#20, Top 100 Golf Courses in the World (2015)
#13, Top 100 Golf Courses in the U.S. (2015)
#9, America's 100 Greatest Courses (2015-2016)
#3, Best in the State of New York (2015-2016)
Those who live in and around New York City are blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to some of the best private golf clubs in the world. What's more, it only a takes a drive of a couple hours in any direction to reach them. Heading out Long Island, options like Garden City, Piping Rock, and The Creek Club await, along with the famously public Bethpage Black. Head out further on the island to the Hamptons, and you'll find famously exclusive haunts of Manhattan "old money" like Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links, and Maidstone, along with "new money" playgrounds like Sebonack, and The Bridge. Folks who choose to live across the Hudson River, in New Jersey, can choose from Baltusrol, Ridgewood, Plainfield, and Somerset Hills. The Connecticut crowd has Yale, Country Club of Fairfield, and Fishers Island (though technically in New York, it's just off the Connecticut shore). Finally, a short drive north of the city gets you to Westchester County, which Manhattanites laughably call "upstate." In Westchester, fabulous old school clubs like Sleepy Hollow, Quaker Ridge, and Westchester Country Club stand guard, though the most famous and venerable club is Winged Foot.
Surrounded by a sleepy and wooded residential neighborhood, Winged Foot stands behind an automated gate, which keeps the uninvited guests away from this fabulous 36-hole golfing Mecca. Though the club stands only 15 miles from Yankee Stadium and only 21 miles from the Empire State Building, the environment of the club doesn't feel urban at all, even though it is within shouting distance of the largest metropolitan area in America. Once you get past the gate, you're treated to a 280 acre plot of land, that has tested golf's greats through the years, and will also test your game at every corner.
#2, "Elm," Par 4, 411 Yards
One of the few surviving elms at Winged Foot frames the green and gives this hole its name. The 1923 Opening Program described this green as "figure-8 shaped...tricky with a wide bunker in front." The green features several challenging flagstick positions, especially one at the right front, tucked behind the guarding bunker, and another back left, which is inaccessible when approached from the front left.
"The green shows its best face to the short approach, after a long drive down the left."
Aiming straight-away and down the line of the runway tee boxes is the play from the tee. Avoid the fairway bunker on the left, but as Tillie said above, the closer to the left side of the fairway, the better, for the best angle into the green.
Winged Foot West was only the first of three rounds I'd play on this wonderful summer Thursday, so there wasn't much time to soak it in and reflect before it would tee it up for another 18--that time on the East Course. However, a week or so later, I was able to look back and establish some thoughts on the experience. Winged Foot, and the West Course especially, is a very ordinary piece of land. That's that meant as an insult, but actually a compliment in some ways, in that it's incredible how Tillinghast constructed such a great course out of such average land. There are few undulations, outside of the green complexes, but there's still plenty of interest and more than enough challenge without them. I'm not ready to say it's a "fun" course, but if you're looking to test out your game on a grueling championship track, the West is for you. The wonderful thing about Winged Foot is that there are two courses for the members to choose from. The East is a little more fun, and the West is more of a gut-punch. I'm sure there are days where members feel that one or the other is exactly what they're looking for.
I really enjoyed the West. For my taste, I actually think it's a little overrated in the Top 10-15 range, though its history and place in the game certainly adds to the experience. As a golf course though, I think there are more interesting, fun, and even more challenging courses out there that stand below it in the rankings. Top 30 or so....in the ballpark with the Oakland Hills and Oak Hills of the world--that sounds about right to me.
#1, "Genesis," Par 4, 440 Yards
This opening hole, with its send-off name, will quickly focus the players' attention on the merits of the West Course. The hole is a gentle right-to-left dogleg of length, which is finished off with a treacherously designed green that is severely pitched from back to front. Two pronounced spines run vertically down the green, affording an abundance of flagstick positions--left, right and center of the spines. jack Nicklaus four-putted in the opening round of the 1974 US Open, hitting his second shot above the hole, knocking his first putt off the green, and taking three more putts to hole out.
"The first green must be boldly approached, or the first terrace will leave the ball short."
