When he was hired to design a golf course for the Winged Foot Golf Club, AW Tillinghast’s sole instruction from the members was to create a “man-sized golf course” on 280 acres in Mamaroneck. The architect ended up building two courses, the East and the West, both fitting that description. Both have hosted numerous USGA and other championships, but the West Course is the traditional U.S. Open venue.
The greens and their encroaching bunkers, rough, and closely mowed surrounds separate the West from lesser golf courses. Driving is important, but accurate approach shots are essential to making par — and even more surgical precision around the greens is required to put a birdie on the scorecard.
It’s impossible to identify the “best” hole on the West Course, but here are several that will test the finest players in the world.
The West makes a statement on the first hole: Every shot counts on this course. “Our opening hole is long, and the green is brutal,” says WFGC head pro Mike Gilmore. “It’s hard enough getting there — you’ve got a long poke to begin with. Then, you have all you can do just to keep it on the green. Above the hole is impossible. If you can two-putt that green, you’re off to a great start.”
There may be a time and place to go pin-hunting, but the third hole during the U.S Open isn’t either one because, even for the pros, it’s a long shot to a tiny target. “The narrow opening to the green is visually intimidating,” Gilmore says. “And you should be intimidated! If you don’t hit the green, your chances of getting up and down are nil. If you land in one of the bunkers on either side of the green, you’ve got a problem because the green runs away from both of them. Even if you hit the green from the tee, it’s not an easy two-putt.” That’s why Billy Casper laid up off the tee to the front of the green, chipped on, and putted for par every day in 1959.
Casper only three-putted once during the 1959 championship, and his bobble came on the treacherous 10th hole, which AW Tillinghast named the finest par 3 he’d ever designed. When Davis Love III won the PGA Championship on the course in 1997, he said this hole is “perhaps the hardest par 3 we play that doesn’t have water on it.”
The hole doesn’t need water: Deep, steep-faced bunkers flank the green, and the putting surface is so narrow that sand saves are essentially impossible. You can’t run the ball onto the green from the tee, either, since the narrow throat in front is crowned, so a ball landing there will kick — where else? — into a bunker. Even a safe shot to the green doesn’t guarantee a par; just ask Billy Casper.
The closing stretch on the West starts with the 14th hole, the first of five tough par 4s that Gil Hanse’s renovation of the course made harder. A drive over the corner of the hole’s namesake “shamrock” bunker is ideal but still leaves the player facing a brutal cross bunker and a deceptively tight approach shot.
“It’s best to favor the left side of the fairway off the tee,” says Gilmore. “The right side has bunkers and trees.” The real test on the hole comes with the approach, though. As Gilmore points out, “The green is very narrow for a long hole and has bunkers on both sides. Missing it pin-high is a very tough up and down.”
That’s why pros who miss the fairway may choose to lay up on their approach, to leave themselves a straightforward uphill chip.
You don’t need to hit a hospitality tent, a tree limb, or even play out of a crowd of gasping spectators to appreciate the hazards on the finishing hole on the West. It is the only hole on the course with bunkers on just one side of the green, but players who miss to the right and have to pitch out of the rough in the collection area should ask Colin Montgomery what that shot can do to your score.
Still, the green’s the real deal on this hole. It is 34 yards deep, about 24 wide, but the first eight yards are a more like a Sisyphean hazard where you can easily putt off the green and have to do it all over again.