When I began my one year quest to play the Golf Digest 2017-18 Top 100 Courses in America, I’d expected to complete 75 courses by the end of March. An early and long winter along with untimely but much needed rain in California, made that impossible. It was now the start of the second week of May and June 11th was 35 days away. I was still 29 courses away from 100. Most of the remaining courses were on Long Island and around Boston and Chicago.
I had confirmed tee times on most of the 29 courses. It was now time to make my final push. Failure was not an option. On the night of May 7th, I kissed my wife and hugged my kids. I told them I was flying out the next morning and wasn’t sure when I’d return home. I told them I had 29 courses to play thirty five days to get them done. I wasn’t sure when I’d returned home. I still had to get firm tee times for a few of the courses.
I had firm tee times starting the afternoon of May 8th through the afternoon of May 11th. My Saturday, May 12th round at Shinnecock Hills had been regrettably cancelled by my host whose brother-in-law had passed. The funeral had been scheduled for the 12th. This added uncertainty to my schedule. I was also awaiting confirmation of a round on May 13th at Quaker Ridge.
If I couldn’t find someone to host me at Shinnecock on Saturday and didn’t get confirmation for Quaker Ridge on Sunday, I’d have an opportunity to return home for the weekend and be home for Mother’s Day. We had celebrated Mother’s Day on the evening before (Sunday, May 6) just in case I didn’t make it back home that weekend.
I awoke early on Tuesday morning for my flight from Atlanta to LaGuardia. Getting from the terminal to the rental car location is not an easy task. I along with several others were a little baffled by just how to get there. We were directed to a bus that was to take us another terminal where we eventually located a bus to the National Car Rental location.
As I was looking for a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Ford Edge, one of the attendants noticed my clubs. He asked if I was a golfer. I told him about my quest. He then told me that he held the course record at a course in Hawaii. I told him I was impressed. He said, “yeah, no one has ever shot higher than the 143 I shot that day.” I was even more impress because of how he owned his performance.
There were no Jeep Grand Cherokees available but one of the managers was able to locate a Ford Edge for me and I was on my way to Winged Foot. The East and West Courses at Winged Foot were the firsts of the six courses I was scheduled to play in four days. My rounds at Winged Foot had been handled by my good friend Lin, who arranged it with Robert, a friend of his who is a member. Lin had also made the introductions to Danny who hosted me at Augusta National and Seminole, and with Jim who hosted me at the Alotian Club.
Once on property at Winged Foot, I was greeted by David Zona, the Caddy Master. He directed me to the Men’s locker room where I met Jose and Gonzales, two great guys that knew my friend Lin quite well. After changing my shoes, I met Mike Ballo, the assistant pro that was assigned to play with me. Mike and I made our way over to the practice range to warm up. The range backed up to a neighborhood, so shots were limited. I felt good about my swing. I was making good contact with the ball.
After our warm up, Mike and I headed to the 10th tee on the West Course. The front nine on the West Course is undergoing a renovation in preparation for the 2020 US Open. My rounds at Winged Foot would consist of the back nine on the West Course and 10 holes on the East Course.
Our caddie, Dawnie of Scotland joined Mike and me as we headed to the 10th tee. Not only was Dawnie from Scotland but she was also a former St. Andrews caddie. Mike and I decided to play from the white tees. The back nine measures 3334 yards from the white tees. The rating for the white tees is 72.4 with a slope of 134. The tenth hole is the signature hole at Winged Foot. It was playing 170 yards to a front right pin on a green guarded by three bunkers. There is a bunker short of the front of the green, one off the front left and one along the right side.
I started my tee shot along the right edge of the left greenside bunker expecting the ball the fade. The ball drew slightly and landed pin high in the bunker.
I hit a good high bunker shot that landed on the green which slopes from left to right. The ball rolled across the green with the slope, and into the right greenside bunker. Dawnie and Mike said, “Welcome to Winged Foot!” I hit out of the right bunker onto the green to ten feet. I made the putt to save bogey.
The eleventh hole is a 386 yard par four with a fairway that plays straight toward the green until about 110 yards out where it curves to the right and back to the left around a fairway bunker on the left before curving left to right around another bunker on the right. Dawnie recommended that I hit a three wood off the tee to avoid being blocked out by trees on the right. I popped the three wood up to the right.
