What U.S. Open week is like at Winged Foot with no U.S. Open
The ninth green on Winged Foot's West Course.
All four golf majors have been affected this year, but not equally. To consider the emotional pain of the host club, Augusta National’s is softened by the fact it always gets to have the Masters. TPC Harding Park has never held a major and so doesn’t quite know what it’s missing with the PGA Championship, and besides, the pride of this city-owned daily-fee is dispersed through a structure where it’s run by a private Chicago management firm yet San Francisco parks and rec cuts the grass. As for The Open, the R&A canceled quickly to collect on an insurance policy and the members of Royal St. George’s should wake up next July as if from a dream, essentially identical dates a year later being a deferment rather than a disruption to the flow of club life.
Winged Foot Golf Club, one the other hand, is in a strange limbo. Today was supposed to be the first round of its sixth U.S. Open, and the forecast is so good it hurts. Low 80s and sunny all week throughout the New York area, dropping into the mid-60s at night, continuing through the weekend. Goddamn perfect weather for swollen rough, fairways that run 60 miles an hour and the way a summer drink would taste under blue skies while watching today’s best golfers interpret the same West Course where Bobby Jones, Billy Casper, Hale Irwin, Fuzzy Zoeller and Davis Love III (PGA Championship) won. Even when Geoff Ogilvy (almost Phil Mickelson) survived the field in 2006, golf was a different game. There aren’t any pros built like Colin Montgomerie anymore, who also coughed it away on the 72nd hole that year.
How will The Foot hold up against the new breed of bombers? Will Dustin Johnson be able to fit his cut-drive over the trees on the dogleg-left fifth hole, which has been converted to a par 4. Who will take on the new Shamrock bunker from the back tees at the 14th? Who has the touch for the knuckled greens, which were soggy and slow in 2006. We’ll have to wait for the unusual date of Sept. 17-20, likely without fans, to find out. Three months might not seem like much, but these answers are pressing because a lot has happened at Winged Foot in the past decade, including a major restoration by Gil Hanse and the tenure of superintendent Steve Rabideau, who is as brilliant a grassman as anyone in the grill room can remember.
Rabideau is also a bit ornery. The tuning of the golf course for this specific week has been his priority numero uno since he took the job. The rough on the West, a blend of rye and bluegrass and poa annua, just popped. Like magic, it’s twice as thick as the rough on the neighboring East Course. How will it survive the hot summer? Sitting in a cart, Rabideau exhales smoke from his cigar with a faraway look. Come fall, the grass blades will inevitably thin to produce both good lies and bad lies in the rough. Right now, they’re all bad, which is good, even at two inches height.
The members of Winged Foot are a prideful bunch and everyone agrees the course would’ve looked awesome on TV this week (I happen to be one of these members; I’ve overachieved in the club department). But September can be glorious, too, albeit in a different way, with crisp mornings and the foliage just starting to turn.
Will Mickelson be there to avenge his 2006 meltdown? The USGA now faces the unenviable job of creating a U.S. Open field without qualifying. Mickelson is ranked 66th in the world this week and has said he won’t accept a special invitation. So maybe top 70 get in instead of top 60 sounds appropriate?
Other than two minor staging platforms, there is no stadia or much of anything currently built at Winged Foot. Just two empty courses and a variable breeze of feelings coming from many directions. While the prospect of no fans means a deflated atmosphere and a serious financial blow from the loss of corporate-tent sales, a silver lining is the East Course will be spared its usual damage from tractor trailers, port-a-johns and other notorious feet-draggers. And like any golf course in the country, the regulars are simply happy to have a place to play coming out of quarantine. For the first time in the club’s nearly 100-year history, a strict online tee-time reservation system is in place to prevent the traditional method of groups social gathering around the first tee to establish play order. And with the weather so good and people working from home, you better believe the tee sheet is stacked.
Of course, the fortunate membership of Winged Foot Golf Club knows that concern over matters like rough height and green firmness is a trivial privilege amid everything else going on in our country. Many are in positions to help solve the inequities that exist in society, especially when the hiring freezes begin to thaw.
Today was supposed to be the first round of the U.S. Open. But there’s really only one way you might know. The American flag by the clubhouse is flying at full staff for the first time in many months.