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Winged Foot Golf Club

The club has it all: history, tradition, ambiance, legendary characters; not to mention two of the best golf courses in the world

By: Merrell Noden

Appeared in May/June 2006 LINKS

"Give us a man-sized course.”

Those were the only words of instruction that a group of golfers, most of them members of the New York Athletic Club, gave A.W. Tillinghast in 1922, when they hired him to develop the rugged 280 acres they had purchased in Mamaroneck in Westchester County, just over the border from New York City.

One wonders if they ever came to regret those bold words, since Tillie, who could be an irascible cuss, took them as a challenge. He eventually gave them two courses, each a marvel of strategic golf and “man-sized” enough to have humbled virtually every great golfer of the past century. Asked about the finishing holes of the West Course during the legendarily tough 1974 U.S. Open, Jack Nicklaus quipped, “The last 18 are very difficult.”

Today, Winged Foot is nothing less than the finest golf club in metropolitan New York. Given the wealth of great golf in the area, that lofty position also means Winged Foot is surely on the short list of contenders for the best golf club in the world. “It is to golf what Yankee Stadium is to baseball, or Wimbledon is to tennis,” said the late Dave Marr, who spent three years at Winged Foot as an assistant pro in the mid-1950s before going on to win the 1965 PGA Championship.

“We knew we were on very hallowed grounds of golf in the United States,” says Craig Harmon, who grew up at Winged Foot while his father, Claude, served as pro from 1945 to ’78 and is himself in his 34th year as the head professional at Oak Hill in Rochester, New York. “It was just kind of fun being there, playing the great holes, knowing the history of the club, knowing that Bobby Jones played these holes. And it continues to this day.”

When Winged Foot hosts its fifth Open June 15-18, it will also be the third time in the last five years that the national championship comes to a Met-Area course (Bethpage in 2002, Shinnecock Hills in ’04) as the U.S. Golf Association recognizes what true golfers already know: New York is the best golf city in the world.

Oh, you’ll hear arguments for other areas: Chicago’s collection of clubs and public courses; the Philadelphia area, which includes Pine Valley and Merion; even St. Andrews, Scotland, anchored by the Old Course. But those cities’ golf rosters just don’t go as deep as New York.

The country’s business and cultural center during the Golden Age of American golf course architecture, New York was the beneficiary of a disproportionate number of world-class layouts. The green light that beckoned Gatsby may as well have been the glow from one of the many great courses being built in the area: Maidstone, Garden City Golf and Bethpage Black on Long Island; Baltusrol, Ridgewood and Somerset Hills in New Jersey; and, within miles of Winged Foot, Fenway and Westchester Country Club, not to mention Quaker Ridge, another Tillie gem across the street from Winged Foot West’s No. 4 green.

At the epicenter is Winged Foot, where both the East and West courses are more highly ranked by Golf Digest and Golfweek than Baltusrol’s Lower Course, itself a four-time Open host and site of last year’s PGA Championship. The West, this year’s Open site, gets most of the attention, largely because of its tournament history (see sidebar, page 51). But members say there is little difference between the two. University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, who hardly suffers from indecision, happily lets the caddiemaster tell him which course to play (see sidebar, page 54).

Tillinghast’s original plans called for the East, now 6,775 yards, to be the longer of the two by 140 yards. After lengthening prior to previous Opens as well as this one, the West will play 7,264 yards—the longest in tournament history. But the East has more water and doglegs, and members swear the greens are tougher than the West’s putting surfaces, which give the course much of its character and are notorious in major-championship golf for their difficulty.

‘Schoolteachers and CEOs’

The history of Winged Foot is about the members, guests and employees. The club has a lengthy list of famous visitors: numerous kings and one Bing (Crosby), President Eisenhower and clowns like Bob Hope and Bill Murray. Babe Ruth was a regular, both as a player and a fan: A photo of Bobby Jones teeing off on the 72nd hole of the 1929 Open shows Ruth five yards behind him, smoking a big cigar and squatting more gracefully than one might expect on those pipestem legs.

“The thing famous people like about the club is that nobody bothers them,” says Arnold Thiesfeldt, a member since 1967. “If that was Arnold Palmer sitting over there, you left him alone.”

Thiesfeldt still chuckles at the memory of Mickey Rooney standing up in the Grille at lunch one day in the most garish golf getup. His host had finished for the day but Rooney wasn’t ready to quit: “Isn’t there anybody here that wants to play some golf?” he challenged—and he got his game.

Just about everybody at Winged Foot plays with a passion—not just the pros and the long line of great assistants, but also club secretaries, grounds-crew members and the kitchen staff. It’s not a prerequisite for employment, but it sure helps. And once a member of the Winged Foot family, nobody leaves.