Dawnie recommended that I hit a 140 yard shot. I asked it 150 yards would be ok because that would leave me with a sand wedge in. I caught a flyer out of the rough. The ball traveled a little farther than 150 yards. It ended up on the edge of the bunker leaving me with a very awkward stance.
I had 100 yards over a narrow curvy fairway to a green with a bunker on the left and one on the right. This left a very narrow opening on the front of the green. My third shot landed in the left bunker. I hit my sand shot to the green and two-putted for a double bogey.
The twelfth hole is a 510 yard par five with a narrow fairway that sweeps right to left through trees and past several bunkers off the right side in the landing zones for both the tee shot and the lay-up. I hit my drive to the left rough leaving 310 yards to the green.
The fairway runs down toward the green from just over 200 yards out. Dawnie suggested that I should hit a low long iron out of the rough and let it run down the slope. I hit a low five iron that hit in the fairway and rolled off to the left leaving 137 yards to a front middle pin.
My third shot landed just short of the green.
I chipped on and two putted for a bogey.
The par three thirteenth hole is similar to the par three 10th, just longer and with the bunker short of the green favoring the left side rather than the right. The green is again sloped left to right, but more severely. I told Mike and Dawnie that I was going to hit the shot on this hole that I tried to hit on the tenth. I was going to start the ball along the left edge of the green and let it fade back toward the flag. The hole was playing just over 210 yards with the pin on the back left. My 5 hybrid tee shot came off just as I had planned but didn’t get all the way back to the hole.
I was left with a long uphill putt for birdie. My birdie putt slide by the hole and rolled to 5 feet past. I made the comeback putt to finally record a par.
The fourteenth hole is a 371 yard par four that is much harder than it looks from the tee box. The fairway starts out narrow with a bunker just off the left side, but in line with the tee box. While the fairway looks like it too is in line with the tee box, it is actually offset to the right. I hit my drive down the right side of the fairway. My ball hopped into the right rough.
I was in the rough but had a good angle to the flag which was positioned on the back middle of the green. There is a bunker in the middle of the fairway, short of the green and bunkers along the right side of the green. I hit my approach shot fat. The ball landed in the fairway short of the bunker.
I pitched over the bunker and onto the green. I then two-putt for another bogey.
The fifteenth hole has a fairway that is much narrower than it looks off the tee. It bends slightly from left to right and ends just short of a creek that bisects it at about 110 yards short of the green. It picks up again on the other side of the creek at 85 yards from the middle of the green. The hole measures 396 yards. I hit a drive down the left side of the fairway that hopped into the second cut of rough and settled in for a nice long nap.
Try as I might, I couldn’t muscle the ball out of the rough and far enough to reach the green. To make matters worse, I pulled the ball back into the rough far enough to the left to have a carry side bunker to reach the green on my third shot.
I pitched my third shot over the bunker and onto the green. Two putts later I had another bogey.
The easiest hole on the course is the 444 yard par five sixteenth hole. It’s a shorter version of the 12th hole without the fairway bunkers. The fairway starts just past a creek between it and the tee box. It bends right to left toward the green.
I hit a long drive but hit it into the trees on the right. I was only 200 yards out but had trees blocking my path to the green. I pitched to the fairway leaving 130 yards to the flag.
I left my approach shot just short of the green.
I putted to six feet and made the putt for a par.
The seventh hole is rated as the second most difficult hole on the course. It is a 435 yard par four with a fairway that doglegs to the right. There are a couple of bunkers off to the right just as the fairway begins. I hit another good drive that drifted just into the first cut of rough leaving 200 yards to the green.
I looked up and topped the ball on my approach shot. The ball rolled diagonally across the fairway to first cut on the right, leaving 77 yards to the pin.
I hit a pitch shot with my lob wedge to 15 feet below the hole.
My par putt slid just left of the hole. I tapped in for another bogey.
The 18th hole on the West Course at Winged Foot is probably best known for denying Phil Mickelson his third consecutive major during the 2006 U.S. Open. Well actually it wasn’t the hole that denied Phil, it was Phil that denied Phil. He arrived at the 18th hole in the final round needing a par to seal the victory. On his drive Phil pushed the ball well left of the fairway where it bounced off a hospitality tent.
