By Merrell Noden
Mamaroneck, N.Y. ' 'Give us a man-sized course. Those were the only words of instruction that a group of golfers, most of them members of the New York Athletic Club, gave A.W. Tillinghast in 1922, when they hired him to develop the rugged 280 acres they had purchased in Mamaroneck in Westchester County, just over the border from New York City.
One wonders if they ever came to regret those bold words, since Tillie, who could be an irascible cuss, took them as a challenge. He eventually gave them two courses, each a marvel of strategic golf and man-sized enough to have humbled virtually every great golfer of the past century. Asked about the finishing holes of the West Course during the legendarily tough 1974 U.S. Open, Jack Nicklaus quipped, The last 18 are very difficult.
Today, Winged Foot is nothing less than the finest golf club in metropolitan New York. Given the wealth of great golf in the area, that lofty position also means Winged Foot is surely on the short list of contenders for the best golf club in the world. It is to golf what Yankee Stadium is to baseball, or Wimbledon is to tennis, said the late Dave Marr, who spent three years at Winged Foot as an assistant pro in the mid-1950s before going on to win the 1965 PGA Championship.
We knew we were on very hallowed grounds of golf in the United States, says Craig Harmon, who grew up at Winged Foot while his father, Claude, served as pro from 1945 to 78 and is himself in his 34th year as the head professional at Oak Hill in Rochester, New York. It was just kind of fun being there, playing the great holes, knowing the history of the club, knowing that Bobby Jones played these holes. And it continues to this day.
When Winged Foot hosts its fifth Open June 15-18, it will also be the third time in the last five years that the national championship comes to a Met-Area course (Bethpage in 2002, Shinnecock Hills in 04) as the U.S. Golf Association recognizes what true golfers already know: New York is the best golf city in the world.
Oh, youll hear arguments for other areas: Chicagos collection of clubs and public courses; the Philadelphia area, which includes Pine Valley and Merion; even St. Andrews, Scotland, anchored by the Old Course. But those cities golf rosters just dont go as deep as New York.
The countrys business and cultural center during the Golden Age of American golf course architecture, New York was the beneficiary of a disproportionate number of world-class layouts. The green light that beckoned Gatsby may as well have been the glow from one of the many great courses being built in the area: Maidstone, Garden City Golf and Bethpage Black on Long Island; Baltusrol, Ridgewood and Somerset Hills in New Jersey; and, within miles of Winged Foot, Fenway and Westchester Country Club, not to mention Quaker Ridge, another Tillie gem across the street from Winged Foot Wests No. 4 green.
At the epicenter is Winged Foot, where both the East and West courses are more highly ranked by Golf Digest and Golfweek than Baltusrols Lower Course, itself a four-time Open host and site of last years PGA Championship. The West, this years Open site, gets most of the attention, largely because of its tournament history (see sidebar, page 51). But members say there is little difference between the two. University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, who hardly suffers from indecision, happily lets the caddiemaster tell him which course to play (see sidebar, page 54).
Tillinghasts original plans called for the East, now 6,775 yards, to be the longer of the two by 140 yards. After lengthening prior to previous Opens as well as this one, the West will play 7,264 yards'the longest in tournament history. But the East has more water and doglegs, and members swear the greens are tougher than the Wests putting surfaces, which give the course much of its character and are notorious in major-championship golf for their difficulty.
Schoolteachers and CEOs
The history of Winged Foot is about the members, guests and employees. The club has a lengthy list of famous visitors: numerous kings and one Bing (Crosby), President Eisenhower and clowns like Bob Hope and Bill Murray. Babe Ruth was a regular, both as a player and a fan: A photo of Bobby Jones teeing off on the 72nd hole of the 1929 Open shows Ruth five yards behind him, smoking a big cigar and squatting more gracefully than one might expect on those pipestem legs.
