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With tight fairways and thick rough, Winged Foot presents toughest U.S. Open in years

Waiting for the green to clear ahead, Sergio Garcia looked behind him at the five holes he played Wednesday at Winged Foot and recited a list of clubs that rarely come out of his bag.

A 6-iron into the opening par 4. A 5-iron on the next hole. He had just finished the fifth hole, where he smoked a driver and had 4-iron into the green, pin-high and about 35 feet to the left.

That’s just getting to the green.

Patrick Reed stood in deep rough about a yard beyond the green on the first hole, hit a gentle flop and watched it roll down a ridge, feed over to another slope and run off the front of the green.

Welcome to Winged Foot, and a U.S. Open that needs no introduction. Narrow fairways. Thick rough. Tough greens. It’s a simple formula that for years defined the American championship, one that has been missing in recent years by trying new venues (Chambers Bay and Erin Hills) or getting gentle weather (Pebble Beach).

And there were times when the USGA tried to influence the degree of difficulty, such as the pin positions and green speeds on Saturday at Shinnecock Hills.

None of that appears necessary at Winged Foot, the century-old design that has yielded only two 72-hole scores under par in the five U.S. Opens it has hosted since 1929.

“Something would have to go seriously wrong to get into the realms of goofy golf,” Rory McIlroy said.

WATCH | Dustin Johnson wins Tour Championship:

Dustin Johnson finished the weekend at 21-under par to claim a payout of 15 million dollars in Atlanta. 1:41

No one expects the winner to break par this week, even with the move from June to September, and no one expects the USGA to have to do much to tinker with the West course.

And no one summed up the test better than John Bodenhamer, the senior managing director of championships for the USGA and the person in charge of setting up the course.

“We will let Winged Foot be Winged Foot,” he said.

His comment was inspired from digging through history of U.S. Opens at Winged Foot. A reporter wanted to know if the USGA was going to toughen the course in 1929. Bodenhamer cited this reply from course architect A.W. Tillinghast:

“We’re not going to outfit Miss Winged Foot in any different way than she otherwise would be. No fancy clothes, no special jewelry … just wash her face up for the party, and she’ll be good enough.”

The final dress rehearsal was Wednesday. Tiger Woods out first in the morning dew by himself, gearing up for a course where he is 18-over par in six previous rounds — four at the 1997 PGA Championship, two at the 2006 U.S. Open, the first time he missed the cut at a major as a pro.

Four Canadians are set to compete at Winged Foot. 

Adam Hadwin of Abbotsford, B.C., Corey Conners of Listowel, Ont., and Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont., will tee off at the major together at 8:49 a.m. ET on Thursday.

Taylor Pendrith of Richmond Hill, Ont., the only other Canadian in the field, starts at 12:10 p.m. on Thursday with American Richy Werenski and Italy’s Renato Paratore.

WATCH | Hughes finishes strong at Tour Championship:

Dundas, Ontario’s Mackenzie Hughes nailed a birdie putt to finish 8-under at the Tour Championship in Atlanta. 1:36

The measure of a difficult U.S. Open for years was how loudly players complained. Jack Nicklaus always talked about ruling players out when he heard them griping about the conditions. But that’s the highest compliment Winged Foot can receive. It tends to produce the highest scores and the fewest complaints.

No one is keeping score just yet.

“Listen, the players haven’t put a pencil in their hand yet, so we’ll wait and see,” said Mike Davis, the CEO of the USGA. “I think you go back 125 years, and there’s a little bit of history of it being a tough week. And when you think about some of the greatest U.S. Open players of all time — Bob Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods — you never heard them complain. They accepted the challenge.

“Part of the lore of a U.S. Open is it’s a very tough golf course, hopefully set up in a fair but a stern manner, and we are just poised for a wonderful week here at Winged Foot.”

The field is only 144 players, the smallest since there were 143 players in 1932, because of the move to September and the loss of nearly three hours of daylight. There also was no qualifying for the first time in more than a century because of the coronavirus pandemic. And like every tournament since golf resumed, there will be no spectators.

Winged Foot still might be more crowded than other tournament, mainly because of more volunteers required to help find tee shots in the rough. That’s what the U.S. Open brings that other tournaments haven’t. Big crowds lead to thick grass that is trampled down by the end of the week. And this is some seriously thick grass.

“If you get it outside the rope lines this week, it’s going to be significant,” Bodenhamer said.

The forecast is good, perhaps the coolest U.S. Open outside of Pebble Beach or Olympic Club in San Francisco. The players? Golf is getting so deep that five players have taken turns at No. 1 this year, the most for a calendar year since the world ranking began in 1986. Dustin Johnson occupies that spot now and is the betting favourite.

The star attraction is Winged Foot, as always.

“We have seen a couple of U.S. Opens where it might have gotten away from them,” said Webb Simpson, who won at Olympic Club in 2012. “When a golf course gets away from you, you’re bringing in luck. … I think there have been setups in the past where you could argue that a great golfer with a good amount of luck won that week. But you’re not going to have that here at Winged Foot. Whoever wins on Sunday is the best golfer here for the week.”

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