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Will Winged Foot wreak havoc once more?

Geoff Ogilvy
Geoff Ogilvy won the 2006 US Open by one shot at five over par

Whether it’s the first hole or the 72nd of a major championship, Winged Foot’s West Course can eat you up.

Of the five men’s US Opens to have been staged at the New York venue, just one has produced a winning score under par.

Billy Casper, champion in 1959, saw fit to lay up on the par-three third in all four rounds.

In 1974, during what was dubbed the ‘Massacre at Winged Foot’, the great Jack Nicklaus began his week by rolling a birdie putt off the first green.

Geoff Ogilvy was the last man standing when the US Open last visited in 2006.

The Australian’s winning score was five over par but a sensational finish saw both Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie card double bogeys on the last when pars would have seen them win.

Ogilvy expects things to be even tougher when this year’s tournament begins on Thursday.

“At some point in 72 holes, it’s going to get to you,” he tells BBC Sport. “Under par after 72 holes would be an amazing achievement.

“I hear it’s set up really tough at the moment, so this year could be really tough.”

What makes it so tough?

Colin Montgomerie
Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson both double-bogeyed the final hole in 2006

“What are you trying to do, embarrass the best players in the world?” Sandy Tatum, then chairman of the USGA’s championship committee, was asked after Hale Irwin won at seven over par in 1974, the second highest winning total since World War II.

“No, we’re trying to identify them,” was Tatum’s famous response.

A decade later, in 1984, Fuzzy Zoeller became the only man to win the US Open with an under-par score at Winged Foot on a slightly easier set up, though only he and Greg Norman finished in the red.

“The USGA usually lays a layer of difficulty on top of these golf courses, so anywhere you go it’s going to get a couple of shots harder, just because of the length of the rough, firmness of the greens and tough pins,” explains Ogilvy.

“Winged Foot just has 18 really treacherous, crazy greens. They are really wild and you could only build greens like that back that long ago – they had these crazy slopes.”

Architect A.W. Tillinghast earned the nickname Tillie the Terror, and a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame, for creating a daunting portfolio of courses that includes Winged Foot, which was opened in 1923.

“It has narrow fairways, long rough, and really tough greens,” recalls Ogilvy, who ranks the opening green, the scene of Nicklaus’ infamous four-putt, as “one of the hardest in the world”.

“It just starts on the first hole and off you go…”

It was a fear of making bogey, or worse, by missing the 216-yard par three with his tee shot that convinced 1959 winner Casper to lay up each time. He made four pars, and won by one shot.

“When you come out of the rough you lose all control, and if you miss the greens in the wrong spot you just can’t get it up and down,” says Ogilvy.

“All your errors are compounded because the greens are so tough.

“If you hit it in a good spot on the greens, it’s OK, not too difficult. But hitting it in the right spot on the greens is really difficult.”

How will it play in 2020?

Ogilvy, the only non-American to win the US Open at Winged Foot, has only been back to the Mamaroneck course once since his 2006 triumph and the Australian was keen to return this year had the coronavirus pandemic not disrupted proceedings.

He has been keeping tabs on the venue’s West Course, and says postponing the major from June to September will likely alter the way it plays.

“The rough is very healthy,” says Ogilvy, who now lives back home in Melbourne after two decades in the USA.

“They’ve had less play, so the course is really good. It’s later in the year, so they can stress the greens a bit more, because it’s not going to be as hot.

“There’s a bit more coolness at night, so the greens could get faster than last time because of the date difference, which would be kind of nuts.”

It will look a little different to the last major staged there 14 years ago too, with extensive work conducted on the bunkers and greens in 2017, along with trees being removed

And then there’s the absence of the rowdy New York fans.

Ogilvy remembers the spectators as “not just cheering, but chirping”, though he was able to stay out of the limelight during his final round when paired with England’s Ian Poulter.

“Poults did me the biggest favour ever,” laughs the 43-year-old former world number three.

“This was in the period when Poults was being a bit of a peacock – he was head to toe in baby pink; hat, shirt, pants, shoes, belt, head covers, the whole thing.

“On Sunday, on Father’s Day in New York, no one even noticed me in the group, because everyone just wanted to chirp on Poults.”

What does it take to win at Winged Foot?

2006 US Open final leaderboard
Ogilvy parred the final four holes on Sunday to win by one stroke

Bobby Jones finished six over and edged Al Espinosa in a play-off in 1929, Billy Casper won at two over in 1959, Hale Irwin at seven over in 1974 and Fuzzy Zoeller, despite waving a white towel in mock surrender upon thinking Greg Norman had birdied the last, beat the Australian in a play-off after both finished at four under in 1984.

In 2006, Ogilvy set the clubhouse target of five over par and then watched Mickelson hit a six at the par-four final hole to lose by one, while fellow American Jim Furyk missed a par putt which would have put him in a play-off. And then Montgomerie, who looked to be closing in on his first major, made a six of his own.

Ireland’s Padraig Harrington carded three successive bogeys to finish two back.

Ogilvy started the day two off the pace and took time out of his preparation on Sunday morning to watch Australia face Brazil in the World Cup.

“It was the first World Cup we had made in my lifetime,” he says. “How do I miss that?! It was probably perfect, because it took my mind off the golf a little bit.”

He briefly took the lead but after the 14th was two back once more. Then caddie Alistair Matheson suggested making par on the final four holes might be enough.

That was going to plan until Ogilvy found the trees at 17, played out into the rough and then missed the green with his third shot.

“I chipped it in,” he says of the par-saving fourth shot. “At that moment, I had the instant feeling of ‘wow, people who win tournaments do something like that’.

“It was such a ridiculous par, such a miraculous chip-in, the way I had played the hole, I really felt ‘something is going well for me right now.”

Ogilvy’s tee shot at 18th landed in a divot to leave a tough approach that repelled back down the green.

“I had to make a really good up-and-down par and then hope that Phil looked after me on the last in the group behind me, and he did,” he recalls.

“The shot on 17 was incredibly lucky. It was a good lie, it was a relatively simple shot, but incredibly lucky to pull it off and hole it. But 18 was like a 9/10 difficulty, close to the best shot I ever hit, if you take in all the circumstances.”

Ogilvy was left to watch his victory unfold on the screen from the scorers’ hut.

“I got very fortunate,” he says. “Right place at the right time. I talked to Phil a little bit straight after on the 18th green, he was a bit in shock.

“I have stories for life, for the others it’s just another tournament and they don’t want to remember it.”

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