By JIM LITKE
When golfers fall asleep imagining how they’d play this course or that, they’re almost never dreaming about Winged Foot. That includes Tiger Woods. The place is a nightmare for him, too.
Then again, if the aim is to stage the toughest test in golf, in the midst of a pandemic no less, where else would you plant the flagstick? Only two players have finished under par in the five U.S. Opens contested over the century-old design and no one on the ground in Mamaroneck, New York, this week, including the favorites, expects to make a serious dent in that legacy. Just the opposite.
“The viewers at home are going to see some pretty bizarre stuff and probably a lot of putts and chips that make us look pretty bad,” Justin Thomas said.
“If you’re into that stuff,” he added, “then you’re going to like this week.”
Which prompted at least one enterprising fan on Twitter to retort: “Why would I want to watch bad golf when I can do that to myself?”
A fair enough question, but one which the U.S. Golf Association rarely bothers to ask itself. The USGA selects the venues for the national championships and sets them up, sometimes diabolically, happy to let the game’s three other major championships and nearly every week out on tour offer what amounts to a skeet-shoot.
Birdies have been plentiful since golf resumed play back in June. Six players have won with scores of 20 under par or better, including an eye-popping, 30-under-par win by Dustin Johnson, the favorite at tee-off time, at the Northern Trust last month. The low scores could be the result of golfers using the extra time off to practice or just decompress, or maybe even a lack of fans applying pressure on the leader coming down the stretch.
Whatever the reason, don’t expect a lot of red on the board, or conversely, too much complaining by the players this week. It was at Winged Foot, not coincidentally, where the USGA’s rallying cry was made by the late Sandy Tatum, its president at the time, after a particularly brutal opening round in 1974.
“We’re not here to humiliate the best players,” he said. “We’re simply trying to identify who they are.”
Along with Johnson and Thomas, several other guys on impressive runs are being touted by the bookies, few gaining more buzz than Jon Rahm. The Spaniard by way of Arizona State has already notched the two toughest tournaments this year — the Memorial at Muirfield Village and the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields, holding off loaded fields in both — and is poised for his major breakthrough.
With tight fairways, thick rough, slick greens and five closing par-4s of 425 yards and better, Winged Foot places a premium on driving accuracy, distance control with the irons and especially the short game. That could bring young Collin Morikawa, the recently crowned PGA Championship winner, and just-turned-40 Aussie Adam Scott into the mix.
Most of the top 70-ranked players in the world will be on hand, including three-time winner Woods, defending champion Gary Woodland and eight other U.S. Open winners. Missing is Brooks Koepka, who won back-to-back in 2017-18, but will sit this one out due to an injury.
Woods, seeking his 16th major, claimed the 2000 U.S. title at Pebble Beach with a performance that ranks among the greatest four days of golf ever played. Now 44 and day-to-day because of a surgically repaired back, he might have trouble just hanging on into the weekend. When the 1997 PGA Championship was played at Winged Foot, Woods finished T29. In the previous U.S. Open there, in 2006, weeks after the death of his father, Earl, he missed the cut.
Phil Mickelson, the other aging superstar, has an even more tortured history at Winged Foot. Having just turned 50 and dominated in his first Champions Tour start, he’s spent much of the week recounting his improbable meltdown in 2006, one of a half-dozen runner-up finishes he’s collected chasing the one major championship that has eluded him.
But at least he’s having fun with it. In a TV ad running recently, Mickelson promises a free driver to a lucky contest entrant whose favorite Callaway golfer wins the U.S. Open.
“Come on,” Phil says in the promo, “we all know who it’s going to be. When have I ever let you down at Winged Foot?”