The thing famous people like about the club is that nobody bothers them, says Arnold Thiesfeldt, a member since 1967. If that was Arnold Palmer sitting over there, you left him alone.
Thiesfeldt still chuckles at the memory of Mickey Rooney standing up in the Grille at lunch one day in the most garish golf getup. His host had finished for the day but Rooney wasnt ready to quit: Isnt there anybody here that wants to play some golf? he challenged'and he got his game.
Just about everybody at Winged Foot plays with a passion'not just the pros and the long line of great assistants, but also club secretaries, grounds-crew members and the kitchen staff. Its not a prerequisite for employment, but it sure helps. And once a member of the Winged Foot family, nobody leaves.
The membership was all-embracing, says Harmon. They took care of their staff. Any time they played with an assistant pro, they would pick up his caddie fee.
For all the clubs prestige, there is remarkably little stuffiness at the club known to some simply as The Foot. All members share a humble dedication to the game no matter their handicap or net worth. The clubs no-tee-time policy further promotes camaraderie among members. Its got a great mixture of members, says Pitino. You play one round with a schoolteacher and the next with a Wall Street CEO.
Of course, the club does have its share of famous members. Pitino coached the New York Knicks for two seasons and later joined the club in 1992. Donald Trump joined in 1975 and believes he got in mainly because the club was pursuing younger members. Trump is building his own New York golf empire'he has a club in Westchester and is about to add a second course to his club in New Jersey'but he calls Winged Foot the best 36 holes in golf.
Tillies Man-sized Test
Winged Foot is first and foremost a golf club, a point that cannot be emphasized too much. Dont ever call it a country club, which may be a worse sin than gouging out a large divot on the 18th green. Theres a small swimming pool, hidden behind trees near the first tee of the East Course. But there are no tennis courts: When three-time Wimbledon champion Bill Tilden was a regular visitor to Winged Foot in the 1920s, he came strictly for the golf. (Winged Foot also has no affiliation with the New York Athletic Club despite adapting the NYAC logo, a winged foot, over a pair of crossed golf clubs and ball.)
Tillinghast set his masterpieces on land that once was the choice deer-hunting ground of the Mohican Indians, immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans. The club is on Fenimore Road, named for the author who roamed the property. While the Open contestants will be armed with 460cc drivers, the land has seen other weapons: Both armies in the Revolutionary War camped here.
Although he had redesigned Baltusrol, the 47-year-old Tillinghast was not yet famous when he started work at Winged Foot in 1922. For the job that would make his reputation'and which he always considered to be his finest work'Tillinghast hired 220 men, most of them local farmers. Using 60 teams of horses and 19 tractors, they cut down 7,800 small trees and moved 24,000 cubic yards of dirt'not much by todays standards but a mountain in those days. They all but scraped the 36 holes into existence with their fingernails, writes Winged Foot historian Douglas LaRue Smith in his very thorough club history.
Tillinghasts team also had to blast away 7,200 tons of rock, which is still there under foot, in the heave and swell of the fairways, a rumbling presence, like the bass in a symphonic performance.
Every hole at Winged Foot adheres to Tillinghasts famous formulation: A controlled shot to a closely guarded green is the surest test of any mans game. He frowned upon frivolous bunkering; each hazard had to serve a clear tactical purpose, and Winged Foots bunkers are fearsome, not only for how closely they encroach on the greens, but also for their depth. In the 1974 U.S. Open, Johnny Miller needed four shots to get out of the right greenside bunker on the short par-3 seventh.
The greens are raised up and the bunker shots are very hard, stresses Harmon. A Winged Foot player, if hes any good, knows how to play a bunker shot. Thats always been the lore of the place.
The relatively small, pear-shaped greens that Tillinghast and his crew shaped by hand provide bigger targets near the back, but since nearly every green slopes severely from back to front, the trade-off is a difficult downhill putt, especially when the hole location is in the front.