Some call the first hole at Winged Foot West the hardest opening hole in championship golf, and it definitely would make a strong case. The length isn't as much of a factor as it once was as 450 yards from the tips doesn't scare the pros anymore. However, even though the hole plays shorter these days for the big hitters, the green is no easier. In fact, it might be more difficult due to modern-day green speeds. Tillinghast gave the player a bit of a gift in the opening tee shot, with no fairway bunkers to contend with. However, bunkers make their first appearance when the approach shot to the green is played. Every hole but #18 at the West Course is flanked on both sides by bunkers, and most are push-up greens that are slightly elevated from the surrounds. The first green is a bit flatter with its surrounds, at least up front.
My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
#5, "Long Lane," Par 5, 504 Yards
Claude Harmon once said that the difficulty of Winged Foot West lies in the first four holes and the last four. The fifth hole ratifies the thought, starting a three-hole stretch in which players have a realistic chance to make birdie. Both the 1923 Opening Program (which describes the green as having "a mount that is like a mausoleum") and the 1929 U.S. Open program ("the green has a slight dog's back") referred to a spine in the green, which time has almost certainly tempered and moderated.
"A slight dog-leg that may be reached with a brassie second from the right-center of the fairway."
The 5th and 12th are the only two holes that play as par 5's during major championships. The tips only measure 515 yards on this one, so it's definitely a chance to score. In fact, with some of the other holes you'll face during the day, it's almost a necessity to make a good score here.
#6, "El," Par 4, 318 Yards
As the shortest par 4 on the course, the sixth hole cries out birdie. From birth, though, the tightly bunkered L-shaped green had ideas other than birdie.
The drive should be placed won the left of the fairway close to the pit, for the green opens its contours to the approach from this side.
A really fun short par four here, with a fantastic green. A small creek wanders behind the green and to the left a bit. Our caddy actually said that there are plans in the works to re-route that creek prior to the next US Open in 2020, to come into play more if a player tries to drive the green. He also said there are plans to re-shape the green. I shudder at the thought. The hole is called "El" for a reason. Here's hoping any changes are minimal, because this green is awesome and I certainly enjoyed it, as is.
#9 on the West on the left and #18 on the East to the right--All with the gorgeous Winged Foot clubhouse in the background.
#13, "White Mule," Par 3, 209 Yards
In the 1929 U.S. Open program, Tillinghast described this green, which features a swale angling off to the enter right, as one of Winged Foot's finest. A flagstick placed in the swale's right-hand portion creates a devilish putt, especially from the front center or the front right. A broader inspection of the green reveals a back-center place for a flagstick, located on a mesa that falls off both left and right.
"The old White Mule I regard as a particularly worthy one."
This last par three on the course is a tough one. A long shot to a small target. Getting out of here with a par will be better than many.
Looking back from behind the green.
#14, "Shamrock," Par 4, 415 Yards
This is another dogleg par 4, featuring a clover-shaped fairway bunker that supplies the hole's name but is likely to be a so-what for this championship's accomplished amateurs. The elevated green is relatively flat (though equipped with yet another false front) and provides the last birdie opportunity for the players, before they embark on the extremely difficult four finishing holes of West.
"The green itself is on a knoll and affords a chance for a 3 in that the ball can be pitched right to the pin with a chance of making it stick."
Even though this is one of the "easy" holes on the West, large and tricky bunkers still will grab an approach to the green that is just a bit off.
#4, "Sound View," Par 4, 453 Yards
The 2006 U.S. Open program described the fourth as a hole where "Players have a legitimate chance of birdie, since the green is somewhat benign compared to the others at Winged Foot." 'Twas not always so, because the original green design was a variation on the so-called Biarritz style, with a deep perpendicular swale running left to right. The 1923 Opening Program described the green as "a piece of paper bent in the middle."
"An open hole, but the three level green (depression in the center) places a premium on length from the tee and a careful approach."
After playing out to the North for the first three holes (into the wind when I played it), it's a turn toward the west on the 4th. The hole doglegs to the left with bunkers straddling both the landing area and the green.
#11, "Billows," Par 4, 391 Yards
This is a straightforward hole of moderate length, with a relatively manageable green. The appeal of this hole is in the terrain. The view from the tee, which sits well above the fairway, is as beautiful as a parkland course can offer. Here is the poetic yet hyperbolic description in the 1923 Opening Program, "The 11th," it said, "is a no-man's-land hole where something volcanic has happened to the terrain." The golfer, it continues, looks down "on a fairway humped and ridged at all angles." The vista includes "a deep gully midway about which criss-cross rolls play like mid-ocean waves." Sounds dire. Nonetheless, consider Tillinghast's summation, as reported below.
