The 2020 U.S. Open will be played for the sixth time at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York this week. The tournament offers a different kind of New York Fall Classic, if you will, and one that everyone will be forced to watch from home, as spectators are still not allowed on site. I will not be playing in this year’s national championship, however, I’d like to tell you what to expect.
One of the more storied institutions in American golf, the private Winged Foot Golf Club was designed in 1923 by one of the greats of early American golf course architecture, A.W. Tillinghast. Tillinghast is known for bold, daring design concepts that provide variety and will definitely get your heart rate to climb. Some of his most dramatic work can be found at the hyper-exclusive San Francisco Golf Club (where you’ll likely never play), Bethpage Black (where the degree of difficulty will make you wish you never played) and Philadelphia Cricket Club (where the Philadelphia-raised Tillinghast would’ve wanted you to play.) It’s widely considered that Winged Foot may be his finest work, most notably because the greens are, to put it bluntly, gnarly. In 2013, Gil Hanse, one of golf architecture’s modern masters, brought his team to Winged Foot to restore the West Course (there is also an East Course) and it’s an incredibly beautiful golf club rich with contrasting bunkers splashed against contoured greens and approach areas. Frankly, it’s a work of art and you should enjoy it as such.
As the great professional Terry Hogan once told me “Golf is a numbers game and that’s all it is.” What Hogan is saying is; forget the loaded and misleading concepts of birdie, par, bogey. Forget all of those words. Just make your lowest number and avoid the big number as 1959 champion Bily Casper did on the 215 yard third hole, where he laid up to about 190 yards in each round to have a more advantageous angle from short of the green rather than be on either side of the pin or beyond the green. The ego tells you to chase the pin and carry it all 215 yards to the green but the unforgiving contours around the greens should make you think twice. Casper made the right choice in ’59 and made three all four days en route to shooting 282 for the title.
Prepare yourself to see a lot of painful reruns of Sunday, June 18, 2006. As Phil Mickelson came to the 18th tee that day, all he needed to do was make a four to win the championship. Instead, he absolutely made a meal out of the hole closing with an excruciating six to finish at 286, one shot behind champion Geoff Ogilvy’s 285. Only a handful of meltdowns were worse, and it was difficult to watch. His tee shot was left of left — ricocheting off the hospitality tent into a decent lie in the trampled rough 210 yards away. His next shot hit a tree and didn’t get out of the junk. He then blew an 8-iron over the trees into a fried-egg lie. Then blasts one that nestles in right against the rough — leaving a near-impossible shot to make five and get into a playoff with Ogilvy. He would miss. When the carnage was over and the six carded, 1973 Open champion and NBC analyst Johnny Miller said, “And to be honest with you…[this was] one of the worst collapses in U.S. Open history by Phil Mickelson.” Like I was saying, it was painful to watch.
Typically, there’s a series of local and sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open but COVID-19 made that impossible so no Cinderella Stories this year. Who cares, everyone you want to see at Winged Foot will be in the field, save the injured Brooks Koepka (knee) and the young up-and-comer Scottie Scheffler (positive COVID-19 test.) Let’s get right to the heavy hitters.
First, we’ll address Woods. Despite his genius with wedges, his vision, and his ridiculous iron play, Tiger’s putter has been far too clunky of late for him to really contend on greens so wild they could double for a skatepark. How bad is his putting right now? In his last tournament in late August, he left a five-footer almost a foot short of the hole. That’s a really bad sign for the greatest champion in the game’s history.
The white-hot Johnson is on a historic heater right now. He’s won over $18 million in the last month or so and is hands-down the best player in the world right now. What gives me pause this week is his inability to keep that one bad round off the card in major championships (he should have about four majors by now instead of just one) that plagues him.
If we’re talking about who the next best player in the world is right now it’s not the 2nd-ranked Jon Rahm, it’s Thomas. And Thomas wants this one badly. He’s particularly dangerous at Winged Foot because he’s an exceptional driver, putter and bunker player — skills that will come in handy. You’d be hard-pressed to find a player with a better combination of all of those skills than Thomas, skills that will play a big part in deciding who walks away with the hardware this week.
The new first-time father could find some inspiration at Winged Foot. One of the longest players on tour, McIlroy’s chances come down to the positioning his approach shots will leave him. His wedges have been comically less than impressive in the moments that when he’s needed to summon a shot, but there is no doubt that the four-time major winner and the 2011 U.S. Open champion at Congressional, has it in him to be in contention late Sunday. That said, he hasn’t won a major in six years, and I don’t see it coming at Winged Foot.
If you believe that there are “horses for courses” then you’d recognize that Rahm isn’t well-suited for a certain vintage of American golf courses. He missed the cut in 2018 at Shinnecock. And while Winged Foot is a different animal, I don’t see the passionate/hot-tempered Rahm contending.
Las Vegas oddsmakers have DeChambeau among the favorites at 14-1, but they shouldn’t. He’s closer to 35-1, but the House has to protect itself against all of the rubes who believe adding 30 pounds of muscle will get DeChambeau the trophy. As talented and self-absorbed as he is, the added bulk won’t be enough. This is Winged Foot. This is Tillinghast (and Hanse.) This is real golf.
Finally, that leads us to the winner of the 2020 U.S. Open. I’m not going to bore you with statistics that show how effective Fleetwood is from tee-to-green or average putts per round. I will remind you, however, that the USGA runs a different kind of tournament than the PGA Tour. The USGA will set up a golf course to reward the best shots from the best players. The PGA Tour, on the other hand, will set up a tournament to create the most highlights. The last time the U.S. Open was played at a course with the contours of Winged Foot was at Shinnecock Hills in 2018, where Fleetwood followed an abysmal third-round 78 with an absolutely bananas 63 to finish at 282, one shot behind eventual winner Brooks Koepka. Fleetwood has the demeanor, with all the prerequisite shots to be a major champion at a course like Winged Foot. Armed with the lessons and confidence from Shinnecock, Fleetwood is my pick to win it all.
At just 23 years of age, Colin Morikawa has quickly elevated himself into the upper echelon of golf’s elite players. His game is a masterclass in shotmaking and if he can putt at an extremely high level, he’ll be in the mix. On the other end of the age spectrum, we can’t exclude Mickelson, who at 50, is lighter, stronger and more flexible than he’s been in a decade. A win for Mickelson would be one for the ages (and a handsome payday for one brave gambler). Speaking of gambling, if you’re looking for a dark horse, consider Australia’s Cameron Smith who goes off at 100-1 but could be ready for a bump into the big time. Finally, Xander Schauffele, the runner-up at the Tour Championship at East Lake earlier this month, seems like he’s always knocking in big events. This may be his week he finally kicks down the door.
When playing firm and fast, Winged Foot will test players to play to positions. It will push them from their comfort zone and ask them to consider using slopes and ridges to control the pace of their putts. It will place an emphasis on missing in the right locations, as Billy Casper did in ’59, to be able to make the best number possible. Because in the end, as Terry Hogan said, it’s just a numbers game.
Expect the cerebral players to be rewarded and the greedy to get slaughtered. In other words, expect a classic U.S. Open at an incredible golf course.