Earlier this summer, New York was one of the epicentres for COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States. A town just five kilometres from Winged Foot Golf Club was a containment zone, with National Guard members marching through its streets.
Now, we have a major championship.
All the kudos to the United States Golf Association, the PGA Tour and its COVID-19 testing protocols (it went six straight weeks without a positive test, despite hundreds of golfers going from city to city and tournament to tournament), and the players and caddies themselves for wanting this major to happen – even without any fans in attendance.
This week’s U.S. Open, the 120th in history, will mark the first of six on the 2020-21 PGA Tour’s “super schedule,” with the Masters taking place in November followed by all four of the majors in their regular slots during the 2021 portion.
Considering what the New York area has endured over the last few months, it’s a positive to see this major go ahead at all. But now that it’s here, here’s everything you need to know.
A CANADIAN FIRST
Four Canadians will tee it up this week at Winged Foot: Corey Conners, Mackenzie Hughes, Adam Hadwin and, playing in his first career major, Taylor Pendrith.
While Conners, Hughes and Hadwin – all PGA Tour winners and Hughes fresh off a best-ever FedExCup ranking for a Canadian – may be more familiar to this country’s golf followers, Pendrith has quietly been having a spectacular season on golf’s triple-A circuit, the Korn Ferry Tour. He earned a spot in the U.S. Open in mid-August after sitting fourth on the tour’s order of merit, and is one of 10 golfers from the Korn Ferry Tour to earn a berth at Winged Foot.
At one point this summer on the Korn Ferry Tour, Pendrith finished T3-2-T2-T2 and was Canada’s hottest golfer.
“I’ve obviously never played in a major before so I don’t really know how to prepare for it, but I’m just going to do what I usually do. My game feels good right now,” Pendrith told Sportsnet. “I’ve played pretty nicely this summer so I just want to keep it rolling and hopefully have a couple of nice rounds this week.”
Pendrith says he’s just excited to see how difficult Winged Foot is set to play and knows he’ll have to embrace that challenge. Mentally, he’s wrapped his head around the fact bogeys will be made, and probably double bogeys, too. He knows it’s an older, classic design – the kind of golf course he loves.
The one thing that will likely be beneficial for Pendrith, and all the other first-timers, is there will be no fans on site. Despite it being a major challenge, if Pendrith was to, say, get a Saturday tee-time with Tiger Woods, it wouldn’t be as impactful as if there were tens of thousands of people following his every move.
“It’s what I’ve been used to for the last three years, so I’ll be a bit more comfortable,” says Pendrith with a laugh. “There will be added nerves because it’s a major, but hopefully it’ll be a nice week.”
Pendrith says the foursome of Canadians were going to have a practice round together on Tuesday and although Conners, Hughes and Hadwin are out on tour every week and have played more majors than he has, Pendrith is excited to join them and test his mettle.
Hughes jokes Pendrith was concerned Hughes would “big-time” him at Winged Foot after the former finished 14th on the FedExCup two weeks ago, earning US$625,000 in the process.
Laughs aside, Hughes knows Pendrith is ready for this stage.
“He’s got a game that’s really built well for the PGA Tour,” Hughes says of his longtime friend. “He drives it long and straight and he’s got a great short game. He’ll fit in fine and he’ll do well at Winged Foot.”
Tuesday’s practice wasn’t the only all-Canadian round of the week, either, as Hadwin, Conners and Hughes are grouped together for both Thursday and Friday.
WILD WINGED FOOT
The course in the spotlight this week was opened in 1923, the brainchild of famed architect A.W. Tillinghast. Gil Hanse, a celebrated designer in his own right, renovated the club in 2015, and it’s a brute.
The West Course at Winged Foot – about 35 minutes from Manhattan – has hosted the U.S. Open five times previously, and only once has the winning score been under par.
A caddie of a PGA Tour winner tells Sportsnet the second cut of rough this week is thick, but the primary rough is very thick.
