September 17th – 20th, 2020
Winged Foot Golf Club (West Course)
Par: 70 / Yardage: 7,477
Purse: $12.5 million (2019 purse)
with $2,250,000 to the winner
It’s just not the U.S. Open anymore
Since its inception in 1895, the U.S. Open has always been considered on par with the British Open as the most critical Golf event. Over the years, the British Open has escalated its presence in golf, while the U.S. Open seems to have lost its luster in the last 20 years and today is considered the fourth of the four majors. With the world pandemic still at full force, the U.S. Open has been forced to this week, a date that could prove very undesirable. With football beginning over the weekend, it could take away the luster of golf. It’s no surprise that on Sunday, not many newspapers had stories of the incoming USGA event.
For years USGA has shot itself in the foot from being overbearing in setting up some of the courses in which they have embarrassed themselves. Every year players go to a U.S. Open course having to hold their breath to see if the course has been set up fairly and is a good test. While the USGA seems to have problems as they did in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills or in 2015 at Chambers Bay in the way the course was set up, each year the PGA of America sets up a course, the players rave about the playability and how professional things are run during the championship. The Masters is always perfect, and each year they go out of their way to not only make sure everything is ideal for the players but also making it enjoyable to there fans to watch and attend the event. They again go out of their way to get the most bang from the media, in which you now find more stories on the Masters than you would find for the U.S. Open.
This year the USGA has found themselves with lots of problems on their hands. First, this week’s date is proving to be a hard sell to get people to watch. But the biggest problem is having broken with their tradition of having the championship open to anyone that wants to try and qualify to play. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, they felt it best to scuttle all Open qualifying and picked categories in which the field was chosen. That has come under some protests, but that, along with the lack of fans, has one wondering if this should just be called the U.S. Open Championship and have for the year a big asterisk. In 1942 after World War II broke out, the USGA felt it improper to play the 1942 U.S. Open. But they thought that the date needed to be filled and the tournament proceeds would raise a lot of money for Navy Relief and the USO. So the USGA got together with the PGA of America and the Chicago District Golf Association to sponsor the Hale American National Open. The USGA ran the event. They set up the course like they would do the U.S. Open, so when Ben Hogan won, many of his supporters and golf historians felt the tournament should be counted just like a U.S. Open. The USGA said no, and the nearly 80 years since it was last played, the tournament has faded away. So in a way, this week’s event run by the USGA has the same sort of feel. The only difference which still makes it as being a U.S. Open is the course, Winged Foot is one of those hollow grounds, a true mecca of the game and one of the best courses in the world. It will be set up just like a U.S. Open with demanding rough to penalize poor shots, and the greens will be some of the hardest to hit and putt on. So despite the lack of fans, which frankly is a big problem, there is still a feeling that this is a U.S. Open. The field is one of the best in golf as 89 of the top-100 players off the Official World Golf Rankings head the field of 144 players.
As I have said, Winged Foot is the mecca of golf. It was designed by A.W. Tillinghast, who was considered by many as the father of golf course architects. Along with Donald Ross, Seth Raynor, and William Flynn, they were the men who built all of the great courses in golf’s golden age between World War I and II. To many people, Tillinghast had the nickname of “Terrible Tillie” because he designed some of the most challenging golf courses, and Winged Foot is always in the top-ten when discussing the most demanding courses in America. Winged Foot is one of those rare courses in which you not only need precision in driving and execution in hitting the greens from the fairway, but you have to process the ability to putt well as a surgeon carefully uses his knife to fix any ailment of a person. If these three items aren’t enough, the art of getting it up and down from off a green miss is, for many, the way to win a U.S. Open.
Our day of hitting it long and wedging it onto the green for an easy birdie doesn’t work at Winged Foot. Of course, hitting it long makes the course a lot shorter, but the penalty for missing the fairway is too extreme. You may be in the rough only 150 yards from the green, but the wirey bluegrass/ryegrass rough makes it impossible to get it onto the green.
So the big question will be who is best suited for Winged Foot? The last time the U.S. Open was played at Winged Foot was in 2006, and only 15 players in that field will be playing Winged Foot this week. Of those 15, Adam Scott is probably the only one with a serious enough chance of winning as Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, and Matt Kuchar as the only others with any kind of chance.
In the past, those playing well always seem to have the best chance. But in looking at the field of 156 at the Safeway, only 19 are playing this week. Of those, Kevin Streelman (T-3rd) and Chesson Hadley (T-14th) finished in the top-29. So Safeway is no help. What you need to do is see who played best at the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship. Dustin Johnson will stick out, he lost the playoff at the BMW and won the Tour Championship. Jon Rahm could also be considered a challenger since he won the BMW and was 4th in the Tour Championship. These two are the only ones with top-tens in both events. Some others to ponder will be Hideki Matsuyama, T-3rd at the BMW, and T-15th at East Lake. Tony Finau, who was 5th at the BMW and 17th at the Tour Championship, is on the shortlist as possible favorites.
Now the 64 million dollar question will be if the USGA has done a top-notch job with Winged Foot as they did at Pebble last year. Because if they didn’t, it could be a very long week of player frustration, which makes it’s way to the press. Still, like Pebble Beach last year and Oakmont in 2016, the past Open plans were so good it’s close to impossible to screw up if mother nature is mild on them.
Despite all of its past horrors, the U.S. Open is still a major watch for all fans, but have to wonder if football will take away some of that luster. Still, Winged Foot will put on a great U.S. Open and should be a lot of fun to watch.