Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)


U.S. Open 2020: Winged Foot is back to being Winged Foot, hammers field in Round 2

September 18, 2020

Gregory Shamus

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — They knew the beast was coming. The current of angst that flowed through the driving range said as much. It was not fear; there is no room for that, not at this tournament, not at this venue. But there was a collective realization that they had made the beast angry Thursday, and it was about to respond in kind. And it did.

After the players won Round 1, Winged Foot answered, and answered with vigor on Friday with an eye-popping 75.23 scoring mark, nearly three strokes higher than Thursday’s average.

“Today really felt like a U.S. Open, I can tell you that,” said Xander Schauffele, somewhat deflated after back-to-back bogeys to end his round, posting a two-over 72. Added Rafa Cabrera Bello after an even-par 70: “Clearly the wind has picked up significantly. That has made it really hard. I mean, this course, if you don’t find the fairways you’re playing—I don’t know, like the most difference that you can ever play.”

Right from the start on Friday, Winged Foot announced this day would be different. The first, second, 10th and 11th holes—remember, split-tee start—collectively played under par (-0.02) Thursday. Friday, not so much, drawing first blood by playing a combined 1.73 over par. “No. 1, gosh, we had, everybody was hitting little sand wedges in there [on Thursday],” said Bubba Watson, one of just two players to break par in the morning wave (with a 69). “Today, I think I had a 7-iron in there just because of the cold and the wind.”

There was wind, intermittent and swirling, causing persistent confusion. Si Woo Kim hit a beauty of a baby draw at the first, only for his drive to come well short for the bend in the fairway, a fate that befuddled Kim to no end. At the drivable par-4 sixth, Stephan Jaeger waited 15 minutes for the green to clear, only to hit his drive some 70 yards short of the putting surface. Gusts put approaches in spots players knew they couldn’t be in, especially with pins tucked tighter than an Indiana buzzcut. Eleven players failed to break 80.

Though they’re not trampolines, the greens are no longer soft and hardening as we speak. “They have got maybe a smidge quicker and a bit firmer,” said Cabrera Bello. “Obviously more of what a U.S. Open setup that you would expect.”

Contrary to popular belief, Winged Foot wasn’t easy Thursday. The field average was just over 72.56 on the venerable par 70. It’s just that it wasn’t hard, at least not the hard envisioned for this event. Twenty-one players broke 70, highlighted (or lowlighted, if you’re a U.S. Open traditionalist) by Justin Thomas setting a Winged Foot Open record with a five-under 65. Social media—tough crowd, that social media—was furious with the red numbers, wanting to see a different type of red on the course. “I think relative for this place, you know, some would say, and I’m sure the {superintendent] and the staff here felt that,” Schauffele said.

That is putting it lightly. Winged Footers weren’t thrilled with Thursday’s fireworks. Much of their club’s mystique is fueled by its U.S. Open history, its course frustrating the world’s best without fail. A reputation, members feared, that was compromised by Thursday’s setup.

They are not necessarily wrong, but on this front, one has to feel for the USGA. The U.S. Open is increasingly becoming its Kobayashi Maru test, an unwinnable situation. Scores go too low, it becomes an average tour event and an indictment that modern equipment (whose standards the USGA governs) is ruining classic courses. Scores too high, the players moan that it’s a contrived presentation, that they don’t have these issues at the Masters or PGA Championship. It’s a stigma fueled by past miscues, but at some point, golf has to give the USGA some latitude.

Sources with the USGA told Golf Digest the club’s outrage, hinted at via social media, was a bit overblown, and also not breaking news. “Membership wherever we go has its opinions on how its course should be played,” a senior USGA official said Thursday. The official did not say the USGA erred on the side of caution with Thursday’s setup, although acknowledged the course was expected to play tougher come the weekend.

It was a prophecy that materialized Friday. Tough pins and wind may seem like an overly simplistic formula, but in truth it is deeply complex. Misjudge either in the slightest and you have unreachable flags, balls that refuse to come to rest and players crying you’ve lost the golf course. It is a thin line to walk and a thankless task.

However—and knock on the closest 3-wood—the duality of scoring has created something of a Platonic ideal for the USGA. For if there was a saving grace to Thursday’s lower-than-expected scores—and as the USGA maintains, it doesn’t have a target score in mind—the governing body had some liberty with its Round 2 setup. Obviously the wounds of Shinnecock Hills remain fresh … in that same breath, should the players grumble on Friday after Thursday’s presentation, well, it’s the players who come off as whiners. To their credit, the early wave took their lumps in stride.

“It’s really tough. I’m going to enjoy watching the golf this afternoon from my sofa,” said Thomas Pieters,. Added Bryson DeChambeau: “I would say that this today is a more enjoyable test after I’m done because it shows who executed the shots the best for sure.”

Perhaps the setup was best summarized for Schauffele, whose remarks are the remarks the USGA, Winged Footers and fans love to hear:

“Today really felt like a U.S. Open, I can tell you that,” Schauffele said.

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