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Winged Foot Steps Up Its Game to Make the U.S. Open Happen

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Photo courtesy of Winged Foot Golf Club

How the local club is expanding its role to host a world-class tournament in the age of COVID-19.

We’re all eager to watch the best players in the world tackle Winged Foot Golf Club’s fabled West Course, but few of us will see the many behind-the-scenes contributions made to the tournament by the club’s members and staff. This year, more than ever, their role is crucial.

Most spectators assume the host club simply turns everything over to the USGA to stage the US Open and, in normal times, that’s pretty much what happens. Like everything else in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic though, nothing is normal at the 2020 edition of the tournament.

“The services the club provides to the tournament dramatically changed this year,” says Lily Braswell, Winged Foot’s Director of Operations. “We had everything in place and we had to pivot. Plans we’d been executing for two or three years went down the drain. The site plans, the timelines, the expectations all changed.”

One big difference is that the USGA has taken over the entire clubhouse instead of just the locker room and a few offices as usual. Winged Foot members will use the volunteer tent. The 144 players and a few rules officials will be the sole occupants of the clubhouse to provide tight control over potential exposure to the virus. “Once the players enter the clubhouse,” Braswell explains, “they will be in a bubble. It won’t be easy, either, since there are 17 doors to control.”

Another change will be in the army of volunteers that make the tournament possible. Usually, the public signs up for the privilege of helping out and members of area golf clubs proudly volunteer en masse. This year, all volunteers will be WFGC members. Some 430 have volunteered for marshalling, ball-spotting, traffic control, and other tasks. The demands on them are greater than usual, according to Braswell. “They all have to be tested. They have been asked to avoid restaurants and other places with crowds for several weeks ahead of the tournament. This has been a never-ending story of contract-tracing and so on.” She adds, though, “It’s very close to our members’ hearts to be here and witness history.”

During normal times, Braswell’s job is to oversee food and beverage service at the club, coordinate golf outings and club tournaments, and manage the myriad details of running the facility. For the tournament, the USGA asked her staff to step up their game. “We’re going to provide breakfast and lunch and maybe even takeout dinners to 144 of the best golfers in the world,” she says proudly. “Not every club gets to do that!”

It will all be over in a few days, hopefully without incident. Winged Foot members and their guests will be able to play the West Course again beginning September 26 and the East Course shortly thereafter. Lily Braswell and her staff will return to their normal busy fall routines with memories of how they made the U.S. Open possible. She’s confident all the disruption and confusion will be worthwhile.

“This isn’t going to be the U.S. Open with an asterisk,” she says, “it’s going to be the one with the exclamation point!”