While the East starts slowly, the West starts with a jolt, with four tough holes. You can be four over par through four [on the West] and still think youre playing good golf, says Tom Kealy, a 32-year member.
The most famous hole is the 10th, which Tillinghast considered the finest par 3 he ever built. At 188 yards for the Open, the 10th demands a precise iron that avoids the large bunker to the right and out of bounds, with a house beyond, over the green. Ben Hogan called it a 3-iron into some guys bedroom. (That guy, by the way, is now Buddy Stuart, a six-time club champion and the son of a five-time winner.)
But even finding the putting surface is no relief. Dick Schaap, in his book Massacre at Winged Foot, pronounced the green more difficult to read than a Joycean novel. The removal of some trees has allowed the green to get bigger and tougher, restoring some difficult hole locations. In all, more than 1,000 trees were removed from the West Course from 1999 to 2004, primarily because they were either encroaching on the play of the holes or for improved agronomy.
Winged Foot has always had a love affair with its trees. When the clubs most famous tree, the American elm that towered over the right side of the green on No. 10 East and confounded approach shots for decades, succumbed to Dutch elm disease in 1993, members gave it a send-off fit for a king, standing in silence as the sentinel that Dan Jenkins had called the greatest tree in golf was disassembled. Dave Anderson of the New York Times eulogized it, and Joe Alonzi, then Winged Foots superintendent, said, This tree was like a person to us.
Trees will factor into the toughest stretch, the five finishing holes. They are all monsters, stretching 458, 416, 478, 449 and 450 yards. Head professional Tom Nieporte believes any player in the U.S. Open field who can be even par for these five holes during the championship will be the winner.
The Heart of the Club
Whether playing in the U.S. Open or a casual round, anyone walking off the 18th green is in dire need of rest and consolation. Fortunately, the clubs founders hired Clifford Charles Wendehack, who built them a truly unforgettable clubhouse: a long, gabled building in a style known as English Scholastic. A rambling stone clubhouse that might make one of its occasional visitors, the Duke of Windsor, feel homesick, is how Dan Jenkins described it.
In contrast to the solid, imposing exterior, the interior is surprisingly soft and comfortable. The first place members take guests is the Hall of Fame, the airy hallway that connects the formal entry rooms to the massive, two-level locker room and is adorned with photos of the great golfers who have triumphed here or been members. There are constant reminders of all the history thats been made here, which may be why the members are so down to earth.
First up is a handsome man in a bowtie. This is John G. Anderson, five-time club champion and runner-up in the 1913 and 15 U.S. Amateurs. Next is club member Richard D. Chapman, who won the 1940 U.S. Amateur on his home course. Opposite them is The Silver Scot, Tommy Armour, a striking man with a movie stars chin and a shock of perfectly slicked white hair. The winner of three majors from 1927 to 31, Armour was an early member and shares a glass case with the clubs first three long-term head professionals: Mike Brady, Craig Wood and Claude Harmon.
Next to them hangs Winged Foots four Open champions: Bobby Jones (1929), Billy Casper (1959), Hale Irwin (1974) and Fuzzy Zoeller (1984).
If the club has a beating heart, it is surely the Grille, entered from the Hall beneath gorgeous half-moon transom windows. The Grille is an oak-paneled room, with a large marble fireplace set and a simple bar'Guinness and Harp on tap. Neither large nor particularly fancy, the Grille is spectacularly comfortable, and to sit down with a basket of the clubs famous rye toast, thinly sliced and buttered, is to experience a golfers heaven.
Some of the chairs date to Opening Day, April 14, 1923, and have supported the bottoms of everyone from Jones to Tiger Woods. Contemplate that lineage, and, well, its probably good that youre sitting down.
Above the fireplace is the roll call of winners in The John G. Anderson Memorial, the four-ball amateur tournament the club hosts each July. Anderson was a Renaissance man: a writer who covered Francis Ouimets victory in the 1913 Open a few weeks after finishing runner-up in the U.S. Amateur. Anderson also attended the founding meeting of the PGA of America, and at one point had golfs longest hole-in-one, a 328-yarder on the old 16th at Massachusetts Brae Burn.