“Probably a half-shot penalty,” he says. “It’s almost better to bring fairway bunkers into play here. It’s better than missing the primary rough.”
This setup is by design. The director of golf courses at Winged Foot (there are two courses on the property), Steve Rabideau, told USA Today his ideal winning score is 8-over.
With no fans on the property, this U.S. Open is essentially a made-for-TV event, leaving the course as the star.
“That’s been driving us to make this one of the hardest U.S. Opens they will ever play,” said Rabideau.
The last time Winged Foot hosted the U.S. Open was in 2006, when Geoff Ogilvy won at 5-over after Phil Mickelson made double bogey on the 72nd hole.
Now, 14 years on, Mickelson is still looking for his first U.S. Open title.
WHAT WILL WE SEE FROM TIGER WOODS?
It’s been a year full of questions for Tiger Woods, and that’s likely going to be the common thread for Woods, and his health, moving forward.
Woods comes to Winged Foot trying for his first U.S. Open title since 2008, the one he won on one leg. He also comes into the week having missed playing in the Tour Championship for the second year in a row.
Winged Foot and Woods, however, have some troubled history.
For more than a decade, from 1997-2008, Woods missed only one cut at a major championship – the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
Woods didn’t miss any cut in the seven events he played last season, but his run of results leaves much to be desired: T40-T37-T58-T51 in his past four with the last one coming at the BMW Championship, which Woods said was contested on a golf course that was “basically a U.S. Open.”
The way Winged Foot is going to be set up is not going to allow for any mistakes. Woods is playing OK, but ‘OK’ is not going to get it done this week.
While we’re down one major winner in the injured Brooks Koepka and one star-in-waiting in PGA Tour rookie of the year Scottie Scheffler, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, there are still a handful of favourites worth following.
Winged Foot is not the kind of place for anyone whose game is less than perfect, so those on top of the golfing world should all be considered front-runners, led by Dustin Johnson.
Named PGA Tour player of the year on Monday, Johnson comes into the U.S. Open – the only major championship he’s won in an otherwise sparkling career – having gone T2-1-2-1 his last four events.
Here are some of golf’s other top dogs to keep an eye on this week:
• Rory McIlroy: This will be the first major for McIlroy since becoming a father earlier this month. He won the 2011 U.S. Open but hasn’t won a major since 2014. It’s a long drought for the former No. 1 in the world, but perhaps being a new dad will give him a renewed perspective.
• Justin Thomas: Another former No. 1, Thomas has only one major to his credit as well, but three victories in 2020. A noted high-ball hitter, if Thomas can stay out of the rough and give his wonky wrist a rest, he should play well.
• Jon Rahm: Undoubtedly the best player in the field to have not won a major. Rahm reached world No. 1 earlier this summer and won twice in 2020 on U.S. Open-like setups – Muirfield Village and Olympia Fields.
The U.S. Open is usually the most democratic of all golf tournaments, as anyone with a particular handicap (1.4 or better) can try to qualify. This year, due to COVID-19, the USGA did away with the two stages of qualifying and put together a field based on various categories, including amateurs and golfers from around the world.
That means we won’t have a traditional underdog in the sense of a journeyman pro who finally gets his shot, or, like Garrett Rank in 2018, an NHL referee making it through to the biggest stage in the sport, but we will have some not-as-well-known guys trying for his first major title.
Here are some underdogs to keep an eye on:
• Will Zalatoris: The best golfer you’ve never heard of. No. 1 on the Korn Ferry Tour’s order of merit, Zalatoris has finished in the top-25 14 out of 16 times so far this season. He’s the best ball-striker on the Korn Ferry Tour, and maybe in all of golf.
• Davis Riley: A two-time winner on the Korn Ferry Tour already this season, Riley sits second to Zalatoris on the order of merit, who just so happens to be his roommate.
• Preston Summerhays: The 18-year-old Summerhays earned his spot by winning the 2019 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. He’s a high school senior and from a family of golfers, with his father, uncle, great uncle and aunt all pro golfers in their own right.