Phil Mickelson has played Winged Foot, site of the 106th U.S. Open, at least 10 times over the past six weeks as he attempts to win his third straight major championship.
During one of those practice rounds, his longtime caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, walked up to one club member and wondered what the U.S. Golf Association was going to do about all the lost balls still buried in the strangling rough.
"We kept finding all these Precepts and Top-Flites everywhere," Mackay said Monday. "It's so thick, you take a step and you find another golf ball."
Last week, Mickelson said: "I'm going to make a bold prediction that someone hits the wrong ball in the rough [during the Open]. A lot of members have been playing, and when they hit in the rough, you can't find it. I've had Bones fore-caddie and he sees where the ball goes and he still can't find it. I think there are not just hundreds, but thousands of balls in the rough you just can't see. This is so thick the grass grows over the ball. You could be standing right over it and still not see it."
In other words, the USGA, which oversees the Open and its typically diabolical course setup, has this classic Tillinghast golf course just the way it wants it.
Winged Foot is playing host to its fifth U.S. Open this week, including the 1974 event that Dick Schaap, the late writer and broadcaster, famously depicted in his book "Massacre at Winged Foot." Hale Irwin won the first of his three U.S. Open championships that year with a 7-over-par 287. Only seven sub-par rounds were recorded that week.
In a recent conference call, Irwin described the rough in 1974 as "a tangled mess," a description that certainly applies 32 years later. "We all came in sort of like the deer in the headlights," he said. "We felt, 'What do we do now?' "
At one point during that '74 Open, Sandy Tatum, chairman of the championship committee, was asked if the USGA was trying to embarrass the players.
"No," he said. "We're trying to identify them."
Jack Nicklaus, who tied for 10th in '74, was asked his opinion that year of Winged Foot's finishing holes.
"The last 18 are very difficult," he said.
Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman finished 72 holes in the '84 Open here at 4-under 276 before Zoeller prevailed in a playoff the next day, shooting 67 to Norman's 75. It was the only one of the four Opens here that had a winning 72-hole score under par. In the PGA Championship played here in 1997, Davis Love III won with an 11-under 269, though the setup was hardly as penal as any of the Opens.
The 2004 U.S. Amateur was contested at Winged Foot as a dry run for the 2006 Open. In two days of stroke-play qualifying for the match-play portion of the competition, the average score was 7 over par and only one player managed to break par.
Since Love's victory, his only major championship triumph, Winged Foot's West course has been lengthened by about 300 yards to its current distance of 7,264 yards, including the longest par 4 in Open history, the 514-yard No. 9. The undulating green complexes all around are basically the same, but more than 1,000 trees have been cut down and the USGA has taken a different approach in determining the length of the rough.
For the first time, there will be three different cuts. The closer a player is to the fairway, the better chance he'll have of advancing his ball out of the rough and closer to the green. The intermediate rough will be about six feet wide off the fairway and cut to about 1 3/4 inches, still allowing players to aim shots at putting surfaces, though their ability to spin the ball to a stop on the greens almost will be eliminated.
The primary rough likely will be about 20 feet wide and cut to four inches, forcing players to use a lofted club, from 8-iron to a variety of wedges, to advance the ball up the fairway. Truly errant shots left and right will be penalized severely, with grass allowed to grow six inches or higher all the way to the rope lines. Just finding those golf balls will be difficult, and hacking them back into the short grass will be the primary objective.
"I haven't seen rough this thick or dense," Mickelson said last week. "Ever."
Winged Foot also is known for its doglegged holes, 10 in all, that also will challenge players off the tee. The modern solid-core ball doesn't spin as much, making it more difficult for players to "work" their shots left and right. But drives crushed straight ahead will result in balls running through the fairway and into the rough, so the driver may not always be the club of choice off the tee.
"The presence of doglegs makes it more difficult off the tee because you're not driving straight down the fairway, you're driving at an angled fairway," Mickelson said. "It makes it important to hit the right club with the right distance. You can't just step up and crank it and have it go 330 yards down the middle because it will go through the doglegs. You have to curve and work your shots with the angle of the hole. That's what makes it very challenging.
"It's going to be a very tough test. Winged Foot is so difficult, you don't have to do ridiculous things to make par a good score."