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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Tiger Tracker: Honda Classic
Tiger Woods is making his third start of the year at the Honda Classic. We're tracking him at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
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Honda Classic: Tee times, TV schedule, stats
The PGA Tour heads back east to kick off the Florida Swing at PGA National. Here are the key stats and information for the Honda Classic. Click here for full-field tee times.
How to watch:
Thursday, Rd. 1: Golf Channel, 2-6PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream
Friday, Rd. 2: Golf Channel, 2-6PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream
Saturday, Rd. 3: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream; CBS, 3-6PM ET
Sunday, Rd. 4: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream; CBS, 3-6PM ET
Purse: $6.6 million ($1,188,000 to the winner)
Course: PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (par-70; 7,140 yards)
Defending champion: Rickie Fowler (-12) won by four, picking off his fourth PGA Tour victory.
Notables in the field:
• Making his fourth start at the Honda Classic and his first since withdrawing with back spasms in 2014.
• Shot a Sunday 62 in a T-2 finish in 2012, marking his lowest career final-round score on the PGA Tour.
• Coming off a missed cut at last week's Genesis Open, his 17th in his Tour career.
• The defending champion owns the lowest score to par and has recorded the most birdies and eagles in this event since 2012.
• Fowler's last start was at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he failed to close a 54-hole lead. Fowler is 1-for-6 with 54-hole leads in his Tour career, with his only successful close coming at last year's Honda.
• On Tour this year, Fowler is first in scrambling from the fringe, second in total scrambling and third in strokes gained around the green.
• It's been feast or famine for McIlroy at the Honda. He won in 2012, withdrew with a toothache in 2013, finished T-2 in 2014 and missed the cut in 2015 and 2016.
• McIlroy ascended to world No. 1 with his victory at PGA National in 2012, becoming the second youngest player at 22 years old to top the OWGR, behind only Woods. McIlroy was later edged by a slightly younger 22-year-old Jordan Spieth.
• Since the beginning of 2010, only Dustin Johnson (15) has more PGA Tour victories than McIlroy (13).
Lexi, J. Korda part of four-way tie in Thailand
CHONBURI, Thailand – Three-time tour winner Minjee Lee of Australia finished with a superb eagle putt to be among the four leaders after Day 1 of the LPGA Thailand at Siam Country Club on Thursday.
Lee sank a 45-foot putt on the 18th hole to card a 6-under-par 66 to tie for the lead with 2016 champion Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda, and local hope Moriya Jutanugarn.
''I just hit the collar. I didn't know if I was going to have enough. Such a big break there. I'm glad it caught the hole,'' Lee said.
''It's a second-shot golf course. Your approaches are really important, and obviously being in the right spots with the undulation. And if you have a hot putter that's going to help.''
Lee won the Vic Open near Melbourne this month and opened her 2018 LPGA tour account last week at the Women's Australian Open, finishing fifth.
Thompson, who won this event in 2016 by six shots with a 20-under total and tied for fourth last year, started her latest round in style with an eagle followed by a birdie only to bogey the third hole. She carded four more birdies.
''It definitely helps to get that kind of start, but I was just trying to keep that momentum and not get ahead of myself,'' Thompson said.
Her compatriot Korda had a roller-coaster round which featured eagles on the first and 17th holes, five birdies, a double bogey on the sixth, and two bogeys.
Jutanugarn was the only player among the four to end the day without a bogey.
''I had a good start today, it was better than I expected,'' said Jutanugarn, who was seventh here last year.
She's trying to become the first Thai winner of the tournament.
Two-time champion Amy Yang and world No. 2 Sung Hyun Park were among six players at 5 under.
Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.
Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.
Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.
So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.
How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:
1. Stay healthy
So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.
Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.
Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.
2. Figure out his driver
Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.
That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.
In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.
Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron.
Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”
That won’t be the case at Augusta.
3. Clean up his iron play
As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.
At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.
Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.
That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.
Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”
4. Get into contention somewhere
As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.
In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.
“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”
Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.
And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go.
“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”
Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.