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Winged Foot West and the scorecard-shredding chaos it can produce might seem familiar to veterans of the U.S. Open, but after a major restoration by consulting architect Gil Hanse and others, there will be quite a few new touches that actually are old, with thanks to some precise new technology.
Hanse – along with design partner Jim Wagner, the Winged Foot grounds crew and construction company LaBar Golf Renovations – restored the greens of the treasured course to their original dimensions. Also sporting tee restorations, bunker work and some new fairway contours, it promises to be a different test than what was seen the last time the club hosted the U.S. Open in 2006.
Winged Foot’s two courses, the West and the East, have hosted 11 U.S. Golf Association championships in all, including five previous U.S. Opens. Changes to the courses are, of course, nothing inherently new. But this time Hanse and his team moved toward the future by looking backward at the Golden Age designs.
The 12th hole at Winged Foot Golf Club West Course in Mamaroneck, N.Y. on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Copyright USGA/John Mummert)
The job on the West essentially was a years-long high-wire act that sought to restore the course without impeding the members or making sweeping changes. Beginning in 2012 with the renovation of the club’s practice area, the team gradually gained the trust of the membership and saw the scope of the work snowball to cover complete restorations of both the club’s courses.
“There were a lot of eyes watching us as we went through that [practice facility] project,” Hanse said while presenting at the Golf Industry Show this year in Orlando. “If we’d screwed that up, we would have been done.”
Hanse’s approach of replicating a pair of greens – one from each course – that allow members to practice the vast array of demanding short-game shots that are Winged Foot’s calling card proved to be well-received. But the two courses at Winged Foot boast some of the finest greens in the world, so it was only natural that digging them up would lead to considerable consternation.
The 13th hole at Winged Foot Golf Club West Course in Mamaroneck, N.Y. on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Copyright USGA/John Mummert)
“One of the biggest selling points to the membership was that we told them we could put the greens back to the exact same contours,” said Steve Rabideau, Winged Foot’s director of golf courses.
The renovation team used laser scanning and digital mapping to convert the club’s native soil greens to modern USGA structures. On the West, each green also received its own SubAir vault that helps the crew manage water and temperature.
“We had a laser scanner come out and scan all the greens in the summertime, when they were good, true putting surfaces,” Rabideau said. “Then we used what’s called a robotic total station, a powerful surveying instrument, to set our vertical offsets so we could shell down 16 inches from the top of the putting surface based on the contours.”
The crew rebuilt the floors of the greens and painstakingly built back up, matching the original scan twice more along the way. By the time the group reached the top of the putting surfaces, the margin for error was a minuscule six-one-thousandths of a surveyor’s foot at intervals of 12 to 18 inches. In other words, that 8-foot putt that members have known for years breaks a cup to the right was not suddenly going to be on the right edge.
The 2nd hole of Winged Foot Golf Club West Course in Mamaroneck, N.Y. photographed on June 2019. (Copyright USGA/Russell Kirk)
Perhaps the biggest gamble, though, was Rabideau’s commitment to keeping the same poa putting surfaces as before. Given the conversion from native soil to USGA-standard greens, this was no small feat. During the West project, the club grew all its sod – 100,000 square feet in total for tees, fairways and greens – in-house.
“Getting it to have the same texture and appearance made for a familiar putting turf not only for the membership to putt on but for (Rabideau) to maintain,” Hanse said. “There were a lot of doubters in the agronomic community, but he was willing to take that chance, and I think it’s paid off tremendously.”
Of course, Rabideau’s dedication to fight for traditional Winged Foot putting surfaces made all the more sense given Hanse’s efforts to restore the greens, which had shrunk over time through routine maintenance, to their original dimensions. Hanse pointed out that the slope adjacent to the 17th green from where Geoff Ogilvy famously chipped in en route to victory in the ’06 Open is now part of the putting surface.
The 9th hole of Winged Foot Golf Club West Course in Mamaroneck, N.Y. photographed on June 26-27, 2019 (Copyright USGA/Russell Kirk)
“Part of the brilliance of Tillinghast and the Golden Age architects is they were thinking not only about the putting component and the practical aspect of the green, they were thinking about the recovery aspect,” he said. “You could never put a hole location there (from where Ogilvy chipped in at the 17th), but you could utilize it. If you were in a bunker on the other side of the green, you could hit your shot up on it and use that slope to bring it back. They were constantly thinking of all these nuances, and we were hopeful of restoring an awful lot of that.”
To be sure, the project also encompassed a few of the all-too-familiar elements of adapting to modern championship golf.
“We shifted a few bunkers downrange, rebuilt bunkers and added a few back tees,” Hanse said. “And Steve and I altered a few fairway contours with the USGA last year. But I think the most work and the most focus was on the greens themselves.”
All of this hard and precise work, it should be emphasized, unfolded under relentless deadlines.
“It was hectic,” said Shellene Elmore of LaBar Golf Renovations. “It was a fast-paced job.”
Before Columbus Day each year, the membership would decide which two or three holes would be available for work. It was up to the team to figure out the scheduling and logistics. Work would ramp up once the prime playing season had passed, and the crew had to contend with failing daylight. As the late autumn days progressed, the crew brought in floodlights to extend working hours.
The 15th hole of Winged Foot Golf Club West Course in Mamaroneck, N.Y. photographed on June 2019. (Copyright USGA/Russell Kirk)
“It was a lot of 12- and 13-hour days, six and seven days a week, and a lot of work under the lights,” Elmore said.
The work now done, Rabideau is confident in Winged Foot’s readiness to stage its sixth U.S. Open.
“All those late nights working on the greens and tees, we were working toward this week,” he said.
Citing the nearly 40 miles of new drainage pipe installed around the property, he added, “We’ve done everything we can for that golf course to withstand a weather event.”
As for what players might expect?
“The guys who played in ’06, they’re not really going to recognize it,” Rabideau said. “The greens are bigger, there are fewer trees and the fairways are a little narrower. It’s exciting to see what’s going to happen.”
A hint of mischief entered his voice.
“I know what I want to happen, but we’ll see.” Gwk
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