History will be made in August when Winged Foot hosts the centennial edition of the Met Open, the premier regional golf championship and the third oldest “open” in the nation. The venerable club has hosted the event six times, but always on the West Course. This year, the East Course takes the stage following a two-year renovation by master course architect Gil Hanse, who vows it will be up to the test.
MGA Director of Competitions Brian Mahoney agrees, pointing out in a recent press conference that “The Met Open is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the East Course. It deserves to be recognized as in the same league as the West.” Parts of the East Course had been closed over the last two seasons so the work could be done. When the Anderson Memorial was contested on both courses this year, scores on both by the top amateurs in the country were less than a stroke apart.
Hanse reports that the work consisted almost entirely of restoring the course according to A.W. Tillinghast’s original intent. “I left my ego at the door,” Hanse said, “and tried to enhance what he did and reverse some of the alterations that had been done over the years.” A few fairway bunkers were moved to positions more in keeping with today’s longer drives (although none were added) and many greens were expanded to the original dimensions, which yielded more possible pin positions at today’s superfast green speeds. “These are some of the finest green complexes I’ve ever seen,” Hanse said. “Working with a masterpiece like this makes me a better architect.”
Course superintendent Stephen Rabideau and his crew deserve huge accolades, according to Hanse. They not only did almost all of the work by hand and, he said, “I’ve never seen attention to detail like this. There were guys on their hands and knees finishing sod with steak knives.”
The results, according to Mike Gilmore, the Winged Foot head pro who won the 2000 Met Open, are worth the effort. “The greens on the East are now more difficult than those on the West,” he said. “Even on the short holes, you have to control your spin because they are so severely sloped back to front.”
The defending Met Open champion, Grant Sturgeon, a Winged Foot assistant professional and 2014 Met PGA Player of the Year, said, “It challenges every single part of your game physically and mentally.”
The Met Open won’t be the first major championship played on the East Course at Winged Foot; The US Women’s Open was held there in 1957 and 1972, as was the inaugural US Senior Open in 1980. Next year, the USGA will stage the final rounds of its newest championship, the US Amateur Four-Ball on the course.
Over 800 golfers will attempt to qualify for the Met Open this year in six sectional tournaments held throughout the area in July. A field of 144 players will be chosen to compete for a purse of $150,000 to be awarded to the winner of 54 holes played August 25-27.
Over the years, the Met Open has never lacked for stature. Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, and Byron Nelson were among the early winners. Ben Hogan was a runner-up in 1940. In total, 44 majors—US and British Opens, PGA Championships, and Masters—have been won by Met Open champions.