MAMARONECK, N.Y. – This isn’t your father’s Winged Foot.
It’s not even your older brother’s Winged Foot.
This is something vastly different from the slugfests that are the identity of the sprawling pitch. This is modern and mean.
The clichés still apply – play from the fairway, take your medicine, pick your spots – but the game has been irrevocably changed. It’s younger and stronger and less concerned with the ancient constructs of the game.
You can tell players they must dial back their games to play Winged Foot, but Matthew Wolff isn’t listening. Bryson DeChambeau isn’t even speaking your language.
Nothing typifies how far the game has changed in recent years like a Wolff-DeChambeau final-round pairing … at a U.S. Open … at Winged Foot. Collectively, your two leading men hit five of 28 fairways on Saturday and are second and 15th in the field, respectively, in driving distance.
Somewhere Phil Mickelson is nursing an artesian coffee and wrestling with the injustice of it all.
In 2006, when Lefty famously imploded on Winged Foot’s 72nd hole, there were those who also pointed out that he’d hit just two of 14 fairways that fateful Sunday. The USGA overlords would never allow their national champion to be so wayward.
Depending on how Sunday unfolds, the odds favor the quirky Wolff, who blew the doors off conventional wisdom with a third-round 65 for a two-stroke lead, and the mercurial DeChambeau, who scrambled for an even-par 70 and is alone in second place at 3 under.
The day’s final twosome will be every bit a mandate for the unconventional, with DeChambeau threatening to redefine the game through shear power and Wolff blazing his own unique trail.
“You've got to think 14 years on the game has changed a lot, guys hit it further, equipment,” reasoned Rory McIlroy, who was at 1 over. “The game has just moved on a little bit and everyone has collectively just got a little bit better.”
Wolff doesn’t care that the USGA nursed Winged Foot’s 5-inch rough through a summer drought to keep him from blasting drives over corners with impunity. At 21 years young, he’s already won on the PGA Tour, and he proved just last month at the PGA Championship that reverence for major championships – not to mentioned storied major championship venues – stops at the first tee.
“I like to go out there and do what I feel comfortable with, rip dog, and see how it goes from there,” said Wolff, who tied for fourth at TPC Harding Park. “I feel comfortable with every part of my game, so I don't like to shy away from things when I'm feeling confident, and I'm probably going to do the same tomorrow.”
For the week, Wolff has connected with just 12 of 42 fairways, a line that at any other Tour event wouldn’t be worth mentioning. But this is Winged Foot. This was supposed to be the line in the distance-debate sand, where classic design and a half foot of hay put the athletes back in their place.
This was where DeChambeau’s experiment would be put to the test. Sure, he could overpower the likes of Detroit Golf Club, but put him on a big ballpark like the West Course and he’d dial back his swing-for-the-fences ways or else pay the price.
On a cool and breezy Saturday, DeChambeau wildly missed the fairway at the second hole and was 2 over through as many holes, but he kept swinging. He missed the fourth fairway, again wildly left, and he kept swinging. Whichever way this experiment plays out for the mad scientist, there is no questioning his resolve.
“I’m going to be aggressive no matter what. If it's the right play. If it's the right wind, the right situation,” DeChambeau said before adding a curious, “You've just got to hit fairways out here.”
Do you? Do you really have to hit fairways, Bryson?
History tells us that U.S. Open champions can’t be found in the rough and Winged Foot may still have some tricks for this new generation of Bronx bombers.
Louis Oosthuizen, who looms at 1 under and alone in third place, fits the mold of a Winged Foot winner – straight, calm, risk averse. But even after things inched closer to normal on Friday with what the club’s membership would agree was a proper scoring average (75.25), the athletes proved themselves to be bigger, stronger, faster than the previous generations.
The rules that applied at previous Winged Foot Opens no longer seem to be relevant. Players say all the right things about needing to hit fairways and how impossible it is to play out of the rough, but for the likes of someone such as Wolff, it doesn’t seem like it’s all that sincere.
“He hits it really far. He hits it really high. He's not afraid. And yeah, he doesn't really care,” Xander Schauffele said of Wolff.
It stands to reason that the pandemic-year majors without fans, buzz and atmosphere would be dominated by players who are fresh out of college, where every event is of the “intimate” variety. When Collin Morikawa, 23, won the PGA Championship, he celebrated in relative silence. Wolff’s never played a major with fans. Maybe, in a twisted way, it’s best that the New Yorkers aren’t here to see what this generation is doing to their beloved Winged Foot.
It doesn’t appear as if Geoff Ogilvy is going to scramble around the corner of the 18th hole to save the day this time. Storied Winged Foot is on its own, and it doesn’t feel like a fair fight.