Winged Foot is the most difficult, yet traditionally perfect course for U.S. Open

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A general view of golfers walking on the ninth hole during a practice round prior to the 120th U.S. Open Championship on September 16, 2020 at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York. - Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America/TNS

It’s September, not June. There are no galleries, grandstands or hospitality tents. But there is one reason why this feels like a U.S. Open — the golf course.

Winged Foot. It has kicked many golfers in the pants over the years and when it is set up with its narrow fairways, thick, sticky rough and speedy greens, it may be the most traditionally perfect of U.S. Open venues.

“This isn’t the norm,” said defending champ Gary Woodland, who won at a very different Pebble Beach last June. “But you want to prove that whoever has the best game this week is going to win, and that’s not every week that the best player wins. This week, top to bottom, whoever is playing the best is going to win this golf tournament. And you want that to be yourself. That’s what you work for. That’s what you strive for.”

The biggest indicator that the USGA got it right this time is the lack of whining. Maybe it’s because everyone knew what was coming but the consensus is that it couldn’t be any harder and it couldn’t be more fair.

Tiger Woods, one of only 15 players out of the field of 144 who competed in the 2006 U.S. Open here, ranks Winged Foot along with Oakmont and Carnoustie as the most difficult courses he has ever played.

Justin Thomas, the 2017 PGA champion, hasn’t seen everything that Woods has but Winged Foot gets his vote.

“Oakmont (which hosted the 2016 Open) is very tough, but it’s just more the speed of the greens than anything,” Thomas said. “But tee to green, the rough, the greens, everything factored in, I think this is the hardest course I’ve played.”

Thomas went so far as to call Winged Foot fun.

“You just have to embrace it, otherwise it’s going to eat you alive,” he said. “I’m not going into this week scared of Winged Foot. I can’t play tentative. The most important thing is try to take each hole for what it is and not make this place any bigger than it is because it’s already big.”

The high, sticky rough, of course, is the No. 1 defense of the golf course.

Woodland, for instance, was practicing chips Saturday and his caddie was tossing him back the balls.

“We lost a ball for about five minutes and it was right in front of me,” he said. “We didn’t find it until we stepped on it. The golf ball can disappear pretty quickly.”

And it’s only grown more since Saturday. That’s why the rough has to figure into everyone’s game plan, because, as Dustin Johnson noted, balls hit in the fairway are getting 30 to 40 yards of roll compared to those landing in the rough.

Bryson DeChambeau, who led the PGA Tour with an average driving distance of 322.1 yards, plans to throw caution to the wind and bomb driver off or most every tee. Phil Mickelson, who killed is ‘06 chances by hitting driver, will be hitting mostly 3-woods.

“Not as many drivers off tees as I thought there would be, which is good,” Rory McIlroy said. “You’ve got to put your ball into position, and then once you do that, that’s a tough part, and then getting it on to the right levels of these greens, leaving it below the hole, giving yourself decent putts.

“I thought I was going to have to hit driver, 5-iron into every par-4, and it’s not quite like that,” he went on. “There are still places where precision beats power.”

The greens themselves are A.W. Tillinghast masterpieces, expanded to close to their original dimensions by architect Gil Hanse. They aren’t as firm as they would have been in June but with all of their slopes and undulations they are still tricky. It was interesting to see Thomas and Woods working together to test out how to best use the sloped during their Tuesday practice round.

“I think that’s a huge advantage, if you know how to work into some of those pins,” Woodland said. “There’s a lot of slope in these greens where there are not a ton of pin placements. And I don’t think the USGA is going to get too crazy. The golf course is hard enough.

“If you can be able to utilize those slopes, control your distance, control into those slopes, control the spin, that’s going to be a massive advantage trying to save pars on a lot of these holes.”

In every way, it shapes up as a fantastic week. Winged Foot — and one champion — will be the winners.

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