Rather than playing it safe, pitching the ball back to the fairway and ensuring he made no worse than a bogey, Phil tried to hit a miracle shot around a tree. The ball hit the tree and came back at him. He buried his third shot into the left greenside bunker. He then failed to get up and down from the bunker for his bogey. He made double bogey and lost the tournament by one stroke to Geoff Ogilvy.
From the white tees the hole measures 409 yards. The fairway sweeps right to left with a bunker on the outside of the turn on the right. There are trees close off both sides of the fairway. I hit a nice drive that rolled into the first cut of rough between the right edge of the fairway and the lone fairway bunker leaving 160 yards to a middle left pin.
My approach shot was playing 170 yards into the wind to a pin on the left side of the green just right of a greenside bunker along the left. The green sloped severely from back to front. Dawnie warned me to stay to the right of the flag. She said there was nothing good to the left of the flag. I hit my approach shot right at the flag expecting that it would fade slightly. It didn’t. The ball held its line. It hit five feet left of the flag and rolled to 12 feet past. Dawnie handed the putter to me and I took a long walk in the short grass.
My birdie putt just missed the hole on the left. I tapped in for an easy par. Dawnie seeing the disappointment on my face for not making the birdie, said, “don’t be disappointed, Phil Mickelson would have paid you $20 million dollars for that par in 2006!” I finished the back nine of the West Course with a 43. I don’t know what Mike shot, but I know he birdied more holes than he parred, and I don’t think he bogeyed any. I’m certain he was well under par. We moved on to the first tee of the East Course.
The East Course at Winged Foot Golf Club measures 3344 yards on the front nine with a 72.3 rating and a 136 slope. The first hole is a 373 yard wide open par four. The first part of the fairway is wide enough to take the bunker on the left and the trees on the right out of play for all but the most errant of drives. I hit one of my best drives of the day to 80 yards out.
The pin was positioned on the middle left portion of the green just to the right of the right greenside bunkers. There is also a greenside bunker along the left. I hit slightly behind the ball on my approach shot and left the club face open. The ball landed short of the green and the right greenside bunker.
I chipped to within one foot of the cup and tapped in for an easy par.
The second hole is a short but challenging par five. The hole measures just 466 yards but has a narrow fairway that leads to a very difficult green which along with the apron in front of it, slopes severely from left to right. I told Mike that I when I play with an assistant pro, I usually out drive him at least once during the round. I then tried to swing hard enough to out drive Mike on the second hole. I felt embolden by the long drive I’d hit on the first hole. I swung too hard and came across the ball slicing it to the right. The ball traveled 240 yards but only 200 of it was toward the green. The ball landed in the rough well to the right of the fairway leaving 270 yards to the green.
Since I’d already hit my lay up off the tee, I decided to hit the driver out of the rough. I hit the perfect driver out of the rough shot. The ball started to the left, then faded to the middle of the fairway. The sloping left to right approach to the green caused the ball to roll off the right side of the fairway into the second cut of rough just 47 yards from the flag.
I hit too far behind the ball on my pitch and my club got stuck in the rough causing me to leave the ball short of the green. I chipped on and two putted for a disappointing bogey.
The short par five second hole is followed by a short par three. The third hole measures just 141 yards from the white tees but has a narrow green sandwiched between greenside bunkers on the left and the right. The hole was playing 150 yards with a back of the green pin position. I hit a high nine iron that hit on the left side of the green and rolled off the front of the green.
I putted from off the green to 20 feet below the hole. My par putt missed the cup to the right a mere two to three inches. I bogeyed the hole.
My worst hole of the round can on the 538 yard par five fourth hole. The hole had a fairway that started on the other side of a pond that separated it from the tee box. The fairway bends hard to the right around another pond off its right side. There is a bunker off the right side of the fairway at 220 yards from the tee and another one at 145 yards from the green. My drive carried into the left rough leaving 270 yards to the green.
I laid up to 90 yards to a back left pin position. Dawnie said I wouldn’t be able to get the ball back to the flag and get it to stop. I told her that I thought I could hit a high sand wedge and stop it near the flag. I hit it high and too close to the flag. The ball hit in between the flag and the edge of the cup and kicked hard off the flag and over the back of the green.
