There are no tee times at Winged Foot. You place a ball behind the first tee marker when all members of your group arrive on property (and not a moment sooner) and the order of this row of variously marked Titleists becomes the tee sheet. On a given Saturday or Sunday at 8 a.m., there are five or six balls on the first tee of the East Course compared to four on the West. At least that’s been the case this summer. But today there will be no such indicators of favoritism. The East is hosting the 100th Met Open, and so there are tee times.
The Met isn’t a major, at least not in anything more than a regional sense. The purse is $150,000 with the winner taking home about thirty grand. That’s real money, though meager compared to the sums being transacted an hour down the road this week in Plainfield, N.J. at the Barclays, the FedEx Cup’s first sifting. Winged Foot Golf Club, in Mamaroneck, N.Y., has hosted 13 major championships including five U.S. Opens, so you wouldn’t think a Met Open would be such a big deal to the members. But it is. Their West Course has hosted six Metropolitan Opens, but this is the first on the East.
Not to dismiss a centennial history that includes winners like Walter Hagen, Gene Sarezen and Byron Nelson, as well as current PGA Tour studs like Johnson Wagner and Andrew Svoboda, but all of that can be celebrated any year of the Met Open. The East is the story in 2015 because it’s the “other” course at Winged Foot. Although #59 on Golf Digest’s ranking of America’s 100 Greatest Courses, it’s sibling The West is #9. The West is the U.S. Open Course, where Bobby Jones was clutch and Phil wasn’t, where members take guests if they only have time for eighteen.
But amongst themselves, when both first tees are clear and the cement of Manhattan feels like a distant dream despite the planes overhead, more members go East. Its restoration was completed this spring under Gil Hanse; new bunkers, new tees stretching the tips to over 7,000 yards, greens rebuilt to the original Tillinghast designs, an overall facelift that has made it the fun new toy.
Full disclosure: I recently joined as a junior member at Winged Foot. This is without question the most remarkable blessing and reward of my career. Now into my second season, my heart still trembles with unworthiness and eager disbelief each time I enter the iron gates. But all this is to say I’ve had firsthand experience of the East’s transformation. Its green complexes are the more severe. Stick these greens on the bodies of the West, and golfer might never finish.
But back to the tee times. The defending Met Open champion Grant Sturgeon, assistant professional at Winged Foot and fresh from competing at the PGA Championship in Whistling Straits, is off at 8:10 a.m. Grant is the kind of guy who’s often seen hoofing a few holes with the club’s best teenagers at dusk, most likely with ten bucks on the line.
Mike Gilmore, Winged Foot’s head professional and the Met Open Champion in 2000, goes at 1:40 p.m. Two weeks ago I played with Gilmore for the first time, and the new grandfather outdrove me by 50 yards, if I hit a good one. The only thing more commonly discussed than the height, length and purity of his shots is how funny and personable he is.
The club’s defending champion, who earns an automatic spot in the field, is Brian Williams. Last year 94 members tried to qualify for the club championship, all of whom are about a 4-handicap or better. Williams has an easygoing disposition, deservedly made easier by the contentment that comes from looking up and seeing the gold paint in the letters of his name above Nib’s Bar. Just to the left is the “fastest clock in sports.”
The host club is given one spot for a professional, and since Sturgeon and Gilmore are past champions, there was an internal competition amongst the staff, which Mike Durkin won. Most often seen donning a tie, Durkin is the man who makes sure club tournaments run smooth as glass. But Durkin should relax because the MGA is in charge this week and he’s off at 8:50.
Lastly, there is yours truly. I entered the sectional qualifier at Knollwood Country Club and had one of my rare good days and shot 70 (-1). Birdied three of the last six, but the clincher was a 20-foot bogey putt that kept the wheels from coming off. If there’s one thing that speaks volumes about the membership at Winged Foot, it’s the number of people who have come up to introduce themselves and offer congratulations. You’d never think this many people would spend so much time scouring a regional golf website, but apparently they do. My tee time is 7:30 a.m.
Bob Rotella once told me that you’re more likely to do something if you put it in writing for others to see. My brother, who’s a lawyer, agrees. So for the sake of putting extra pressure on myself, pay attention to the 100th Met Open that starts today at Winged Foot East.
By the time you read this, I’ll probably already be at the turn eating ginger snaps with peanut butter. Local knowledge has got to be worth something.