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Culp's Corner

120th U.S. Open Championship Preview

by Josh Culp
Updated On: September 15, 2020, 11:26 am ET

Autumn officially begins next Tuesday but it sure feels like fall as college football is live, the NFL has kicked off, and the unique 2020-21 major-championship season rolls on this week at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York. 

This week's U.S. Open will be the 120th edition of the event. It was originally scheduled for mid-June but the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans. 

Due to daylight concerns, only 144 golfers will be lined up to play this week at Winged Foot. It's the lowest number in a U.S. Open field since 1932 when there were only 140 runners. It's traditionally been a 156-man field since the 80s. 

That will help with the expected cut-made percentages this week but overall it will still be tough to earn a weekend tee time when you consider that only the top 60 and ties will make it through the cutline. That used to be a much-bigger difference when comparing from week-to-week rules but now that the TOUR has gone to top 65 every week, it's just a minor hurdle. If we're looking at percentages then at least 42% of golfers will play four rounds this week with the potential for more if there are ties that stack up. 

The Course

The West Course at Winged Foot Golf Club will play the role of host this week. It will be the 13th time it's been used in a USGA event and first time it's been used on the PGA TOUR schedule since the 2006 U.S. Open where Geoff Ogilvy won with a four-day tally of 5-over 285. 

That kind of carnage is not an outlier, either. The other USGA stroke-play events hosted at Winged Foot were won with winning scores of +6, +7, +2, +11, +7, +1, and -4.  The USGA may have softened their stance on course setups recently but the superintendent at Winged Foot is anything but soft. He recently said, "hopefully this is of one of the hardest U.S. Opens they play." It's just an personal observation of mine, not a fact, but it sure seems like he (and the Winged Foot membership) are gauging success of the week by how high the winning score can get. 

The A.W. Tillinghast design is set to play as a par 70 that stretches to 7,477 yards from the tips. Long! That would make it the fifth-longest U.S. Open course ever used behind Erin Hills, Chambers Bay, Torrey Pines, and Congressional. 

A deeper dive into the hole-by-hole layout shows us that seven of the par 4s are 467 yards or longer. Three of the par 3s stretch out past 210 yards. That tells us that golfers should see more than the usual allotment of long-iron approaches this week. 

As you can tell by the winning score at Erin Hills (-16), length alone is not enough to defend a course with these guys. That is where the rough comes into play this week at Winged Foot. Using the graduated-rough system, golfers will see "playable" three-to-four-inch rough when missing just off the fairway but if they stray too far off path (about 10 paces or so) then goflers will find themselves in rough that will be five inches or longer. The kind of rough that could lead to lost balls if they strictly enforce the three-minute search rule. 

Golfers will be pleased to hear that a recent Gil Hanse restoration increased the size of the greens back to around 6,600 square feet on average. That puts them right around TOUR average, so don't mistake the increase in size to mean they are now huge greens. They had previously "shrunk" to 5,100 feet over the years. Hanse and his crew also cut down some trees and improved the drainage. 

Once golfers reach those greens they will have to deal with speedy poa annua surfaces that are heavily sloped. The greens are very boxy and might not look intimidating at first glance. In a non-USGA setup, golfers would likely be able to tear this course apart but this is a USGA setup. They will ramp the green speeds up and that turns most of the greens into pinewood derby tracks that are sloped from back to front. The greens will punish you quickly if you don't manage your misses and keep the ball below the hole. 

Course Quotes

Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.

Martin Kaymer: "It’s one of those golf courses where you need to play really well, it’s not about bombing the golf ball and not only a putting competition. I think it’s more about finding fairways and greens." -2020

Jon Rahm: " The greens kind of gave me an Oakmont vibe: extremely difficult, extremely undulated. But I think all 16 out of the 18 greens are all sloped back to front. There's always a run-up on the front. At least it seems a little more fair than Oakmont might look. I'm not shocked that the winning score last time was 5-over par, and if it gets firm like some of the USGA guys told me they want it to be, I don't see how any of us shoot under par, or if we shoot under par it would be somebody winning by a lot." -2020

Geoff Ogilvy"I still am not the straightest hitter in the world. My short game is pretty decent. I've been getting it up and down from everywhere this week, which you have to. Your best day you're going to hit 12 greens out here probably." -2006

Tiger Woods: "Marginal shots are just going to get killed here; it's just the nature of this golf course. Any U.S. Open, but more so on this golf course, but any U.S. Open venue that we play, any marginal shot here just gets penalized more so than any other Open." -2006

Jim Furyk:  "The grass is real common. I think up here in the northeast you see a lot of it, and out on the west coast you see a lot of it. Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, the Olympic Club, even throughout the Midwest you see quite a bit of poa annua. As far as preparing, it can be the worst or the best surface. If it's dry and firm, it can be very good. If it's wet and soft, it can be pretty much awful to putt on. When it's wet, it gets spongy. When we step on the green you can see pretty much your entire footprint. It gets bumpy and waffleboard like when it's soft." -2006

Overview: Golfers talk about needing to keep it in the fairways here and needing the ability to scramble because missed greens will be inevitable. 


Correlated Courses

Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week: 

Augusta National
U.S. Open Rota
Riviera CC
Quail Hollow
East Lake Golf Club

The theme this week is going to be courses that punish you for a missed fairway, courses with a lot of length, or courses with very undulating greens. 

I try to isolate courses that are used regularly but some other one-offs that would be useful include Shinnecock Hills, Merion, Bethpage, Bellerive, Olympia Fields, and Baltusrol. You could throw in Ridgewood if you like the architect angle. Even TPC Potomac and Firestone would be solid pointers given the location, grass type, etc. 


The Weather

Thursday: Partly Cloudy with a high of 77 degrees. Winds at 5 to 13 MPH. 

Friday: Cloudy with a chance of showers. A high of 71 degrees. Winds at 9 to 17 MPH. 

There is a sliver of rain possibility throughout the week but overall a great week for picking apples or having a U.S. Open Championship. 

Josh Culp

Josh Culp joined NBC Sports Edge in 2014. The DFS enthusiast from Iowa State can be found on Twitter @futureoffantasy.