"The best chance for birdies of any hole on the course is here."
Aiming at the left bunker was the play for me on this one. From there, it was a fairly easy 140 shot into the pin. It was cool to see some of the raw rock that composed this property still visible just over the tee boxes. Definitely the easiest par 4 on the back nine.
#7, "Babe-in-the-Woods," Par 3, 157 Yards
This par 3, with its large, fairly flat and false-fronted green, completes the three-hole stretch of "birdie-able" holes. In the 1974 U.S. Open, however, defending champion Johnny Miller left his hopes of a repeat victory in the front-right bunker, as he took four shots to escape.
"The bunkers are the deepest on the course."
As it suggests above, this is the last of the easiest stretch of holes on the course. Take advantage of a short shot to this par 3 before the course starts to fight back. This was one of several holes where I barely beat a notorious blow-up by a pro. It took Johnny Miller four shots to get out of the bunkers on this hole--I did it in three, en route to an ugly double bogey five!
My attempt to showcase the L-shaped nature of this green, looking from the front edge.
#15, "Pyramids," Par 4, 408 Yards
Many members consider this hole their favorite, admiring both the stream that crosses the fairway and a terraced green that is set diagonally into the hole. Most competitors will lay up short on their drive, courting a level lie for the short-iron second shot.
On the left of the green is a large knoll, and on the back right is a ridge that defends flagstick positions beyond.
"One of the very finest holes of which Winged Foot is proud. A spoon is the safest club and gives the player an opportunity of playing the second shot from the best bit of fairway. The green itself is on a sort of dog-leg angle, flanked by bunkers which are very deep. The green is of a double undulation of beautiful texture."
The 15th at Winged Foot probably has the most interesting topographical features on the course. Their is actually a bit of an uphill shot to be played into the green, and the creek also makes it of of the more interest and thought-provoking holes on the course.
#3, "Pinnacle," Par 3, 200 Yards
The third hole gets its name from its two-leveled green, featuring a precipitous slope from the back-top terrace, as from the pinnacle of a mountain. This hole is famous in Winged Foot lore as key to Billy Casper's win in the 1959 U.S. Open: his strategy for four consecutive rounds was to deliberately play short, chip close to the hole, and score an easy par.
"Pinnacle...shows a good open green to a long iron or a spoon."
I can't even imagine playing this hole from the tips, at 245 yards. The target just looks really small from the tee, with bunkers on either side and a nice house behind the green.
#16, "Hells-Bells," Par 5, 457 Yards
A dogleg that stretches out, the 16th hole requires a long and precise tee shot and an accurate second shot. The green is terraced as well, replicating the style of the back nine's 12th, 13th, and 15th holes. The front portion of the green is extremely fast.
"The tee shot has to be played to the right center if the green is to be gained with the second."
Though the driving area is quite narrow, this is a pretty easy hole for the members as a par 5, but a tough hole in championships, since it plays as a par 4.
When you take into account that everything on the left side of the tree (the East Course's 11th hole) was corporate hospitality tents, it's hard to imagine any shot other than a punch-out back into the fairway--especially given's Phil's talents with short irons to get up-and-down from there. Oh well...I guess he saw something I didn't see.
This is the only hole on the course without bunkers on either side of the green, but the contours around the green make it plenty hard without the sand. I wasn't able to get home in two, but I did lip out a put for par and tap in for bogey. I would have made the Monday playoff against Geoff Ogilvy! Of course, that's only if I had to play the 18th, and not the 71 holes before it!
#10, "Pulpit," Par 3, 183 Yards
A house - just outside the course grounds - sits around 40 yards back of the green, a fact that led Ben Hogan to describe the 10th hole as "a three-iron into somebody's bedroom." The green itself is sharply inclined and narrows from the back to a very small front opening. A back-left flagstick placement requires a high draw into the green. Shots to a front flagstick can easily catch the side bunkers, requiring the player to make an extremely delicate bunker shot to the narrow front of the green.
"Deep bunkers and a green with unusually steep slope."
The best par 3 on the course starts just outside the pro shop and heads to the southwest. Par is a really good score on this one.