It took four more strokes to get the ball in the cup again. I walked away from the hole with a double bogey after getting brutalized for hitting a really good approach shot. If it were up to me, the flag stick would become a part of the hole. Any shot from off the green that hits the flag stick should be considered as having holed out!
The fifth hole is a 388 yards par four with a fairway that makes a dogleg turn to the right as it approaches the green. There are trees tight along the right and a bunker on the left at 180 yards from the tee. I hit New York before I hit Titleist. My ball barely reached the fairway.
While my ball was in the fairway, it was below my feet. With a fairway that bent to the right, I still tried to hit my driver off the deck on a lie that wasn’t well suited for that type of shot. The ball traveled along the expect left to right path and ended up in the middle of the fairway, it just didn’t travel very far. I was left with just under 100 yards for my third shot.
I did however have a good angle to the back right flag, on a green with bunkers on the left and the right. I pulled my sand wedge. The ball landed to the left of the left greenside bunker. I pitched over the bunker onto the green leaving the ball 10 feet below the hole.
After a good read by Dawnie, I made the putt to save bogey.
The tee box on the 174 yard par three sixth hole is pressed up against trees on the right. The hole has a lot more sand than green. The small green is surrounded by bunkers. There are three off the left side, one on the right side and two short right. A combination of wind and tee markers farther back in the tee box meant the hole was play 190 yards. I tried to fade my 5 hybrid to the middle of the green but drew the ball instead. The ball landed on the side of the green and kicked in the second bunker on the left on a downhill lie.
I hit a good sand shot, but without spin. The ball rolled across the green and into the right bunker. I hit out of the right bunker to 18 feet and made the putt to again save bogey.
The seventh hole is a long par four. It measures 437 yards with a narrow fairway that slopes left to right with trees tight along both sides. I made bogey on the hole without my ball ever touching the fairway. My drive landed in the right rough.
I hit my second shot to the left rough, 70 yards from the pin.
My third shot landed on the green 30 feet below the hole.
I two-putted for the bogey.
The eighth hole on the East Course is a short par five but with a fairway that makes a hard dogleg to the left. The trees are tight on both sides. The hole measures 441 yards. The shape of hole calls for a draw, but one that could end up in the bunker at 250 yards out if over cooked. There is also a bunker on the right at 300 yards out. I tried desperately to draw the ball but couldn’t do it. The ball stayed straight and landed on the edge of the first cut on the right, leaving just 180 yards to the middle of the green.
After failing to hit a draw on my drive, I didn’t have that problem on my second shot when my 5 iron drew beautifully. Unfortunately, I started the ball along the left edge of the green. The ball landed pin high in the left bunker.
My sand shot landed on the green and rolled toward the front.
I hit my birdie putt on a good line but didn’t hit it hard enough. The ball stopped short of the cup. I tapped in for a disappointing par on this short and easy par five.
The ninth hole is a 386 yard par four with a dogleg left just past a bunker on the right. The right side of the fairway is open, there are trees along the left side. I hit my drive to the left side of the fairway.
My approach shot landed just short of the green on the left.
I two putted from there for a par to finish the par 37 front nine on the East Course with a 44. Again, Mike made a lot of birdies. My guess is that he shot under par again.
We played one final hole to wrap up my play at Winged Foot. It took until that hole, the tenth on the East Course for me to do it, but I finally hit a tee shot farther than Mike. Forget about the fact that he hit an iron and I hit a three wood, my ball was still closer to the hole after our tee shots than he was. The ninth hole measures 342 yards, has a wiggly fairway with bunkers on the left and on the right but not until 85 yards from the green.
I hit my approach shot to the green and two-putted for a par to finish my 19 holes at Winged Foot Golf Club.
It was great meeting Mike and Dawnie. Mike's got a great golf game and Dawnie is an excellent caddie with a great sense of humor.
Following my round, Mike suggested that I take a more leisurely route to the Hamptons to play the four courses there that I was scheduled to play. Mike suggest that I drive to Bridgeport, CT and catch the ferry across to Port Jefferson. He said it would take the same about of time as driving the full distance, but would be more leisurely. I followed Mike's advice and headed to the Hamptons.