So there I was in New York’s Westchester County, sitting on the couch at my friend Jay’s house watching the rain come down outside as I wondered if I would be playing at Winged Foot Golf Club later in the day. This was a serious case of deja vu. Exactly 1 year and 12 days prior I had been sitting in the exact same spot watching rain come down outside the exact same window and wondering if I would be playing at Winged Foot Golf Club.
Last year the rain came down in a monsoon style downpour and then stopped dead. Within minutes the sun came out and we able to play a slightly damp but very enjoyable game on Winged Foot’s championship West Course. This year we were playing the East Course and I was hoping for the same luck. It wasn’t a monsoon this time, but it was coming down steady and had been for several hours. The plan was to arrive at the club at 3:30pm so when I had not received a cancellation call from my host by 3:15pm I hopped in the car and started the short drive to Mamaroneck.
As I drove down the entrance road at Winged Foot I felt that familiar giddy rush that comes when you’re about to tee it up at one of America’s greatest golf courses. That rush intensified a bit more when I caught a glimpse of the incredible stone clubhouse that sits at the end of the entrance road. Built from stone quarried right on the Winged Foot property, the clubhouse is one of the many things that contributes to Winged Foot’s distinctive and elegant feel.
Usually when golfers talk about Winged Foot Golf Club they are talking about the more famous West Course where numerous U.S. Opens and U.S. Amateurs as well as a Walker Cup and PGA Championship have been held. Not to be completely overshadowed, the East Course has its share of significant tournaments as well. The U.S. Women’s Open has been held there twice and the US Senior Open has been there once. The East Course while lesser known, is no slouch itself (to steal some phraseology from the immortal Judge Smails).
I stopped my car at the bag drop and immediately ran into my host, Bill, who was making his way into the locker room. Last year Bill had hosted Jay and me on the West Course. When we finished up he graciously extended an invitation for us to return another time to play the East Course since it was on the Top 100 list as well. For the record, Winged Foot is the ONLY club to have two courses ranked on the Top 100 list . . . a pretty impressive honor. (editor’s note: Baltusrol Golf Club now also has both of its courses ranked in the Top 100)
Once I parked my car and started making my way to the locker room to meet Bill I noticed for the first time that the rain had completely stopped and the sun was peeking out through the clouds just a little bit . . . Could I really be this lucky again?
The original plan was for Jay to join Bill and me for the East Course. Unfortunately for Jay his fancy, big city, important guy job forced him to have to stay late and work . . . a disappointment for all of us, especially him. When he gave me the news that he was going to miss out on the East Course it was a good reminder of how nice it is not to be important!!
Since Jay couldn’t make it it was just going to be Bill and me. One of my favorite ways to play golf is in a two-ball. Sure, I enjoy a nice four-ball match, but a two-ball is built for speed and for me there are few things in golf more enjoyable than a two man game at a great golf course with a fun playing partner. If the course is not crowded two players can leisurely complete an 18 hole game in 3 hours or less. We were teeing off at 4PM so finishing before dark was a slight concern and playing with two instead of 3 would certainly help.
Once we got our shoes changed we did the trunk slammer two step and headed directly to the first tee. The tee options on the East Course were blue (6,792 yards) and white (6,406 yards). With the rain making the course play longer than normal I elected to play from the Whites tees and have fun rather than beat myself up too badly. Even at 6,406 yards the slope and rating for the East Course were higher than the slope and rating of my home course’s 6,613 yard tees, so it was plenty of golf for me.
I teed up the first ball and we were off. The 1st hole is a straight away par 4 of 374 yards from the white tees. Upon arriving at the 1st green I suddenly remembered the greens on the West Course and could see that the East Courses greens were going to be no joke either. The photo below is of the 1st green although it doesn’t really do it any justice.
The 2nd hole pictured below is a short par 5 that we played from just 464 yards. A reasonable drive will set up a shot at reaching the green in two. Even from the tips the hole only plays 502 yards so it is a great scoring opportunity . . . that I regretfully did not capitalize on.
Last year when we rode down the entrance drive to the club I notice a fantastic par 3 just off to the side of the road and I commented on how great it looked. I later found out that we would not be playing that hole because it was the 3rd hole on the East Course. To say I’d thought about this hole for the last year is a bit of an exaggeration, but since it was the only hole of the East Course that I really took notice of it became my entire mental image for the East Course. I was excited to finally play the hole.