#18, "Revelations," Par 4, 430 Yards
As it should be, the 18th hole is a storied hole. It was the scene of one of the most dramatic putts in the history of the U.S. Open, as Bob Jones, in 1929, sunk a sharply breaking 12-footer to force a playoff - and next day gained the win. In the 1984 U.S. Open, still another putt, a miraculous 35-footer by Greg Norman, forced a playoff. But opponent Fuzzy Zoeller won. In the 1997 PGA Championship, a timely rainbow in the afternoon sky saluted David Love III's victory. On the flipside, it proved to be the nemesis of Phil MIckelson, Colin Montgomerie and Jim Furyk in the 2006 U.S. Open, as all three found pitfalls and missed their chance to topple eventual champion Geoff Ogilvy for the title.
The green, meanwhile, displays the full gamut of Winged Foot design: a large false front, a ledge on the front left, a sharp downslope from the back to center, and a spot in the back left that harbors a ridge and room for a nasty flagstick placement.
"Revelations at last. Certainly one of the most attractive greens of them all."
To get the full experience, we played from the Tips on this one, which stretch back to 452 yards. The goal was to beat Phil Mickelson's double bogey. As I'm sure many guests do, we walked over to where Phil's drive ended up and looked at the shot he had into the green:
#12, "Cape," Par 5, 561 Yards
A demanding par 5, and yet another Winged Foot dogleg, this hole is a true three-shotter. Flagstick positions at the front of the green are relatively manageable, but a terraced area farther back permits intimidating hole locations, especially on the left.
Bob Jones, winner of the 1929 U.S. Open, propelled his start-off, record -setting 31 on the back nine with an eagle on this hole, as he went 3-3-3-3-3-4-4-4-4=31.
"Two well hit balls to the right will get close to home, but particularly the second must be placed with rare judgment. One of the real test holes on the course."
The tee ball needs to land in the left half of the fairway to avoid a slope on the first half of the fairway that will kick the ball into the rough. From that left side, a draw would be preferred on the second shot to work the way along the tree line, once the dogleg begins. This hole extends all the way to 630 Yards from the Blue tees, so getting home in two is nearly impossible.
Getting back to the golf course, there's an amazing amount of fun history that's taken place on these hallowed grounds. It wasn't long after the first foursome teed it up at Winged Foot on a Sunday in 1923, that the club hosted its first major tournament. That first tournament was the 1929 US Open, won by Bobby Jones in a 36-hole playoff over Al Espinosa by 23 strokes. Four other US Opens have been contested at the club's West Course, along with two US Amateurs (sharing the East Course for qualifying), one PGA Championship, and one Walker Cup. Those US Opens included the infamous "Massacre at Winged Foot" where Hale Irwin survived a brutally difficult course setup to win by two shots over Forrest Fezler with a +7 score of 287. More recently, the 2006 US Open, won by Geoff Ogilvy, is remembered more for Phil Mickelson's double bogey on 18, when bogey would forced a Monday playoff, than it is for Ogilvy's triumph. The neighboring East Course, which is no slouch either, has hosted two US Women's Opens, a US Senior Open, and the 2016 USGA Four-Ball Championship.
Outside of professional and major championship golf, there are other fun stories and traditions for Winged Foot. Perhaps most notable is that the mulligan was coined as an "official" golf term at the club. The legend has it that the mulligan started sometime between the late 1920's and the mid 1930's, named for David Mulligan, who felt entitled to take a "do-over" from time to time. Another tradition at Winged Foot is that there are no tee times. A group places a golf ball in line at the first tee when it wishes to go out and play. When the golf ball makes its way to the front of the line, that group is on the tee.
Regarding the tees, there are four of them set up on the golf course, though only three of them appear on the scorecard. A fourth set has been set up as forward tees--I imagine there is a separate card for those tees. Playing from the tips (blue tees) is a stout 7,258 yards, with a rating and slope of 75.7 and 141. We would play from one set forward from there (black tees), which still stretched out to 6,928 yards, with a rating of 73.8 and slope of 137. Even the white tees still measure nearly 6,600 yards. This is a "players' club," so most of the members have enough game to handle those tees. I was able to grab a program from the 2016 US Amateur Four-Ball while I was at the club, which included hole descriptions for all 36 holes on the property. I'll share those descriptions in italics below. They also added little one-liners from designer A. W. Tillinghast, as written in the 1929 US Open program. I'll quote those in bold, before sharing any of my one thoughts after that. Yardages quoted are from the black tees, where we played.
Looking back from the green to the tee, all of the bunkers are no longer visible
#17, "Well-Well," Par 4, 441 Yards
This hole is another dogleg in which the best drive is one down the right side to a level stance setting up the second shot into a very narrow green. A mount in the center right of the green influences most putts, but also conceals back-right flagstick positions.
