MAMARONECK, N.Y. – Maybe it was just happenstance, but given the narrative in golf at the moment, USGA CEO Mike Davis probably had more than a passing interest in the group teeing off Winged Foot’s first hole just past lunch on Monday.
The threesome included this week’s defending champion, Gary Woodland, and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. Oh, and those two have also been known to launch a drive or two, so that probably factored into Davis being perched just left of the tee when the duo took flight.
Every major championship in recent years has felt like an unflinching staring contest between the game’s best players and the rules makers who appear to be growing increasingly weary of ever-increasing driving distances.
Winged Foot is a major championship blue blood and a chance for the USGA to subdue the distance debate by keeping the game’s best and brightest on their toes and somewhere around par.
The winners of the five U.S. Opens played at Winged Foot are a combined 16 over par, including Geoff Ogilvy’s winning 5-over total at the last national championship played on the West Course in 2006.
In the decade and a half that’s passed since that championship, the PGA Tour driving average has increased nearly 7 yards. To counter that, the USGA tacked on an extra 213 yards for this year’s championship that will be played at an eye-catching 7,477 yards (par 70).
“It’s long,” a wide-eyed Patrick Reed said of the course on Monday.
The USGA flipped par at Nos. 5 and 9 for this year’s championship. The ninth, which played as a 514-yard par 4 in ’06, will be a 565-yard par 5 this week, and the fifth, a 515-yard par 5 last time, will be a 467-yard par 4. There have been significant increases at Nos. 2 (30 yards), 3 (27), 8 (15), 10 (26), 17 (55) and 18 (19) for this edition.
Some of what awaits is dependent on the forecast. Reed, for example, hadn’t played on Monday and had only experienced the course with Sunday’s south wind. Rory McIlroy played nine holes early Monday with a north wind and had a much different take.
“It’s not that bad, actually. I had a couple 8-, 9-irons into some holes,” he said.
When it comes to set up, for the USGA, less should be more. If Winged Foot is simply allowed to be Winged Foot, with no tricks or gimmicks, it’s a product that more often than not challenges the world’s best while simultaneously evoking begrudging respect.
“It’s exactly what I thought it was and it’s why I loved it, because it was exactly what I’ve always seen from U.S. Opens and what I expected,” said Billy Horschel, who played in the ’06 Open as a 19-year-old amateur. “It’s going to be a fun week.”
Fun is probably not going to be the way most remember a 7,477-yard behemoth, lined with the thickest rough players have seen in more than a year, but it is the best way to quiet the ongoing distance debate for at least a few weeks.