Anderson was only 49 when he died in 1933 of what was believed to be hepatitis. Winged Foot members honored him by creating the Anderson Memorial, which quickly became the premier four-ball tournament in the world. Winners have included Deane Beman, Willie Turnesa, and Craig and Dick Harmon.
The Grilles windows look out on the terrace, which is covered by a blue-and-white awning and provides a panoramic view of both courses finishing holes, plus Wests ninth green and Easts 11th tee. Theres no greater place in the world than sitting on that patio, having a few pops, with the sun going down and watching golfers come up the 18th, says member Kealy.
The clubs huge locker room is special, too. It has two levels, the Upper and Lower, and some of the best showerheads in golf. The lockers are double width'you could fit a body in there, says Thiesfeldt'and date to opening day.
Window Onto Golf History
Just outside the locker room is the pro shop, a small Tudor building that overlooks the Wests 18th green and has witnessed a wealth of history. Winged Foot and history are inseparable, and theres little doubt the 2006 U.S. Open will provide another addition to the clubs'and golfs'annals.
The West Course will play very much the way it did for the 2004 U.S. Amateur, with only two changes. Theres a new back tee on No. 3, 243 yards, which wont be used every day. Also, a new tee has been built for the Open on the now 478-yard 16th, not so much for length as to strengthen the dogleg.
Those changes will help turn Tillinghasts man-sized course into a Superman-sized one to challenge todays best players. The guys today are getting so good, marvels Nieporte. Thats why were so anxious to see the Open this year. Its going to be a great test.
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Open Qualifying Series kicks off with Aussie Open
The 147th Open is nearly eight months away, but there are still major championship berths on the line this week in Australia.
The Open Qualifying Series kicks off this week, a global stretch of 15 event across 10 different countries that will be responsible for filling 46 spots in next year's field at Carnoustie. The Emirates Australian Open is the first event in the series, and the top three players among the top 10 who are not otherwise exempt will punch their tickets to Scotland.
In addition to tournament qualifying opportunities, the R&A will also conduct four final qualifying events across Great Britain and Ireland on July 3, where three spots will be available at each site.
Here's a look at the full roster of tournaments where Open berths will be awarded:
Emirates Australian Open (Nov. 23-26): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
Joburg Open (Dec. 7-10): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
SMBC Singapore Open (Jan. 18-21): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties
Mizuno Open (May 24-27): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties
HNA Open de France (June 28-July 1): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
The National (June 28-July 1): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties
Dubai Duty Free Irish Open (July 5-8): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
The Greenbrier Classic (July 5-8): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open (July 12-15): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
John Deere Classic (July 12-15): Top player (not otherwise exempt) among top five and ties
Stock Watch: Lexi, Justin rose or fall this week?
Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.
Jon Rahm (+9%): Just imagine how good he’ll be in the next few years, when he isn’t playing all of these courses for the first time. With no weaknesses in his game, he’s poised for an even bigger 2018.
Austin Cook (+7%): From Monday qualifiers to Q-School to close calls on the Web.com, it hasn’t been an easy road to the big leagues. Well, he would have fooled us, because it looked awfully easy as the rookie cruised to a win in just his 14th Tour start.
Ariya (+6%): Her physical tools are as impressive as any on the LPGA, and if she can shore up her mental game – she crumbled upon reaching world No. 1 – then she’ll become the world-beater we always believed she could be.
Tommy Fleetwood (+4%): He ran out of gas in Dubai, but no one played better on the European Tour this year than Fleetwood, Europe’s new No. 1, who has risen from 99th to 18th in the world.
