U.S. Open 2020: These 7 shots will make or break any round at Winged Foot
An old golf adage states you can’t win the tournament on Thursday, but you can lose it. Another insists that the player who wins the U.S. Open is the one who makes the fewest mistakes, especially when contested at a classic, brutish course like Winged Foot’s West Course. These maxims should prove true at the 120th U.S. Open, suggesting a conservative game plan as the wisest way to play well at Winged Foot West.
Hitting fairways and greens is always a blueprint for success at a U.S. Open, and precision driving in particular will be more critical this year than at recent venues like Erin Hills, Chambers Bay and Pinehurst No. 2. But simply playing defense in the era of power golf, even at Winged Foot, will not be enough. Players must know when to weigh the odds and go on offense, because birdies, where available, will be needed to off set the inevitable bogeys. Good scoring will result from a balance of execution and opportunity—making the correct play when forced to, and the aggressive play when needed. These seven shots, over the course of four days, represent those singular moments that will determine who contends and who doesn’t.
The approach at the par-4 opening hole
The sense of relief felt after finding the first fairway, with onlookers from the range and behind the tee, fades quickly when standing over the approach shot (and woe to those that aren’t in the fairway). The putting surface on No. 1 is one of the most severe in golf, with a massive upward tilt, a huge false front and distinct ridges and pockets on the interior. It’s entirely possible to find the putting surface and have almost no chance of two-putting if the ball is in the wrong location—ask Jack Nicklaus who putted off the first green in the opening round of the 1974 U.S. Open. You must be so precise with your second shot: Four pars here may pick up one or two shots on the field.
The drive on the par-4 fifth hole
Members play the hole as a par 5, and it’s played as such in previous Opens. This year it’s a long, taxing two-shot hole. The drive is everything as it must find the reverse-camber fairway—that is, the hole bends left around trees, but the landing zone pitches to the right. Balls want to kick into either the right rough or a bunker conveniently waiting in the 300-yard zone, so the tactical play is a right-to-left drive to hold the slope. Bunkers guarding the green to the right and front-right compound the mistake of missing the fairway on that side.
The second shot at the par-5 ninth
No matter what has happened up to this point through the first nine, the ninth is a chance to get a stroke back. The par 5 will be reachable for the entire field (it’s played as a par 4 for members and in past U.S. Opens), possibly even from the rough by the stronger players, and the key to making birdie is avoiding the cross bunker short and right of the green with the second shot. If they can get the ball past it and somewhere near the green, the pros will like their chances of getting it up and in, even from the rough or one of the four bunkers circling the highly segmented putting surface.
The tee shot on the par-3 10th
Winged Foot West’s 10th hole is one of the most famous and feared par-3s in golf, and for good reason. Though not an island green, the severe bunkers that surround the putting surface—the deepest on the course—are about as hospitable as water and typically render a full-stroke penalty for those who hit into them. And with a 200-plus yard tee shot, that’s going to happen, frequently. Billy Casper famously laid up all four days at the par-3 third hole during his 1959 victory, but playing short or just to the front of this back-to-front sloping green might not be a bad strategy either.
The third shot at the par-5 12th
Even though this hole plays well over 600 yards and will only be reachable—maybe—by a few of the longest players who hit near-perfect drives and 300-yard second shots, it will still be viewed by the field as a rare chance for birdie. The key to making a 4 will be the third shot, and specifically where the players decide to play it from. Some will try to advance the ball as close to the green as possible and try to get up and down, likely from one of four bunkers framing the newly expanded putting surface. Others will choose to lay back to a favorite wedge yardage, either shy of a bunker 75 yards off the front edge of the green, or just past it.
The approach shot at the par-4 15th
Of the five consecutive par 4s that close out Winged Foot West, the 15th is the shortest and the last good chance to steal back a stroke. But that will depend on getting the ball on the correct quadrant of one of Winged Foot’s most undulating greens. That, in turn, will depend on an accurate second shot based on a tactical decision: Play the approach from a higher, relatively level area of the fairway, but coming in with a longer club well back from the creek that crosses the landing area; or play closer to the creek and try to stick a short iron close from a downhill, partially blind lie.
The drive on the par-4 18th
We all know how important the drive is on Winged Foot West’s 18th hole—if Phil Mickelson hits the fairway he almost certainly wins the 2006 U.S. Open and would now hold the career Grand Slam. The hole punishes even slight misses—the left rough is some of the thickest on the course, and the bunker guarding the right side of the hole makes players hedge that direction. The hole bends left, and it’s crucial to advance the ball around the corner, which brings to bear the danger of pushing drives through the fairway, also no picnic. Even hitting the fairway guarantees no par—see Colin Montgomerie—but missing it can be catastrophic. And game-ending.