"The entrance to the green again is narrow with bunkers on either side."
A much wider landing area for the drive than on the prior hole. The line for most mortal players is at the bunker out in the distance through the trees.
#9, "Meadow," Par 5, 508 Yards
For many years, the ninth hole was the longest par 4 that golfers had to deal with at a U.S. Open. On the green, the challenge is undulations. A mound in the green's middle affects not only putts, but also threatens approach and recovery shots.
"Certainly one of the toughest holes on the course."
As a par 5, as the members play it, this is a reasonable hole with good scoring possibilities. As a par 4, God help you! Playing back to the beautiful clubhouse, there is no trouble beyond trees and rough until you reach the green, with classic Tillinghast bunkers surrounding it.
The Golf Bucket List
Winged Foot was founded in 1921 by members of the New York Athletic Club. The club's name and logo were borrowed from that athletic club, though there are no other connections between Winged Foot and the NYAC. The members hired A.W. Tillinghast, who was just finishing up another 36 holes at nearby Baltusrol to build two courses for their use, giving him the famous marching orders to "Give us a man-sized course." Tillinghast faced a piece of land with ample rock that needed to be blasted and worked around. In many cases, piles of rock became the push-up greens that exist throughout the property. In other cases, the rock was used to build the gorgeous clubhouse that stands guard by the club's southern border. On that clubhouse, in the words of Winged Foot member, Dermod O. Sullivan:
"In 1921, the founders of Winged Foot agreed that, just as they wanted a great golf course, they should have a fine clubhouse, one of lasting beauty and structure."
"The Winged Foot clubhouse was build during an architectural period known as 'Arts and Crafts,' a movement that began in Great Britain and had an offshoot called Gothic Revival. The movement rejected mass-produced industrialism and sought to return design to a period where individual craftsmen worked by hand. The United States name for the period was Craftsman Style or American Craftsmen. One practitioner at the time was furniture maker Gustav Stickley (1858-1942)"
"Winged Foot's clubhouse was built in a Gothic style that followed Arts and Crafts precepts. Clifford C. Wendehack, the architect, was a prominent designer of golf clubhouses, including those at The Ridgewood Country Club and Hackensack Country Club. He called Winged Foot's style 'Scholastic Gothic' to differentiate it from other forms of Gothic Revival. The interiors included quarter-sawn oak woodwork, English Restoration furniture, exposed beams in the Grille and the East Room, wainscoting above the East Room fireplace, and wrought-iron chandeliers."
"The Westchester acres that became Winged Foot included a variety of attractive stones and rocks. The predominant form is Fordham Gneiss, the prevalent rock in Westchester. On Winged Foot's grounds, the rock appears in gray, salmon, pink and gray-and-white mixture."
"It fell to local farmers and their teams of horses to work the site. They unearthed the rock and listed the stone (blasting where they had to) and selected lovely jagged pieces that would become the building blocks of the clubhouse itself. The pieces fit together like the parts of a giant jigsaw puzzle, and formed the structure's walls, arches and foundations."
"The cornerstone was laid on April 14, 1923. IN it was placed a copper box containing a copy of the club's bylaws and membership rolls, and evening paper for that day and, importantly, the architect's plans for the two courses, the only architectural record we have of Tillinghast's work. The clubhouse, as initially finished in 1924, extended to the north from the locker and Grille room only through the kitchen and hall. The dining room and lounge were completed in 1925."
"Today, this handsome edifice stands as a symbol of an earlier day's architectural excellence and as an elegant companion to the 36 superior golfing holes that surround it"
#8, "Arena," Par 4, 442 Yards
Another of West's par-4 doglegs, this hole requires a tee-shot fade if the player is to avoid the trees on the right and deep rough on the left. Given the great length that modern players attain, the fairway bunker will come into play on the drive. Years have mellowed Tillie's original "fall-away" at the green, which was designed to send run-up shots left or right into bunkers. But the second shot still requires laser-like accuracy. The front of the green breaks sharply left, but the flagstick positions that most challenge the golfer lie behind a pronounced ridge that runs diagonally across the green.
"Another hole which demands utmost accuracy for the second shot, because of the 'fall-away' several yards in front of the green"
It would have been interesting to have seen this "fall-away" that's mentioned above. It's a fairly dull hole up until the green. Just long and narrow with think rough to wreck havoc on a wayward shot.