The early headlines promise a brutal slaughter of the best players in the world this week at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, but the golfers don’t see it that way.
Winged Foot, after all, became famous for being extremely hard in 1974 when that year’s U.S. Open was so difficult it was called the Massacre at Winged Foot. A book was even written with that title.
Today’s top players aren’t quite as scared as the bunch who played nearly 50 years ago. At least one is really enjoying the challenge.
“It’s right up there next to Oakmont and, I think, Carnoustie, as far as just sheer difficulty, without even doing anything to it,” Tiger Woods said at his pre-tournament press conference.
He could not decide if it is harder or easier than Oakmont, and those two, he said are both harder than Carnoustie.
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Woods played the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006, the year of Mickelson’s debacle and Geoff Ogilvy’s victory. That was before Woods had several additional surgeries to his knee and back. But Woods remembers it most because it was the year his father died, and that was very important to him.
According to Woods, many of the holes are longer and the greens have been changed since 2006. But the length is counteracted, he suggested, with better technology.
His strategy this time around is playing to particular spots off the tee. It doesn’t matter if it’s driver or 3-wood as far as he’s concerned. His goal is rough avoidance although he has always been spectacular out of the rough. His back surgeries, however, may have hampered his ability to gouge shots out of long grass.
One Tiger equipment note: the Scotty Cameron is back in the bag.
Rory McIlroy also compared Winged Foot to Oakmont, but in a different way.
“When I played Oakmont for the first time, my initial reaction was, this place is impossible,” he said in his digital press conference. “This course doesn’t feel quite as — it gives you a little more chances if you miss it.”
Based on what he had heard before seeing the course, McIlroy expected every hole to be driver, 4-iron. He quickly found that isn’t the case.
“Not as many drivers off tees as I thought there would be, which is good,” he added.
After the tee shot, he said the next biggest challenge will be getting the ball on the right level of each green, below the hole, so that he has a chance to make putts.
“I think this place tests every single aspect of your game,” he noted.
He offered some specifics. While he is comfortable hitting driver on the 6th hole, on the 11th, he thinks the fairway slope doesn’t allow a drive to hit and hold. He’s going for a 3-iron there.
Mainly, he said he’s going to be planning a shot ahead most of the time.
“Where can I leave this next shot that I have the most routine chip shot or second putt or whatever,” he explained.
Justin Thomas’ comments were a shock.
“It’s incredible. I absolutely love it,” he said joyfully to media. “It’s probably one of my favorites I’ve ever played, to be honest. It’s hard, so it’s a different kind of fun, but it is fun.” He smiled the entire time.
In his practice rounds, he’s had lies that he would describe as awful, yet he’s still positive. He admitted the course was probably the hardest he’s ever played.
“You just have to embrace it, otherwise it’s going to eat you alive,” he added. “You’re going to be put in some uncomfortable places, and you as a person are going to feel uncomfortable. It’s really just how can you manage that.”
If attitude has anything to do with it, he’s certainly 10-under par to start the week. He also noted it was just Tuesday, and that after he has a few bad holes, he might say something more critical. But right now, he’s acting like he just got a new pony.
Perhaps Dustin Johnson described the situation more accurately than anyone else.
“You really have to hit the fairways,” he insisted in his pre-tournament media meeting. “The rough is — it’s not super deep, but you just can’t play out of it. You can’t control the golf ball, and you can’t get to the greens from it.”
He hasn’t had any shots yet where he can’t advance the ball. He might not be able to get to the green from the rough, but he can get out of the long grass.
The rough is definitely everyone’s big problem this week. But the greens are no picnic either.
“There’s only a certain area on the greens that are usable,” he said.
What he means by that is the greens have so much slope to them that there are very few locations to put a hole. Believe it or not, the goal with setting the pins is to find a place that’s at least semi-flat around the cup. The Winged Foot greens don’t have many flat spots.
Because of his length, there are holes where DJ can’t hit driver because he’ll be through the fairway. So, look for a variety of choices off the tee from him.
Now, no one knows for sure how these four players will do this week. They could regard it as Massacre II, or they could be like Thomas and think it’s hard but a blast to play.
And if tradition holds, someone we don’t expect, even someone we hardly know, will be at the top of the leaderboard after the first day. Perhaps even after the second. One of the reasons this happens is that when a course is made impossibly hard, luck enters into the equation and can negate the skill of the best players versus the lesser ones. But after four rounds, usually the best players rise.