Winged Foot is an unfamiliar destination for a new generation of stars

Jon Rahm’s prep work for this week’s U.S. Open began with a Google search.

It’s a millennial thing.

Prior to a stopover visit during the FedEx Cup Playoffs a couple of weeks ago, Rahm had never played the West Course at Winged Foot Golf Club. He’s up on the history of the place, though.

“I’ve seen a ton of videos online of the golf course,” said the 25-year-old, who’s not had an opportunity to experience many of the historic venues in the Metropolitan area. “I don’t know what other golf courses are in the area. The only times I’ve come here have been for the playoffs.”

He’s been around Glen Oaks, Ridgewood and Liberty National in New Jersey and Shinnecock Hills and Bethpage Black on Long Island.

“I’m excited to play this one,” Rahm added. “If there’s other good ones worth playing, hopefully at some point in time I can come and play them.”

In the days before Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, the PGA Tour had a four-decade run at Westchester Country Club. Players made it a habit to visit other nearby clubs.

“There was a fellow named Chip Weil that I met at my hotel in 1975 after I missed the cut at Westchester,” said Roger Maltbie who won the event a decade later. “We just started chatting and he says, ‘Well, I’m a member at Winged Foot. You want to play tomorrow?’ And I said, ‘Sure. I want to go see Winged Foot. I’ve never played there.’ Chip and I have now been friends for 45 years. Every year I would go there, if I played in the morning we would go over to Winged Foot in the afternoon and play. We would go a lot, either play nine, or if we could, get in 18. I have a real love affair with the place and have for a very long time. So I went over there a lot. I loved every minute of every time I got to go play.”

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Of course, when the PGA Tour relocated what is now the Northern Trust after 2007, the players stopped coming around.

Before the pandemic shutdown, Winged Foot president Brendan Boyle played in the Phoenix Open pro-am and spent time on the course with the likes of Thomas and Jordan Spieth.

Neither of the well-traveled winners had working knowledge of this year’s venue.

“It’s a discussion we had,” Boyle said. “The players in this generation don’t come by as often because Westchester is no longer a PGA Tour stop. There’s nothing until you get to the FedEx Cup playoffs. I used to take off work on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons before the Westchester Classic because you knew after the practice rounds over there, a lot of players were going to be here.”

There certainly would’ve been a line to get in this spring, but COVID-19 travel restrictions kept most participants away until late August and early September.

Johnson worked up a preliminary game plan after browsing online.

“From talking to some of the guys that have been here, I knew it was going to be difficult,” he said. “I actually watched one of the videos, I think the USGA put out, so I got a little bit of an idea on the golf course. It was kind of a drone flyover video, so I had a little bit of an idea of what it looked like and what it was going to require.”

There are just 15 players in the field here in 2006, but the game and the West Course have changed since Geoff Ogilvy survived a train wreck of a finish.

“Obviously, the greens, they’ve all been redone, and most of the holes are a lot longer than when we played in ’06,” said Tiger Woods, who did not survive the cut in part because he did not prepare while mourning the passing of his father. “Technology has changed and the golf ball is going further. We’re playing from about the same spots. It seems like every (tee) you have to walk back a little bit further.”

Young nerves might cancel out the lack of local knowledge.

“I’m hitting it as far as I possibly can up there,” Bryson DeChambeau said. “Even if it’s in the rough, I can still get it to the front edge or the middle of the greens with pitching wedges or 9-irons.That’s the beauty of my length.”

There’s a lot of scribbling in yardage books during the practice rounds. Putts are being hit to multiple hole locations. Balls are being tossed into uneven lies around the greens.

“Some of the guys have been here before, probably not too many, though,” Rickie Fowler said. “It’s not a place we stop a lot or even play close to. It’s obviously a great venue. There are so many great courses up here, so it’s nice to come back and have a chance to play one.”

Down time is a precious commodity, so vacations aren’t likely to be spent with a club in hand.

“I’d rather relax and get away from the golf course as much as I can,” said PGA Championship winner Collin Morikwawa, whose caddie, J.J. Jakovac, played in the 2004 U.S. Amateur at Winged Foot. “To be honest, I really don’t have many (courses that I want to play) because I just don’t want to keep playing golf on those off weeks.”

There is another A.W. Tillinghast gem right across the street from Winged Foot, but Quaker Ridge might as well be in Vermont this week.

“Obviously, this is a major, so you’re really focused a lot on this golf course,” Johnson said. “But if we had an event down the road, a regular Tour event, I would probably try to sneak out here and get a round in.”

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