Winged Foot Hole 9

Winged Foot Golf Club: The Best 36 Hole Golf Club in the World?

There are few places I’ve played golf that carry the weight of Winged Foot Golf Club.

Upon driving down the driveway for the first (or second) time my palms were a little sweaty. Sure,  I was nervous about embarrassing myself (or my host), but more than anything I was just unbelievably grateful to have a chance to play two courses that to me represented the perfect marriage between championship golf, history, and architecture.

In this post I’m going to share my experience in playing both the East and the West Courses at Winged Foot. I first played each of them a year apart, but for the purposes of this review, I’ll be treating them as though they were one trip.

Winged Foot Golf Club History: About as Stories as It Gets

I’ve been fortunate to play a lot of golf courses that have hosted majors. Places like Oakland Hills, Medinah, Olympic, Bethpage and many others.

But there’s something about Winged Foot, that feels a level above all of those. Maybe not in practice, as obviously those are all phenomenal golf courses, but it certainly has that weight in my head.

The Club opened with two courses, the East and the West, in 1923 and by 1929 it had hosted its first US Open, making it the youngest Club to host the tournament.

Since then the West Course has hosted 4 more Opens and a PGA Championship. To further add to the Club’s history the East has hosted a pair of US Women’s Opens as well as a US Amateur.

And the West most recently hosted the 2020 US Open – which almost didn’t happen due to COVID-19.

Needless to say there are few courses in the world that rival the championship pedigree of Winged Foot.

Both of the courses were designed by A.W. Tillinghast, like many of its well-known neighbors (Quaker Ridge, Bethpage Black, Somerset Hills to name a few).

As a man known for creating difficult golf courses, the duet of the East and West may be his crowning achievement in that regard.

These are courses built for golfers, and specifically golfers with a penchant for a certain brand of punishment.

The brick clubhouse was finished in 1930 and in my mind, it is the quintessential golden era clubhouse. It’s beautiful from the outside, and on the inside, nothing is overly fancy like many modern clubs.

The 18th at Winged Foot West with the historic clubhouse in the background.

The 18th at Winged Foot West with the historic clubhouse in the background.

It’s a clubhouse that has seen a lot of things, is dripping with history, and doesn’t need mahogany lockers, 3 different types of steam rooms, or other extravagances that would detract from its elegance.

First Impressions of Winged Foot Golf Club

When you first arrive at the club, it’s impossible not to be taken aback by the fact you’re there. The Mamaroneck, New York property took me about 45 minutes to reach from Manhattan both times I’ve played, but I imagine at other times of the day you could double this.

Once on the property, it’s hard to believe it’s so close to NYC as it feels sprawling, as many 36 hole complexes do.

The short game area in front of the clubhouse is as well-manicured as anything you’ll find, and this is a common theme throughout the course.

Nothing is out of place.

The par 3, 3rd at Winged Foot West.

The par 3, 3rd at Winged Foot West.

As I walked on to the first tee box when teeing it up on the West Course for the first time, I told my buddy Chris that this was the most perfect tee box I’ve ever stood on.

And it continued throughout the round.

With a place as exclusive as Winged Foot is, you might expect the vibe to be stuffy and pretentious.

While I’m sure there are elements of this at times (there are at any golf club), the experience I had on both occasions was much more laid back and down to earth than I expected.

The members I interacted with were very welcoming, quick to share about the history of the Club, and after our round at the West this past summer, I even had a nice woman come up to me while we were eating out on the patio to say “Hey, Breaking Eighty!”

It appears I’m generally only recognized at the most exclusive of golfing establishments (said in a pretentious voice), as the last time I remember this happening was on the first teebox at Maidstone.

Winged Foot West Course: Even More Difficult than You’d Expect

The West Course is the more famous of the two courses by virtue of it being the US Open course. It’s frankly, exactly what I thought it would be.

Long, difficult, perfectly manicured, and a phenomenal test of golf for the pros.

This is very much one of those places where the setting and experience is hard to separate from the course itself. If I’m being honest, the West Course wasn’t one my personal favorite courses (I have it ranked #59 on my most recent top 100 list)  – mostly due to the fact I’m not a good enough golfer to truly give it a run for its money.