“The membership was all-embracing,” says Harmon. “They took care of their staff. Any time they played with an assistant pro, they would pick up his caddie fee.”

For all the club’s prestige, there is remarkably little stuffiness at the club known to some simply as “The Foot.” All members share a humble dedication to the game no matter their handicap or net worth. The club’s no-tee-time policy further promotes camaraderie among members. “It’s got a great mixture of members,” says Pitino. “You play one round with a schoolteacher and the next with a Wall Street CEO.”

Of course, the club does have its share of famous members. Pitino coached the New York Knicks for two seasons and later joined the club in 1992. Donald Trump joined in 1975 and believes he got in mainly because the club was pursuing younger members. Trump is building his own New York golf empire—he has a club in Westchester and is about to add a second course to his club in New Jersey—but he calls Winged Foot “the best 36 holes in golf.”

Tillie’s Man-sized Test

Winged Foot is first and foremost a golf club, a point that cannot be emphasized too much. Don’t ever call it a “country club,” which may be a worse sin than gouging out a large divot on the 18th green. There’s a small swimming pool, hidden behind trees near the first tee of the East Course. But there are no tennis courts: When three-time Wimbledon champion Bill Tilden was a regular visitor to Winged Foot in the 1920s, he came strictly for the golf. (Winged Foot also has no affiliation with the New York Athletic Club despite adapting the NYAC logo, a winged foot, over a pair of crossed golf clubs and ball.)

Tillinghast set his masterpieces on land that once was the choice deer-hunting ground of the Mohican Indians, immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans. The club is on Fenimore Road, named for the author who roamed the property. While the Open contestants will be armed with 460cc drivers, the land has seen other weapons: Both armies in the Revolutionary War camped here.

Although he had redesigned Baltusrol, the 47-year-old Tillinghast was not yet famous when he started work at Winged Foot in 1922. For the job that would make his reputation—and which he always considered to be his finest work—Tillinghast hired 220 men, most of them local farmers. Using 60 teams of horses and 19 tractors, they cut down 7,800 small trees and moved 24,000 cubic yards of dirt—not much by today’s standards but a mountain in those days. “They all but scraped the 36 holes into existence with their fingernails,” writes Winged Foot historian Douglas LaRue Smith in his very thorough club history.

Tillinghast’s team also had to blast away 7,200 tons of rock, which is still there under foot, in the heave and swell of the fairways, a rumbling presence, like the bass in a symphonic performance.

Every hole at Winged Foot adheres to Tillinghast’s famous formulation: “A controlled shot to a closely guarded green is the surest test of any man’s game.” He frowned upon frivolous bunkering; each hazard had to serve a clear tactical purpose, and Winged Foot’s bunkers are fearsome, not only for how closely they encroach on the greens, but also for their depth. In the 1974 U.S. Open, Johnny Miller needed four shots to get out of the right greenside bunker on the short par-3 seventh.

“The greens are raised up and the bunker shots are very hard,” stresses Harmon. “A Winged Foot player, if he’s any good, knows how to play a bunker shot. That’s always been the lore of the place.”

The relatively small, pear-shaped greens that Tillinghast and his crew shaped by hand provide bigger targets near the back, but since nearly every green slopes severely from back to front, the trade-off is a difficult downhill putt, especially when the hole location is in the front.

While the East starts slowly, the West starts with a jolt, with four tough holes. “You can be four over par through four and still think you’re playing good golf,” says Tom Kealy, a 32-year member.

The most famous hole is the 10th, which Tillinghast considered the finest par 3 he ever built. At 188 yards for the Open, the 10th demands a precise iron that avoids the large bunker to the right and out of bounds, with a house beyond, over the green. Ben Hogan called it a “3-iron into some guy’s bedroom.” (That guy, by the way, is now Buddy Stuart, a six-time club champion and the son of a five-time winner.)

But even finding the putting surface is no relief. Dick Schaap, in his book Massacre at Winged Foot, pronounced the green “more difficult to read than a Joycean novel.” The removal of some trees has allowed the green to get bigger and tougher, restoring some difficult hole locations. In all, more than 1,000 trees were removed from the West Course from 1999 to 2004, primarily because they were either encroaching on the play of the holes or for improved agronomy.

Winged Foot has always had a love affair with its trees. When the club’s most famous tree, the American elm that towered over the right side of the green on No. 10 East and confounded approach shots for decades, succumbed to Dutch elm disease in 1993, members gave it a send-off fit for a king, standing in silence as the sentinel that Dan Jenkins had called the “greatest tree in golf” was disassembled. Dave Anderson of the New York Times eulogized it, and Joe Alonzi, then Winged Foot’s superintendent, said, “This tree was like a person to us.”

