hopeful 7:30 tee off. I specifically avoid the use of the term “tee time” because Winged Foot doesn’t have tee times. You arrive, put your group’s ball in the queue, and wait for your turn to come. We were the first group off. Two golfers with one caddie. It couldn’t have been much better.
Both courses at Winged Foot are strong A.W. Tillinghast designs. I would argue that one course is not necessarily “better” than the other. The West course simply has length and routing that works well for hosting major golf events (5 US Opens thus far among many other USGA tournaments). Comparing the slopes and ratings of the two courses further strengthens my argument. The East course, from 6,792 yards, has a 73.9 rating and a slope of 141. The West course (US Open course), from a comparable yardage of 6,928, has a 73.8 rating and a slope of 137. Going by the numbers, from comparable distances, the East course is harder. That being said, those tees at 6,792 are the longest available on the East.
West Course #1 – 440 yards – “Genesis” (Distances are from Black tees – 6,928 yards total)
What a great name for the first hole… It gives the impression that you are beginning a Biblical journey that will one day be chronicled in something matching the grandeur of Homer’s Odyssey. The first hole begins a theme seen all day: fairly normal tee shots and fairways, but brilliant green complexes. Keep an eye out for this theme in the photos.
The bunkers right and left of this green are very penal. This miss is short, leaving a simple pitch up the center of the green to the flag. It is said that Billy Casper laid up all four rounds on this hole leading to four pars and a victory in the 1959 US Open.
West Course # 6 – 318 yards – “El” This is a drive-able par 4 for long hitters. Tillinghast’s bit of brilliance comes through with the deviously small green and unique “L” shape wrapping around the large right hand bunker. A tall price must be paid if you miss the green in the wrong area. It’s a very fun approach and an interesting hole to watch during the US Open.
West Course #7 – 157 yards – “Babe-in-the-Woods” As said later in this post, the par 3s on both courses at Winged Foot are incredibly strong. The 7th is yet another example. The elevated green demands accuracy with the approach in addition to a nice, high ball flight to hold the green. Ignore the pin on this hole and aim at the “V” trees behind the green. There is no preferable miss!
West Course #9 – 508 yards – “Meadow”The 9th hole plays as a par 5 during general play, but is played as a par 4 during the US Open. The view down the fairway towards the intimidating green complex and grandiose clubhouse sums up Winged Foot very well. You could sit a chair in the middle of this fairway taking in the view… what a place!
West Course #10 – 183 yards – “Pulpit”The 10th is the signature hole on Winged Foot’s West course. The hole is beautiful and this photo doesn’t do it justice. We played the hole into wind and I hit a full 200 yard shot to 15 feet before promptly three-putting for my bogey. It was one of many three putts during the round. The task is not over once you’ve hit the severely sloping green.
West Course #11 – 391 yards – “Billows” The 11th was one of my favorite green complexes and approach shots on the course. A tricky tee shot leaves around 135 yards into a small green. The bunkering frames every hole perfectly.
West Course #18 – 430 yards – “Revelations”Keeping with the theme, the course begins with “Genesis” and ends with “Revelations.” If you have made it this far in the round anything close to level par, you really have done something of Biblical proportions. A huge false front protects this green. You can feel Phil Mickelson’s pain walking up this fairway, remembering what happened to him in 2006…
A recent theme of returning courses to original designs has been prevalent in modern re-design projects. Winged Foot has experienced this as well. Aerial photos of the course showed that some of Tillinghast’s original greens on the back 9 had become much smaller over the years. Multiple greens coming down the stretch, including the 18th, have been enlarged and returned to original dimensions. After finishing our round on Winged Foot’s legendary West Course, the clouds started to darken and a cool drizzle began. We decided that instead of stopping for a coffee or bite to eat, we would immediately walk to the first of the East course to beat the rain. Without pause, we walked to the East Course and hit away, as if we were simply teeing off on hole 19.
To quote my host member, “Most of the members would rather come out and play the East course…” I would agree with him after playing both courses. The East course has a ton of character and provides a well-rounded test the golf game.
As we teed off on the East course, the rain really began to pick up. This meant that opportunities to pull out the camera were minimal. I didn’t take many photos of the course, and in turn, I ended up playing much better than the first 18. Oh well!
East Course #6 – 194 yards – “Trouble”The par 3s on both courses were incredibly strong. There was great variety in design and length between all eight par 3s on the course. Unfortunately, the rain kept me from getting pictures of the beautiful 3rd hole on the East Course. Number 6, seen above, is an example of the great short holes on this course.
East Course #15 – 336 yards – “Shrine”A short club off the tee on this hole keeps golfers safe from the lake in front of the green, and also provides a full shot into this elevated and sloping green. Accuracy is paramount with the approach shot. My member and caddy pointed out very subtle ridges running along this green that could provide for extremely difficult pin placements.
The 17th hole on the East course serves to remind players that it is just as challenging and well designed a course as its brother, the West course. The tough downhill par 3 is long and has a tricky green. The pin was tucked deviously behind a tough little ridge. The miss on this hole is short. Long, left, or right are very tough up-and-downs.
I couldn’t have been in a better place walking off the 18th of the East course. I was dripping wet, but bone dry under my Galvin Green rain suit. We walked into the beautiful clubhouse and proceeded to the upper floor of the Winged Foot locker room. The locker room is two stories. There is a member-member golf tournament every year where to two floors play against each other. After a hot, relaxing shower (7.0 on the PowerShower scale), we headed downstairs into the men’s grillroom for a nice lunch.
Something that strikes you while experiencing Winged Foot is the club staff. Every staff member seemed to have been at the club as long or longer than my member (20 years). My excellent caddie, Jim, had been at the club since 1977, and seemed to know every intricacy of the courses, along with the membership. To quote from my friend the “Top 100 Golfer,” “You are served by employees that have perfected the art of service and making you feel at home… When Henry Longhurst wrote “one of the great unpurchasable assets in any golf club is the continuity of staff”, he must have been thinking of Winged Foot.”