Winged Foot's West course wasn’t designed to be fun. It was designed to be relentless. And that's why the dream-wrecking layout continues to thrill
“Give us a man-sized course” is how Winged Foot’s founders famously instructed AW Tillinghast.
As horrendously lacking in diversity as that statement is today, it led one of the golden age’s distinctive architects to create a singularly difficult challenge: the West course.
It’s a layout where success depends on playing to angles and conquering a variety of the most impressive green complexes ever built.
Small, multi-tiered, often severe around the edges, and almost always flanked by par-destroying bunkers, the contours are befuddling and bewitching in equal measure.
Only the closing hole really deviates from that plan, and it’s ruthless for other reasons.
This course certainly wasn’t envisaged as being fun. Its ethos is to be relentlessly challenging.
Think of the ‘Massacre at Winged Foot’ in 1974, or the calamities some of the modern game’s best ball strikers suffered 32 years later.
It was once a claustrophobic experience – trees hemming in the fairways. But one of the sources of such bad memories for the likes of Montgomerie and Mickelson is now gone, the Norway Spruce rooted out in Gil Hanse’s recent renovation.
So that just leaves everything else, a point that’s hammered home from the very beginning with an opener that quickly focuses the mind.
A 450-yard par 4 doesn’t trouble the world’s best anymore but a green that Jack Nicklaus four-putted in the opening round in ’74 definitely does.
And what really sets the West apart is that there’s no let up.
The short 3rd is widely regarded as one of America’s most difficult par 3s, while even the 321-yard par-4 6th comes with a sting in its tale – a huge bunker and a stream that can catch anything that isn’t precision-placed.
Few finishes are as fearsome as here. It starts with one of the hardest tee shots on the property at 14, leading to a green that dramatically falls off the back.
Keep it together through 15, with another treacherous putting surface sloping from left to right, get through the full approach that’s required on the next, and a drive favouring the left on the 17th, and all that’s required is to negotiate one of the hardest holes in major golf.
With trademark US Open rough, the West will take no prisoners. What we should get is a fitting champion to join the ranks of Jones, Casper, Irwin, Zoeller, and Ogilvy.
Three holes where the US Open will be won at Winged Foot
3rd (Par 3, 243 yards)
A short hole so tricky that Billy Casper laid up four rounds in a row when winning the 1959 US Open. What made it so testing? The two-tiered green is so narrow, the slope from the top terrace so severe, and no one wants to be hitting out of the bunkers to that surface. Casper walked off with four pars. This year’s contingent would be thrilled to do the same.
10th (Par 3, 194 yards)
Tillinghast reportedly called this the best par 3 he ever built, while Ben Hogan described it as a “three-iron into somebody’s bedroom” – referencing the house that sits at the back of the green. That putting surface inclines steeply and the bunkers on both sides are brutal. Dave Marr said he spent so much time in those traps he’d have his mail delivered there.
18th (Par 4, 460 yards)
Quite simply one of the most fearsome holes in championship golf – just ask Mickelson and Monty. The Sunday pin placement means anything long, or right, is in hell, while the false front can see short approaches pushed some 25 yards back into the fairway.
A wrecker of dreams, this sweeping dogleg is a fitting finish to such an arduous test.
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