Lexi (+1%): She has one million reasons to be pleased with her performance this year … but golf fans are more likely to remember the six runners-up and two careless mistakes (sloppy marking at the ANA and then a yippy 2-footer in the season finale) that cost her a truly spectacular season.
J-Rose (-1%): Another high finish in Dubai, but his back-nine 38, after surging into the lead, was shocking. It cost him not just the tournament title, but also the season-long race.
Hideki (-2%): After getting blown out at the Dunlop Phoenix, he made headlines by saying there’s a “huge gap” between he and winner Brooks Koepka. Maybe something was lost in translation, but Matsuyama being too hard on himself has been a familiar storyline the second half of the year. For his sake, here’s hoping he loosens up.
Golf-ball showdown (-3%): Recent comments by big-name stars and Mike Davis’ latest salvo about the need for a reduced-flight ball could set up a nasty battle between golf’s governing bodies and manufacturers.
DL3 (-4%): Boy, the 53-year-old is getting a little too good at rehab – in recent years, he has overcome a neck fusion, foot injury, broken collarbone and displaced thumb. Up next is hip-replacement surgery.
LPGA Player of the Year (-5%): Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu tied for the LPGA’s biggest prize, with 162 points. How is there not a tiebreaker in place, whether it’s scoring average or best major performance? Talk about a buzzkill.
Titleist's Uihlein fires back at Davis over distance
Consider Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein unmoved by Mike Davis' comments about the evolution of the golf ball – and unhappy.
In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, the outlet which first published Davis' comments on Sunday, Uihlein took aim at the idea that golf ball distance gains are hurting the sport by providing an additional financial burden to courses.
"Is there any evidence to support this canard … the trickle-down cost argument?” he wrote (via Golf.com). “Where is the evidence to support the argument that golf course operating costs nationwide are being escalated due to advances in equipment technology?"
Pointing the blame elsewhere, Uihlein criticized the choices and motivations of modern architects.
"The only people that seem to be grappling with advances in technology and physical fitness are the short-sighted golf course developers and the supporting golf course architectural community who built too many golf courses where the notion of a 'championship golf course' was brought on line primarily to sell real estate," he wrote.
The Titleist CEO even went as far as to suggest that Tiger Woods' recent comments that "we need to do something about the golf ball" were motivated by the business interersts of Woods' ball sponsor, Bridgestone.
"Given Bridgestone’s very small worldwide market share and paltry presence in professional golf, it would seem logical they would have a commercial motive making the case for a reduced distance golf ball," he added.
Acushnet Holdings, Titleist's parent company, announced in September that Uihlein would be stepping down as the company's CEO at the end of this year but that he will remain on the company's board of directors.
Class of 2011: Who's got next?
The sprawling legacy of the Class of 2011 can be traced to any number of origins, but for some among what is arguably the most prolific class ever, it all began in June 2009.
The 99-player field that descended on Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., for the AJGA’s FootJoy Invitational included Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and so many others, like Michael Kim, who up to that moment had experienced the weight of the ’11 class only from afar.
“It was that year that Justin won the FootJoy Invitational and that got him into [the Wyndham Championship]," Kim recalled. "That was my first invitational and I was like 'these guys are so good’ and I was blown away by what they were shooting. I remember being shocked by how good they were at that time.”
|MORE ON THE Class of 2011|
|Lavner: Origins of the Class|
|Hoggard: Who's got next?|
|Gray: The struggle is real|
|Baggs: Other great 'groups'|
|Photos: The AJGA days|
Tom Lovelady, who like former Cal-Berkeley Bear Kim is now on the PGA Tour, remembers that tournament as the moment when he started to realize how special this particular group could be, as well as the genesis of what has become lifetime friendships.
In the third round, Lovelady was paired with Spieth.
“We kind of hit it off and became friends after that," Lovelady recalled. "The final round I got paired with Justin Thomas and we became friends. On the 10th hole I asked [Thomas], ‘Where do you want to go to school?’ He said, ‘Here. Here or Alabama.’ My first reaction was, ‘Don’t go to Alabama.’ He’s like, ‘Why?’ I wanted to go there. I knew the class was strong and they only had so many spots, but that’s where I really wanted to go.”
