10 things I noticed wandering Winged Foot at the U.S. Open
MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Before this week’s U.S. Open, the last golf tournament I attended in person* was the Players Championship in March. An awful lot has changed since then. But on a basic level, I’ve missed watching golf play out in front of me and all that goes with it: the visuals of the course, the practice-green chatter, the differences between what cameras can capture and everything that goes on beyond the lens. There’s a lot.
(*note this does not include the standing Tuesday night skins game at Seattle’s Greenlake Pitch ‘n’ Putt)
But media credentials are scarce, even with a slightly expanded roster for this week’s event. And with no spectators on site (for the most part — more on that later) I would be remiss if I didn’t share some of those insights, exciting or not, from my time so far at Winged Foot. Here are 10 of ’em:
1. It’s cold!
I was glad to have a jacket on as I walked off property at Winged Foot on Friday evening. For that matter, I was glad to have a jacket pretty much all afternoon Friday. Fall officially starts on Monday, and October is just ‘round the corner. Saturday morning, there were beanies aplenty on the driving range. It’s crisp, and beautiful, but it’s cold, too. That won’t make things any easier.
2. The fairways are so, so firm.
If you brought someone out to Winged Foot who had never been on a golf course, they would be positively mesmerized by the fairways, because they’re so different from any kind of “grass” you see basically anywhere else in the world. So short. So smooth. And so, so firm. (Yes, this hypothetical person would be even more mind-blown by the greens, but you already knew that.) These have almost nothing in common with your lawn.
Patrick Reed hit a low, turning 3-wood 335 yards on No. 16 Friday that might have run out 100 yards. Eddie Pepperell, who hardly smashes it, hit a drive 380 on Friday that he said couldn’t have flown more than 300.
What does that mean? Really straight drives run forever, but if you miss the target by even a smidge then your ball might be trundling into the rough, too. From there, good luck.
3. Friday afternoon, the couch was a good spot to be.
Every week, we’ve been making gambling picks. Every week, I pick wild long shots and inevitably lose. But this week I was delighted to find Taylor Pendrith, who was 500-1 to win and a longshot for various other props, too. Taylor was about 150 spots ahead of me on the Canadian Tour money list a few years back, and his game (smasher with soft hands) seemed like a good fit for the week.
What’s the point of this? After shooting 71-74 (five over), Pendrith spoke to reporters and was bummed out because he thought he was going to miss the cut.
“In my mind, I think I’ll be one short, but who knows?” he said.
Pendrith didn’t just make the cut; at five over par, he finished Friday at T33. That’s how far back the field slid over the course of the day. I can only imagine how good that must have felt: getting some lunch, kicking up his feet and watching the rest of the field battle while he moved steadily up the board. Time to keep moving up this weekend.
4. Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth are very friendly.
You might wonder if Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth are friends, given the way the last Ryder Cup went down. But Reed and Spieth were plenty chummy on the course on Friday, chatting, joking, laughing. That doesn’t mean they’re best friends — and it’s not really my business if they are or aren’t! — but it felt like a far more comfortable pairing than I might have guessed.
Also, Reed beat Spieth by 18 shots over two days. Whoa.
5. Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau are very friendly.
Friends everywhere! Reed and DeChambeau are each pretty independent cats; they play and practice by themselves quite a bit, and inspire mixed emotions among fans and fellow players. Whatever it is, they share some sort of common bond. They played together in Tuesday’s practice round, and they’ll play together in Saturday afternoon’s round. I asked Reed to compare and contrast their playing styles; here’s what he said:
“It’s completely different. You know, he sends it to the moon, and I hit it underneath the trees. He hits it over the trees. I played a practice round with him and we were on No. 8 and there’s a tree on the right that I’m kind of cutting around. I could cover it, but I’m not really trying to take that tree on. I’m going to play it left of it and kind of peel it around it. Well, he wasn’t even looking at that tree. There’s a tree right of that that’s even closer to the tee box that he cleared by 20 feet.
“The height he’s hitting the ball is — I mean, it’s vertical,” he continued. “And really around a place like this, you get downwind, that ball is just never going to come down. It’s just going to keep going.
“The speed he’s producing, you’re going to have to hit the ball higher. Swinging that hard and having that much speed, it’s kind of going to probably be hit it low. If he tried to hit a driver the height I hit my drivers, it would probably kill half his speed. His speed would be down because he’d kind of have to get on top of it.
“It just shows there’s so many different ways to play a golf course, there’s so many different ways to play the game of golf. He’s kind of showing one way, and I show another, and everyone is different.”
Reed speaks well. And everybody speaks more happily when they’re leading a major championship. I thought that was a fun description, and I’m eager to watch those two in the final pairing.
6. Hard play is slow play.
Reed played in a group with Hideki Matsuyama and Jordan Spieth on Thursday and Friday. On No. 6 on Friday (their 15th hole) their group was put on the clock after falling more than a hole behind. At that point, it felt like a miracle that they’d finish the entire second round before it got truly dark. Somehow, they just snuck it in. But only barely. Speaking of which…
7. Friday night lights were in full effect.
If the Winged Foot castle clubhouse didn’t have so many lights around it, there’s no chance the final groups would have been able to finish up. Instead, there was Ryan Vermeer, putting for par in the pitch black. There was Scott Hand, just missing a birdie try to finish off his 74-84 week. Luckily, very few of the late players were hanging on the edge of the cut line (except Troy Merritt, who holed a 3-footer to make the weekend), but the late-night scene by 18 must have looked more like a typical night of member play than Friday night of the U.S. Open.
8. There are a lot of spectators on site.
There must have been 150 people surrounding Tiger Woods’ group on Thursday. Between media, on-site influencers, cameramen, spotters, volunteers, tournament officials, coaches and miscellaneous others, these marquee groups had plenty of folks in tow.
With that said…
9. It’s strange just how few spectators there are on site.
Inevitably, television hyper-focuses the viewing experience on the guys who are playing the best, but wandering the property has no such effect. I took a stroll Friday evening and was instantly reminded just how many guys were fighting Winged Foot and losing, badly, with no hope of making the weekend.
There was Sung Kang, literally running back onto the 9th tee after losing his tee shot in the rough. He shot 86. There was Jordan Spieth, battling through to the third stage of missed-cut grief (1. Anger 2. Depression 3. Acceptance) as he joked around with Reed en route to an 81. There was Tiger Woods, grinding his way to two birdies in the final three holes to post 77.
The afternoon scoring average was just shy of six-over 76, which means there were plenty of scores much higher. The only thing I wished was that there were walking scorers; there’s something sadistically fun about the standard-bearers adding a digit to get to +14, say.
10. Life goes on.
I haven’t traveled to a golf tournament since the Players in March; I’m not on site every week and tend to go to more “big events,” like majors. There’s been so much buildup that on the evening stroll referenced above I couldn’t help but feel a sense of letdown for some of these guys. For some, just making the championship is a career highlight. For others, it’s a big golf tournament, but just part of a wild schedule of other big golf tournaments. Woods will resurface in Branson, Mo., on Tuesday for a course opening. Marty Jertson will return to his role as director of product development at Ping. Preston Summerhays will return to Scottsdale, where he’ll continue an impressive amateur career.
My enduring memory will be of Eddie Pepperell playing the 1st hole (his 10th of the day) in the final group of the day. He was 12 over par already, hopelessly outside the cut line, and stuck in the left rough waiting for the green to clear. He was going through a fairly intense series of swing rehearsals, checking out his positions, searching for something. He knows well that he’s got plenty more golf tournaments ahead.
In the meantime, we get to enjoy the rest of this one.