Winged Foot Golf Club

Tillinghast's overlooked and underrated masterpiece

By: Pamela Emory

Appeared in January/February 1998 LINKS

When asked to describe Winged Foot Golf Club’s two courses, a former PGA Tour player said: “One’s a bear and the other course people like to play.” Most people hear Winged Foot and they think of its West course, one A.W. Tillinghast’s best.

But Winged Foot East is also a Tillinghast masterpiece, but one whose strength lies in its subtle, more understated approach to design. The East has diversity in its design, which, in the opinion of many players, makes it the more interesting of the two courses.

When golfers head off to the 1st tee of the East course they go with a sense of fun and adventure about what waits ahead. The West is a super championship layout, but it presents to the average golfers 18 long, difficult holes, almost all with elevated, undulating greens surrounded by very deep greenside bunkers. East presents more diversity, but interestingly, when it opened, it was 140 longer than the West, which only over time was stretched to its present gargantuan length.

While the West has been the site of Winged Foot’s five U.S. Opens, the Women’s Open first came to the East in 1957, and it started and ended in controversy. A club rule required contestants to wear skirts rather than the customary Bermuda shorts—an unpopular decision.

Betsy Rawls won the third of four Opens, but she didn’t shoot the lowest score; Jackie Pung did. Previously the penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard (for a score lower than actually made) was two strokes. The penalty was changed to disqualification starting in 1957. Pung walked off the 72nd hole after posting 298, one less than Rawls. But in the post-completion hoopla and merriment she signed an incorrect scorecard—a six on the 4th hole, instead of a five. Winged Foot members and the press passed the hat and she ended up taking away more dollars than the official victor.

For decades, a towering figure loomed over the East course—a 100-foot tree known as “the Great Elm,” which guarded more than half the green of the 10th hole. Its position created all sorts of playing options for the player approaching the 353-yard hole: a low pitch, bump-and-run and on lucky days, maybe even a drop-through-the-branches-onto-the-green shot.

Dutch elm disease and old age forced the club to take down the tree in 1993. There were 178 rings on the trunk. Some of the wood from the elm was used to make plaques for the club and a new computer desk for superintendent Robert Alonzi.s

While “the Great Elm” may be gone forever, its legacy will only prosper. As for the East course itself, it will always remain Winged Foot’s precious and precocious jewel.


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