Both ended up in Tuscaloosa, and both won an NCAA title during their time in college. They also solidified a friendship that endures to this day in South Florida where they live and train together.
While the exploits of Thomas, Spieth and Daniel Berger are well documented, perhaps the most impressive part of the ’11 class is the depth that continues to develop at the highest level.
To many, it’s not a question as to whether the class will have another breakout star, it’s when and who?
There’s a good chance that answer could have been found on the tee sheet for last week’s RSM Classic, a lineup that included Class of ’11 alums Lovelady; Kim; Ollie Schniederjans, a two-time All-American at Georgia Tech; Patrick Rodgers, Stanford's all-time wins leader alongside Tiger Woods; and C.T. Pan, a four-time All-American at the University of Washington.
Lovelady earned his Tour card this year via the Web.com Tour, while Schniederjans and Rodgers are already well on their way to the competitive tipping point of Next Level.
Rodgers, who joined the Tour in 2015, dropped a close decision at the John Deere Classic in July, where he finished a stroke behind winner Bryson DeChambeau; and Schniederjans had a similar near-miss at the Wyndham Championship.
To those who have been conditioned by nearly a decade of play, it’s no surprise that the class has embraced a next-man-up mentality. Nor is it any surprise, at least for those who were forged by such an exceedingly high level of play, that success has seemed to be effortless.
“First guy I remember competing against at a high level was Justin. We were playing tournaments at 10, 11 years old together,” Rodgers said. “He was really, really good at that age and I wasn’t really good and so he was always my benchmark and motivated me to get better.”
That symbiotic relationship hasn’t changed. At every level the group has been challenged, and to a larger degree motivated, by the collective success.
By all accounts, it was Spieth who assumed the role of standard-bearer when he joined the Tour in 2013 and immediately won. For Rodgers, however, the epiphany arrived a year later as he was preparing to play a college event in California and glanced up at a television to see his former rival grinding down the stretch at Augusta National.
“Jordan’s leading the Masters. A couple years before we’d been paired together battling it out at this exact same college event,” he laughed. “I think I even won the tournament. It was just crazy for me to see someone who is such a peer, someone I was so familiar with up there on the biggest stage.”
It was a common theme for many among the Class of ’11 as Spieth, Thomas and others emerged, and succeeded, on a world stage. If familiarity can breed contempt, in this case it created a collective confidence.
Success on Tour has traditionally come slowly for new pros, the commonly held belief being that it took younger players time to evolve into Tour professionals. That’s no longer the case, the byproduct of better coaching, training and tournaments for juniors and top-level amateurs.
But for the Class of ’11, that learning curve was accelerated by the economies of scale. The quality and quantity of competition for the class has turned out to be a fundamental tenet to the group’s success.
“Since the mindset of the class has been win, win, win, you don’t know anything other than that, it’s never been just be good enough,” Lovelady said. “You don’t think about being top 125 [on the FedExCup points list], you think about being as high as you can instead of just trying to make the cut, or just keep your card. It’s all you’ve known since you were 14, 15 years old.”
It’s a unique kind of competitive Darwinism that has allowed the class to separate itself from others, an ever-present reality that continues to drive the group.
“It was constantly in my head motivating me,” Rodgers said. “Then you see Jordan turn pro and have immediate success and Justin turn pro and have immediate success. It’s kind of the fuel that drives me. What makes it special is these guys have always motivated me, maybe even more so than someone like Tiger [Woods].”
The domino effect seems obvious, inevitable even, with the only unknown who will be next?
“That’s a good question; I’d like for it to be myself,” Lovelady said. “But it’s hard to say it’s going to be him, it’s going to be him when it could be him. There are just so many guys.”