Winged Foot's rough penalizes U.S. Open spectators, its greens wallop the PGA stars

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — The rough stands so thick, the grass blades so bunched together and solid, that it feels like you're walking on a giant's lawn. The behemoth from "Jack and the Beanstock" may be able to move easily in this stuff, but for a mere mortal every step is a trudge.

Winged Foot - U.S. Open clubhouse
The English Tudor clubhouse gives Winged Foot its proper sense of haughty history.
Winged Foot - U.S. Open clubhouseWinged Foot - U.S. Open - Ben HoganWolf Creek Golf Club - Mesquite, Nevasa - Las Vegas area golf course
If you go

You get winded just walking into Winged Foot's
USGA-crafted
rough enough times. OK, if you're an out of shape sportswriter you can get winded.

Still, the truth remains. Walking in the rough at Winged Foot is a chore. Finding balls in it is but a dream. And this from a look at the rough this spring, when it was still being encouraged to grow with more passion than somebody from Iowa's prized county fair potato, back before the rains that washed through New York last week and fed it more, more, more.

One of the great delights of this week's U.S. Open at Winged Foot is sure to be the sight of the world's best golfers stomping through the tall grass, searching for their balls like two-bit 25 handicappers. Well, it will be a perverse pleasure at least until the six-hour rounds get to you.

"I love seeing those pros desperately looking for their ball, all red-faced and angry," local New York area golfer Jim Banks said, laughing. "As far as I'm concerned, they can't make it hard enough."

It turns out the USGA's big joke may be on average guys like Banks, who plans to head out to watch the Open. That's because the rough figures to be even harder on Winged Foot's spectators.

The USGA is doing its rough in layers for Winged Foot. It starts out a mere two inches tall on the edges of the fairway (in theory), expands to four inches high in the next cut and then all the way to half a foot. This levels of rough system — and the USGA even came up with nifty names for them — moves the rope lines farther from the fairways.

In other words, Joe Schmoe gets a worse view so that Phil Mickelson has a harder shot.

And you can actually probably blame Mickelson. Lefty was the one who pointed out that terrible drives at the U.S. Open are often better than mere bad ones because the terrible ones land where the galleries have trampled the USGA's beloved penalizing rough.

So now what? Horrific misses are better?

All the rough obsession aside, it's likely to be the greens that most unnerve the world's best at Winged Foot. Calling some of these greens pool tables is a disservice to pool tables. After all, have you ever hit the eight ball at the side pocket and watched it roll all the way back to you in the opposite corner? Even in the most shady dump of a bar, that's not happening.

Only if your pool table's resting on a skateboard ramp. Or you're putting at Winged Foot.

Merely breathing too heavy on a putt at Winged Foot can sometimes seem to head it skidding on a straight bead to Alaska. On a day when media members were invited to unleash their putrid games on A.W. Tillinghast's creation and the USGA's Frankensteinzation, mere 10-footers became 40 footers going the other way.

Of course, Jack Nicklaus' first putt at the famed 1974 Massacre at Winged Foot was a 20-footer that became a 40-footer. It's not just the scrubs who suffer.

"He putted it off the green. I think that was sort of like, the word went around the golf course in like five seconds and everybody knew about it," Hale Irwin, the 1974 survivor, said at a USGA press conference. "I think that's when everybody thought, 'Uh-oh, we're in deep guano now.'"

The guano (how great is Hale Irwin to use guano?) doesn't end with the greens. The 2006 Winged Foot also features the longest par 4 in U.S. Open history (the 514-yard ninth). When a regular golfer sees this hole, framed by some of the closest trees on the course, imagining it as a par 4 is a brain teaser. Or driver freezer.

Still, No. 9 is almost guaranteed to be overshadowed by No. 10 — a par 3 with a bunker that looks almost like a pair of Mickey Mouse ears. Giant Mickey Mouse ears.

Winged Foot encourages that kind of imagination. Partially because the setting itself in Westchester hardly overwhelms you. The English Tudor clubhouse is nice. It fits the image of a place guys like Rick Pitino and Donald Trump — both members — would be hanging out in.

But Winged Foot's courses themselves — the West is the U.S. Open track — play out on largely flat New York land. Call me a heretic, but modern resort courses without any of Tillinghast history — crowd-pleasing amusement parks like Cabo del Sol's Ocean Course and Mesquite, Nevada's Wolf Creek produce a much more visceral reaction.

Of course, the USGA will make sure Tiger Woods and Co. have some painful images to link with Winged Foot.

A guide to a change a Foot

1). Layers of rough: Annoying for the spectators who navigate the Eastern European-like shuttle bus system to actually get to the course. Fun for those sadists watching at home on the couch with a Bud.

Conclusion: The fat cats with the badges never leave the booze, err, hospitality tents anyways. Let Mickelson hack through the jungle.

2). Longest par 4 ever: More USGA fun! You know, Walter Driver's wondering why golf doesn't have par twos.

Conclusion: Par becomes birdie. Everyone plays accordingly. What's the fuss?

3). Changing hole lengths: One day, No. 12 will be a 640-yard par 5. Another it will be closer to 570. Oh, those wacky spontaneous blue blazer wearers.

Conclusion: Just another way to mess with the world's best golfers' minds. Life as usual. Pass the chip dip. Or the remote. Is Michelle Wie on?

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.


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