Trees will factor into the toughest stretch, the five finishing holes. They are all monsters, stretching 458, 416, 478, 449 and 450 yards. Head professional Tom Nieporte believes any player in the U.S. Open field who can be even par for these five holes during the championship will be the winner.

The Heart of the Club

Whether playing in the U.S. Open or a casual round, anyone walking off the 18th green is in dire need of rest and consolation. Fortunately, the club’s founders hired Clifford Charles Wendehack, who built them a truly unforgettable clubhouse: a long, gabled building in a style known as English Scholastic. “A rambling stone clubhouse that might make one of its occasional visitors, the Duke of Windsor, feel homesick,” is how Dan Jenkins described it.

In contrast to the solid, imposing exterior, the interior is surprisingly soft and comfortable. The first place members take guests is the Hall of Fame, the airy hallway that connects the formal entry rooms to the massive, two-level locker room and is adorned with photos of the great golfers who have triumphed here or been members. There are constant reminders of all the history that’s been made here, which may be why the members are so down to earth.

First up is a handsome man in a bowtie. This is John G. Anderson, five-time club champion and runner-up in the 1913 and ’15 U.S. Amateurs. Next is club member Richard D. Chapman, who won the 1940 U.S. Amateur on his home course. Opposite them is “The Silver Scot,” Tommy Armour, a striking man with a movie star’s chin and a shock of perfectly slicked white hair. The winner of three majors from 1927 to ’31, Armour was an early member and shares a glass case with the club’s first three long-term head professionals: Mike Brady, Craig Wood and Claude Harmon.

Next to them hangs Winged Foot’s four Open champions: Bobby Jones (1929), Billy Casper (1959; see sidebar, page 49), Hale Irwin (1974) and Fuzzy Zoeller (1984).

If the club has a beating heart, it is surely the Grille, entered from the Hall beneath gorgeous half-moon transom windows. The Grille is an oak-paneled room, with a large marble fireplace set and a simple bar—Guinness and Harp on tap. Neither large nor particularly fancy, the Grille is spectacularly comfortable, and to sit down with a basket of the club’s famous rye toast, thinly sliced and buttered, is to experience a golfer’s heaven.

Some of the chairs date to Opening Day, April 14, 1923, and have supported the bottoms of everyone from Jones to Tiger Woods. Contemplate that lineage, and, well, it’s probably good that you’re sitting down.

Above the fireplace is the roll call of winners in The John G. Anderson Memorial, the four-ball amateur tournament the club hosts each July. Anderson was a Renaissance man: a writer who covered Francis Ouimet’s victory in the 1913 Open a few weeks after finishing runner-up in the U.S. Amateur. Anderson also attended the founding meeting of the PGA of America, and at one point had golf’s longest hole-in-one, a 328-yarder on the old 16th at Massachusetts’ Brae Burn.

Anderson was only 49 when he died in 1933 of what was believed to be hepatitis. Winged Foot members honored him by creating the Anderson Memorial, which quickly became the premier four-ball tournament in the world. Winners have included Deane Beman, Willie Turnesa, and Craig and Dick Harmon.

The Grille’s windows look out on the terrace, which is covered by a blue-and-white awning and provides a panoramic view of both courses’ finishing holes, plus West’s ninth green and East’s 11th tee. “There’s no greater place in the world than sitting on that patio, having a few pops, with the sun going down and watching golfers come up the 18th,” says member Kealy.

The club’s huge locker room is special, too. It has two levels, the Upper and Lower, and some of the best showerheads in golf. The lockers are double width—“you could fit a body in there,” says Thiesfeldt—and date to opening day.

Window Onto Golf History

Just outside the locker room is the pro shop, a small Tudor building that overlooks the West’s 18th green and has witnessed a wealth of history. Winged Foot and history are inseparable, and there’s little doubt the 2006 U.S. Open will provide another addition to the club’s—and golf’s—annals.

The West Course will play very much the way it did for the 2004 U.S. Amateur, with only two changes. There’s a new back tee on No. 3, 243 yards, which won’t be used every day. Also, a new tee has been built for the Open on the now 478-yard 16th, not so much for length as to strengthen the dogleg.

Those changes will help turn Tillinghast’s man-sized course into a Superman-sized one to challenge today’s best players. “The guys today are getting so good,” marvels Nieporte. “That’s why we’re so anxious to see the Open this year. It’s going to be a great test.”

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