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U.S. Open: New-Era Golfers Prepare to Be Humbled at Winged Foot

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — In the 14 years since the United States Open was last held at Winged Foot Golf Club, which is probably the most feared course to host a major championship, technology and advanced strength training have revolutionized the game. Tee shots routinely soar 50 yards farther than they did even a decade ago.

With the U.S. Open returning to Winged Foot on Thursday, some in the golf community wonder if the modern golfer’s cutting-edge arsenal might be the formula for taming, or at least mitigating, the club’s rigorous challenge of narrow fairways, ankle-deep rough and dastardly sloped greens.

Jon Rahm, the world’s second ranked golfer who is just 25 years old, scoffed at such conjecture.

“Like Mike Tyson said, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face,’” Rahm said. “It’s the same thing here.”

Most in the world of professional golf are instead bracing for another four days of Winged Foot humbling the field. As David Feherty, the former tour professional and current NBC golf analyst said: “I expect a lot of whining.”

Indeed, the new-era players who are now the face of the sport seem to be preparing themselves for a 97-year-old golf course that mocks their contemporary tactics.

“You just have to embrace it,” Justin Thomas, ranked third on the PGA Tour, said. “Otherwise, it’s going to eat you alive. It’s the hardest golf course I’ve ever played.

“But I’m not scared. I think it’ll be fun — maybe, you know, a different kind of fun.”

ImageThe U.S.G.A. has recruited extra on-course marshals, and even veteran Winged Foot caddies, for the championship to assist in finding errant shots.
Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Thomas made those comments on Tuesday. With a smile he conceded: “I might not think the same way at the end of the week.”

One illuminating exercise in the lead-up to the championship has been asking players what they think the winner’s final score will be. The consensus was about four shots over the course’s par of 70. It is an improvement on the best score from 2006 when Gregg Ogilvy’s five-over-par performance was good enough to hoist the U.S. Open trophy. But it’s also a far cry from Dustin Johnson’s winning score of 30-under-par at the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust about three weeks ago.

And, as many players noted, the United States Golf Association, which conducts the championship and revels in devising the sternest test in golf, is well aware that last year’s U.S. Open was won with an unusually low score of 13-under-par.

Rahm said of the U.S.G.A.: “They’re going to make some extra effort to be over par knowing this golf course and the history. They have a reputation to maintain.”

Already, in practice rounds, there have been amusing outcomes as players do battle with the lush, verdant rough — much of it just inches from the devilish, sharply breaking greens.

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

During a practice round this week, the defending U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland held a ball waist-high and dropped it into the rough to practice his recovery technique. The ball disappeared and he and his caddie spent five minutes looking for it.

“It was right in front of me,” Woodland said. “But we didn’t find it until we stepped on it.”

The U.S.G.A. has recruited extra on-course marshals, and even veteran Winged Foot caddies, for the championship to assist in finding errant shots. The help is needed more than in past years. Since this year’s U.S. Open is being contested without spectators, a wayward shot no longer lands in a crowd — or on grass trampled down by tens of thousands of fans. The scores of massive hospitality tents are missing, too, which was often an advantage to the players since they could get a penalty-free drop from a ball near a tent.

And while the rough has been getting most of the attention this week, the most daunting part of the Winged Foot layout reveals itself once a player reaches the distinctive greens conceived by course designer A.W. Tillinghast, which were restored in recent years by the golf architect Gil Hanse using a treasure trove of archived, 1920s-era photos.

Those images proved that over the years, Winged Foot’s greens had shrunk substantially. Hanse’s renovations enlarged the green surfaces by about 20 percent and brought back the rolling, multitiered greens of Tillinghast’s vivid imagination.

The result is putting surfaces that make even the best shots come up wanting. As Collin Morikawa, who won the P.G.A. championship in August, said Tuesday: “You can be pin high and not have a putt at the hole.”

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Hanse was asked to name the most difficult shot on the course and answered: “Your third putt on the first hole.”

The test that Winged Foot is expected to exact on the world’s best golfers is so great, the U.S.G.A.’s leadership has talked about softening the potential ordeal. Mike Davis, the organization’s chief executive, said that even in 2006 they searched for ways to “make the golf course a little bit easier.”

He also recalled that the players of 14 years ago did not complain much, despite the high scores. Could the same thing happen this year?

Davis grinned.

“Listen, the players haven’t put a pencil in their hand yet,” he said, referring to the act of writing the number of strokes needed to complete each hole on a scorecard.

“So we’ll wait and see,” Davis added.

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