The photo below is taken from the tee box of the 3rd hole which we played from 141 yards. It’s not a long hole even from the back tees (148 yards) and it’s about as pretty of a par 3 as there is.
The photo below is of the green as we were walking up to it.
The 4th hole pictured below from the tee box is another par 5 that we played from 544 yards and is the number 1 handicap hole. This hole is a huge dogleg right and plays as a 3 shot hole for virtually everyone. From the back tees it plays 578 yards which for most amateur golfers is a definite 3 shot hole.
The photo below is taken from about where your drive should land. For a layup shot you want to put the ball down the fairway towards the small house on the right in order to set up a good approach shot. Bill said that if you hit your tee shot WAY to the right you can sometimes get lucky and have a lie that will let you go for the green in 2 and cut a big portion of the dogleg off. With the rough like it was the day I was there you’d have to be pretty lucky with the lie to be able to get a club on it. I was buried in the rough and had a tough time getting my ball out with a 9 iron.
The 5th hole is a par 4 dogleg right that we played from 368 yards. The photo below was taken from the tee.
The photo below is of the 5th green and to me this has the look of the quintessential Tillinghast approach. It’s a slightly elevated green flanked with deep bunkers and a pin tucked in a corner. I had a tricky undulating long putt on this green and ended up 3 putting.
The 6th hole pictured below is named “Trouble” – and that’s what it is for a number of reasons. We played it from 172 yards and it is an uphill shot to an elevated green.
Though not visible in the photo above there are houses along the right side of the hole. One particular resident of one of the houses filed a lawsuit against the club because of wayward balls landing in his yard. The hole was actually shut down for a period of time and the club finally got approval from the courts to open the hole back up. In order for the hole to be reopened the club had to do two things. First they planted the trees to try to stop sliced tee shots from reaching the yard and second they had to record the result of every tee shot hit on the hole. I didn’t really grasp what Bill meant by recording the result of every tee shot until we got up around the green and saw that there was a guy with a clipboard sitting in a golf cart writing down how many shots went O.B. and into this guys yard. What a boring job that would be! Unfortunately my tee shot was nearly one of the offending shots. Had it not been for a tree my ball would have surely ended up in his yard. It still went O.B. but at least it wasn’t in the yard!
The photo below is a shot of the 6th green which is surrounded on all sides by deep bunkers.
The 7th hole is a long straight away par 4 that we played from 435 yards. The photo below shows off another classic Tillinghast green complex.
The kid walking with the bag in the photo above is George. He was about 14 and the only other player on the course so we let him play through us. Despite its reputation as a major championship golf club Winged Foot has a robust junior program. My host Bill is a lifelong member and grew up caddying and learning the game in the Winged Foot junior program. He developed a great game here an even won the junior club championship one year. He said that as a teenager he too would often go out for late afternoon rounds and have the course all to himself. I suspect young George may have been wondering what in the heck we were doing out there on his course interfering with his pace of play.
The 8th hole is a very short par 5 which we played from 439 yards (from the back tees it’s only 451 yards) and is a pretty sharp dogleg left. I tried to draw it around the trees and Bill who hits it longer than the Dalai Lama himself knocked one up and over the trees to the ideal position. We both parred the hole, but being so short it was a missed birdie or eagle opportunity. The photo below is the 8th green – yet another fantastic Tilly green complex.
The 9th hole, pictured below from the tee, is a par 4 dogleg left that we played 380 yards. One interesting thing I’ll note in the photo below is the guys over on the right side of the photo by the large tree (click the photo to enlarge). Winged Foot does have a driving range, but it is a short one only allowing for a limited number of shot lengths. Golfers who want to hit shots that are too long for the range will come out the spot at the right in the photo below and knock balls out onto the 9th fairway. If you elect to do this you must use your own shag balls and pick them up yourself. If someone is practicing from over there when you get to this hole and you hit your ball in the fairway you’re going to have to find it amongst their shag balls which can be an adventure!
At Winged Foot the 10th hole is the one that takes you back to the clubhouse for the turn and it’s a nice little short par 4 that we played from 342 yards (only 353 from the back tees). The photo below was taken from the tee box. The ideal drive here would be a draw in order to cut the most distance off the hole and have a wedge into the green.
Below is a photo of the 10th green with deep bunkers all around and the clubhouse as the backdrop.
