Winged Foot secrets: 8 unforgettable stories from the iconic golf club
Of all golf’s great cathedrals, there are few more revered than Winged Foot, the host of this week’s U.S. Open. The 97-year-old course is home to two A.W. Tillinghast designs, a deep admiration for the history of the sport and as of September, six U.S. Open championships.
And of all golf’s great cathedrals, there are few more reserved than Winged Foot. In one of the world’s most densely populated areas, only a few hundred people call the spectacular stone clubhouse in Mamaroneck, N.Y., home. And of those few hundred, there is a single common thread.
“Winged Foot is not a country club,” says Bob Williams, who has been a member all his life. “It is a golf club, and that’s how the people around here view it.”
But resting in the shadow of the cultural (and financial) capital of the world is not without its benefits, chief among them the proximity to fame. While its membership is golf-obsessed, Winged Foot has long served as a stomping ground for many of the world’s most venerable names, be they guests, competitors or (in some cases) employees.
Between the two groups, there’s nearly a century of golf history, and more notably, of golf stories. Here are eight of the best secrets that have fallen through the cracks.
Mickey Mantle’s drive that wasn’t
By now, it’s possible you’ve heard the story of Mickey Mantle’s miraculous, supposed 350-yard drive on No. 15 on the West Course. As the story goes, Mantle hit his drive over the brook and into Winged Foot member (and LPGA founder) Fred Corchoran’s backyard. Mantle’s playing partner, Donny Scanlan, said it was the longest drive he’d ever seen in his life, and Mantle went on to make birdie on the hole.
But in Winged Foot historian Neil Regan’s recounting of Scanlan’s story, the Mantle drive was only half-true.
“[Scanlan] says, ‘Mantle hit the ball, I’d never seen a ball hit like that by far. It was not only hit over the brook, which nobody ever did because it was 290 to the brook. It was well up into the fairway. We were absolutely amazed at the drive, the four of us had said we’d never seen a ball hit up there. But by the time we got back to the clubhouse, that ball was in Fred Corchoran’s yard.'”
‘A man-sized course’
When a group of New York Athletic Club members contracted A.W. Tillinghast to build a golf course along a flat stretch of land in Mamaroneck, N.Y., they gave him a single dictum.
“Build us a man-sized course.”
In 1929, Tillinghast watched with famed golf writer O.B. Keeler as Winged Foot conquered many of the game’s best in its first U.S. Open. After a particularly bad sequence around the green, Keeler remarked that another golfer was struggling on Tillinghast’s design.
“Maybe it’s not the course’s fault,” Tillinghast replied wryly.
A 16-year-old U.S. Open winner
Well, sorta. Peter McGarey was a 16-year-old caddie at Winged Foot in 1974, the same year the club hosted its third U.S. Open. At the time, some players still took local caddies, including a young man from Joplin, Mo., by the name of Hale Irwin. At the start of the week, McGarey was assigned to Irwin’s bag and given a front-row seat to Irwin’s Open-winning 287 for the week.
While he won’t discuss the payday publicly, we’d imagine McGarey had pretty deep pockets (and a strong resume) when he returned to school for 11th grade.
The ‘secret’ pool
As we discussed earlier, Winged Foot prides itself on being a golf club, not a country club — a point that’s true nowhere more than the club pool.
“We’ve had a pool since 1960, but there are people dating back to the 60s and 70s that didn’t know we had a pool,” he laughed.
With 36 holes of golf glory between the East and West Courses, we’d forgive you for making a dip in the pool a secondary activity.
Claude Harmon’s sand lessons
Famed golf instructor Claude Harmon (father to Butch and Claude III) was the head pro at Winged Foot for years, where he earned a reputation for legendary sand play.
As legend had it, Harmon would make his way to the greenside bunker on the West Course’s 18th hole with a knapsack of practice balls, a wedge, and a pair of FootJoy loafers (yes, loafers).
“He’d go in there, take his jacket off, tuck his tie into his shirt, and he’d hit one after another perfect bunker shots,” Williams said. “And by the fourth or fifth one, he’d have holed one. I did this on a half-dozen occasions, and I can tell you from first-hand experience, on the fourth or fifth or sometimes sixth one.”
With a captive audience, Harmon couldn’t help himself.
“Sometimes, he’d put his ball down and he’d say, ‘you’re supposed to hit two inches behind the ball? Baloney,” Williams said. “Then he’d swing six inches behind the ball and hole it. And he’d say, ‘as long as you’re hitting behind the ball, you’re fine.”
A legend spotted
It wasn’t uncommon to see some of the world’s biggest names at Winged Foot, like when Bob Williams ran into Bing Crosby playing with his sons. But it was far from normal for those big names to ask to join you during those rounds.
“Bing Crosby comes up on the tee to my buddies and I and says, ‘How about we all play together?'” Williams said. “So we played the 10th hole together, and he says, ‘C’mon, we’ll play some more?'”
Williams, not wanting to break club rules by playing with more than four to a group, politely declined, but left his round with a heck of a story.
Big Money and Big Risk
There’s playing golf for money, there’s risk-taking, and then there’s playing golf with nothing but risk. In his time at Winged Foot, Evel Knievel fell into the third category. In his rounds at Winged Foot, he’d recruit some of the club’s pros to join him on the course and complete his foursome. When the big-money terms of the round came into conversation, Knievel would tell the pros not to worry about it. If they won, they could take his money. If they lost, they wouldn’t owe him anything.
The Great Bambino
Babe Ruth was never a member at Winged Foot, but that never prevented him from stopping by the club with regularity in his days with the Yankees.
Ruth was once spotted playing golf at the club nearly every day while he nursed a questionable injury, and later skipped out on a game to attend the U.S. Open. Still, he survived criticism from the press largely because several Yankees’ beat writers were members who wished to keep in good standing.
“I’ll meet you up there,” Ruth was known to tell many of the Yankees beat writers on his way out of the clubhouse.