Jack Nicklaus was once asked to rate several famous courses on a scale of difficulty from 1 to 10. He rated Augusta National, St. Andrews, Oak Hill and Seminole all 8s, and Pebble Beach and Baltusrol each got a 10. How about Winged Foot? "11," said Nicklaus. "Maybe 12."
I prefer extremely challenging venues for the U.S. Open – provided they're hard, but fair. I love Pebble Beach and Olympic, but I feel they're both too tricked up when set up as U.S. Open venues. Winged Foot, on the other hand, is really hard, but really straightforward. Along with Oakmont, Winged Foot West is the quintessential U.S. Open course.
Sure, you can argue that we need more geographical diversity for our national championship. We already have Long Island's Bethpage Black and Shinnecock Hills as frequent U.S. Open sites. In fact, Shinny will host the 2018 event, and we'll go back to the Empire State two years later. That said, I'd rather witness compelling U.S. venues than worry about where we are in the country. Few come more compelling than Winged Foot.
Unquestionably, the U.S. Open site must deliver a worthy, attractive test of golf. As a sidebar to that story, however, we also favor venues that are soaked in history, tradition and lore. Winged Foot qualifies on every front.
No disrespect to Baltusrol, Olympia Fields and Inverness to name three, but our memories of U.S. Opens held there are a bit hazy. Not so with Winged Foot, and its five Opens. Start with Bobby Jones in 1929, who squandered a six-shot lead with six to play and had to sink one of history's greatest putts, a curling, downhill, left-to-right 12-footer on the 72nd green just to make a playoff with Al Espinosa.
Jones edged Espinosa in the 36-playoff by 23 strokes. Billy Casper captured the 1959 U.S. Open with brilliant putting (only one three-putt) and by famously laying up on the par-3 3rd all four rounds – and making par each time. Hale Irwin won the 1974 U.S. Open at +7, 287, on a test so fearsome that the follow-up book by Dick Schaap was titled "Massacre at Winged Foot."
Perhaps the most iconic image in Winged Foot Open history arose from the 1984 edition, when Fuzzy Zoeller waved a white towel of surrender from the 72nd fairway after watching Greg Norman slam-dunk a 40-foot putt that Zoeller mistakenly thought was for birdie. Instead, it was a par effort, which ultimately earned a playoff. It was Norman's turn to wave the flag the next day, when Zoeller crushed the Shark, 67-75.
And, who can forget Phil Mickelson's agonizing 72nd-hole meltdown in 2006, resulting in a double-bogey 6 and a loss to Geoff Ogilvy. Throw in Davis Love's "Rainbow" win at the 1997 PGA Championship and you have a legacy of tournament greatness that's nearly unrivalled in American golf.
If there's any question as to why Winged Foot elicits such drama, it's answered by the golf course itself. Given the edict in 1923 to "build us a man-sized course," architect A.W. Tillinghast did just that, creating a stern test for the ages with lengthy par 4s and frighteningly deep bunkers guarding imaginatively contoured, pear-shaped greens.
Tom Fazio lengthened several holes a decade ago, helping to stiffen the test, but the vaunted trees that frame the fairways hardly suffocate landing areas. Moreover, Winged Foot lacks the soaring elevation changes and forced-carry, risk-reward excitement that characterize other big-time courses. Instead, Winged Foot tests, and often torments, the game's best with old-fashioned virtues: Drive it in the fairway – better yet, the proper side of the fairway – so that you can approach the firm, fast, undulating greens with the optimum angle and maximum spin. It's that simple. You just have to do it 18 times a round.
Make no mistake, Winged Foot hardly flatters my game. The rough, the approaches and those repetitively fearsome greens just wear me out. I'd rather duel with seaside links and sea breezes and run-up shots. So, too, from the television broadcast perspective, there are dozens of other major championship tracks that stimulate me more. However, with its stately, perfect clubhouse, its graceful, yet brutal holes and its remarkable litany of golf lore over 90 years, there's no U.S. Open site I respect more.
Throw in its proximity to New York City, the media capital of the world, and you've got the recipe for another classic U.S. Open. My understanding is that the USGA and Winged Foot had a small hissy-fit that kept them apart in recent times. Glad to see these two kids kiss and make up. Golf's greatest bogey train is seven years away.