As we crossed the road after the 10th hole I commented to Bill that my score was not going to be so great. I started slow and was 8 over in the first six holes. Fortunately I had warmed up a bit over the last couple of holes so maybe there was hope yet. Bill commented that I only needed to play the second nine in 2 under in order to break 80. On the golf course I prefer optimism over realism, so I appreciated the vote of confidence!
The 11th hole pictured below is a short par 4 dogleg right that we played from 354 yards. A good drive on this hole is a shot aimed down the middle that cuts around the dogleg and leaves just a short iron into the green. The bunker shouldn’t be in play if you hit the right type of shot.
The photo below is of the 11th green which is slanted from back to front. Balls hit over the green will find some pretty long rough and require a tough chip back to the green especially if the hole is at the back of the green. I can attest to this.
The 12th hole is par 5 that we played from 536 yards. The hole doglegs to the left and is a 3 shot hole for most players. The photo below was taken from the tee box where ideal drive would be played down the left side and draw back towards the center.
The photo below was taken from about where the 2nd shot would be played from.
The 12th green, pictured below, is surrounded by deep bunkers that wreak havoc for those who hit their 2nd or 3rd shots short of the green.
The 13th hole is yet another great par 3. It is a short shot that we played from 141 yards, but the green is slanted from front to back and any shots that finish above the hole are going to leave a very fast downhill putt. I was above the hole and babied my birdie putt which never even really had a chance to go in.
The photo below shows how deep the bunkers are around the 13th green are . . . you don’t want to be in there.
The 14th hole is a dogleg right that we played from 384 yards. The photo below was taken from roughly where the 2nd shot should be played from. I hit a great shot here and had about 5 feet for birdie and Bill, not to be outdone, knocked one to less than a foot. We both got 3s here which was nice.
The 15th hole is a short par 4 that we played from 327 yards. The back tees were just 336. As you can see in the photo below there is a creek that fronts the green and can certainly come into play for big hitters here. Really big hitters can probably carry the water and have a short chip to the green. I played it safe and teed off with a utility club. Short par 4s are my favorite type of hole and this is a great one.
The 16th hole is a long par 4 that we played from 430 yards. The approach shot pictured below plays uphill so it’s a long one. This green is the highest point on the Winged Foot property and Bill told me that when he was a kid the New York City skyline was visible from this green.
The photo below is the 17th hole which is a long par 3 that we played from 205 yards. It does play downhill but not so drastic that I had hit too much less club than the yardage. Like many of the holes at Winged Foot the elevated green makes for a difficult recovery on shots that are missed to the left and right. I missed to the right with a flag on the right so I was happy to get out of there with a bogey.
The 18th hole is another great hole at Winged Foot with the clubhouse as the backdrop. This is a straight away par 4 that we played from 370 yards. Bill and I both hit great second shots here and had very makeable birdie putts as you can see in the photo below.
I put a cap on my round at Winged Foots East course by draining my 10 footer and was happy to have finished well after such a shaky start. A worse than average start of eight over in the first six holes and then a better than average finish of three over for the last 12 holes is unfortunately the story of my game. I was pleased as can be walking off the 18th green with a birdie and have no complaints at all with my finish.
We managed to wrap up before sundown and capped off the day watching the PGA Championship highlights in the grill room while enjoying a few beers. I had a fun day having played very well (for me) on the last 12 holes and Bill couldn’t have been a better host and playing partner. One thing I had forgotten from the previous year is that Bill is a HUGE fan of the movie Caddyshack, so one of us was throwing out a quote or reference from the movie on at least every other hole. Speaking of Caddyshack, I also forgot an interesting piece of trivia that Bill had told me last year. The summer before filming Michael O’Keefe (aka Danny Noonan) spent the summer at Winged Foot under the direction of head pro Tom Nieporti learning all about golf so that he could get a feel for the job and bring a little more realism to the Danny Noonan character. Who would have ever thought that someone from Caddyshack would have employed the method acting technique!
I’ve now played both courses at Winged Foot and I can say that I loved both of them. It’s now quite clear to me why this club has both of its courses ranked in the Top 100. They are two distinctly different experiences that each require different skill sets to be successful on them. The West is longer and and more of a brute while the East is a bit more intimate and requires more of a finesse game in order to score well. The crown jewels of both courses are an incredible set of greens that can challenge and befuddle golfers of all skill levels. When you couple these two great golf courses with the low key and unpretentious feel of the club I have to conclude that Winged Foot Golf Club lives up to its hype and is clearly one of the best golf clubs in America.