Editor's Letter
September 01, 2020

U.S. Open 2020: Is Winged Foot’s driving range the worst of the best clubs?

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Mats Silvan

First-timers to Winged Foot Golf Club are often surprised to find the practice range is what it is: a single strip of artificial turf with a net towering on an angle above a row of pine trees some 200 yards away, a sign displaying a stern warning of disciplinary action should one hit over it. Up to this point in the experience—the winding entrance past imperial iron gates, a gracious greeting from the busy caddiemaster, the cool smell of history wafting from the metal lockers—every element befits what might be the greatest collection of 36 holes in one place. And so the warm-up strikes some as discordant.

Not to worry for the U.S. Open. The ninth and 10th holes of the East Course will be converted into a first-class range steps from the clubhouse. When the U.S. Amateur Men’s Four-Ball was here in 2015, players wanting to let out some shaft could use the range at nearby Bonnie Briar Country Club.

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The Golden Age refers generally to courses built from 1910-’39, though this period coincided with the Stone Age of practice facilities. A good place to hit balls was simply not a priority then, and masterful layouts with “afterthought” ranges are a mark of A.W. Tillinghast, who built both of Winged Foot’s courses in 1923. Today, the West is No. 11 on Golf Digest’s list of America’s 100 Greatest Courses, and the East is 52nd. Quaker Ridge Golf Club, Tilly’s design across the street, is No. 71 and has no range. For big events, you hit balls down the 17th fairway, where they’re quickly gathered before the first group comes through. Tilly’s Baltusrol Golf Club, part of any discussion for greatest collection with its Lower and Upper courses ranked 41st and 61st, creates a range when major championships stop in.

Leafy suburban New York real estate is the original game of inches. Over the years, sporadic opportunities have arisen for Winged Foot to purchase home plots along its border and somehow piece them together in a meaningful way. From the minds of its largely successful, golf-obsessed membership, there’s been no shortage of inventive proposals to reconfigure the property to accommodate a full, grass range. Tunnels, higher nets, re-routing the entrance—no solution has ever been quite right, which is perhaps all for the best. About two decades ago was as close as it ever came, when a plan for a full range was voted down in a club referendum. A few holes of the East Course would’ve been impacted, and the aesthetics of the approach to the iconic clubhouse would’ve changed. Longtime members get a faraway look in their eyes when asked to recall this rare contentious bout that divided families and foursomes.

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David Cannon/Getty Images

It should be noted that I’m a short-time member and nearly became the shortest in club history when I brought my first guest, my former college golf teammate and best friend, David Haase, who ended my tutoring career the semester he achieved a Bluto Blutarsky grade-point average. Nervous about Haase’s footwear choice, I made him change shoes in my car and then deposited him at the range while I checked in. He was left alone for no more than five minutes. I returned to find him ripping, obliviously, high draws with driver over the net, an act somehow made more egregious by his wearing a swing-shirt training aid. I almost tackled him. Lucky for me and anyone playing 8 East behind the net, nothing came of the incident. “Had to get driver ready for a course like this,” Haase said. “Formula One drivers don’t show up to a race with the engine cold.”

Head professional Mike Gilmore remembers his initial surprise at the mats-only range and sees its quiet, pervasive effect in lessons: “Home to so many great golfers, I thought everyone would be taking beefy, quarter-pounder divots. But we sure have a lot of sweepers here.” Gilly encourages committed students to practice off the grass of what’s essentially the U.S. Open range provided they do so early in the morning or in the evening and shag their balls.

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Montana Pritchard/PGA of America

Tiger Woods tees off during the 1997 PGA Championship held at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Some say the range has created a club culture of players, not practicers. Another way to view it is as a beauty spot, the endearing mole on the face of a supermodel.

Ironically, one surviving quote from Tillinghast’s early tour of the property is: “There also is ample room for a large practice driving area and an unusually generous practice putting course.” The first clause speaks to the shorter-hitting equipment of the time, the second to changing values. Gil Hanse replaced the putting course with four smaller greens constituting a modern short-game area.

With the pandemic, the shame is how few first-timers will come to Winged Foot. We hope our special 2020 U.S. Open preview takes you there.