And this frankly, is what I was expecting of the course.

You’re playing a lot of long irons into greens, which are undulating and lightning-fast. Needless to say, if you’re aren’t on your A-game, you can forget about scoring.

That said, I will say the greens were some of the coolest and most interesting I’ve played – and I think it’s the green complexes that give it such high rankings in most major publications.

The 4th green is a good example of a typical green at Winged Foot: interesting.

The 4th green is a good example of a typical green at Winged Foot: interesting.

The only other time I can remember being as scared of a putt was playing TPC Sawgrass. Unreal green speeds, and at Winged Foot you get the speed, but then far more undulation on top of it.

The course, while hard, is very fair. Everything is right in front of you, the greens roll true, and there’s zero trickery – which is part of what makes this such a good course for the pros.

If you were to ask me about my best “golf days” on the other hand, this would be top 10.

We had perfect weather, the course was in perfect condition, and the company couldn’t have been better.

The course itself doesn’t have dramatic elevation changes, but outside of some of the fairways, it certainly doesn’t feel flat. Tillinghast does a great job of using push-up greens and deep bunkers to provide ample visual interest on the course.

Bunker at Winged Foot

While the land is generally pretty flat, with bunkers and green complexes like this, it often doesn’t feel like it!

Favorite Par 3 at Winged Foot: Hole 10, 190 Yards

The par 3, 10th at Winged Foot West.

The par 3, 10th at Winged Foot West.

There’s so much to like about the 10th at Winged Foot West. It’s right off the clubhouse and is the most prominent hole on the property.

It’s visually striking, beautiful, and intimidating.

The front bunker can throw off your depth perception and make you think the hole is shorter than it is.

This was the case for most of us, as we all came up short and all proceeded to double the hole…

Favorite Par 4: Hole 11, 396 Yards

The par 4, 11th at Winged Foot West.

The par 4, 11th at Winged Foot West.

I thought the 11th was the most visually interesting par 4 on the West. But more than that, at under 400 yards from the tips, it gives you options. Because of the course’s length you feel like you have to hit driver on most holes, even if it’s not treating you well (for me it wasn’t).

So to have a hole where you could feasibly hit anything from a long iron to a driver depending on your level of aggression was a welcome change. The positioning of the fairway bunkers are just so that it forces you to hit an exacting shot either short or long of them depending on which route you choose to go.

Favorite Par 5:  Hole 9, 521 Yards

The par 5, 9th at Winged Foot with the clubhouse behind it.

The par 5, 9th at Winged Foot with the clubhouse behind it.

I liked 9 because it gives you a reasonable chance to go for it in 2 if you hit a good drive. The green is huge, and just like nearly every other hole, has significant undulation that can wreak havoc if you’re not on the right side of it.

Then you add in the setting right in front of the historic clubhouse, and well, what more can you ask for?

Clearly, I had a favorite stretch of the course, and I look back and think of this as one of the best three-hole stretches I’ve played anywhere.

Winged Foot East Course: More Enjoyable than the West Course?

If the West Course gave me exactly what I was expecting, the East on the other hand gave me the exact opposite.

Honestly? I really liked the East Course and definitely preferred it to the west.

It’s not quite as long, not quite as hard (but still very challenging), and it had a bit more quirkiness in the routing that I felt gave the course more personality.

I found the quartet of par 3s to be more interesting than those on the West, and the way 3 and 6 were tucked into natural rocks and hollows in the land made for a really interesting setting.

I have a theory, and in talking with people I’ve found this to mostly hold true, that the average golfer who plays both courses at Winged Foot will prefer the East over the West.

When given the opportunity to play just one round, most people will choose the more famous and highly ranked West Course, which is a wonderful bucket list golf experience, but given 10 rounds I’d probably go 6 East and 4 West.

Favorite Par 3 on Winged Foot East: Hole 3, 145 Yards

The par 3, 3rd hole at Winged Foot East.

The par 3, 3rd hole at Winged Foot East.

If asked, I think the 13th is actually the best par 3 on Winged Foot East. However, I chose 3 because of the setting and the fact it was unexpected. We finished up on 2 green, and I hadn’t even looked over to my right to see the hole, and when I did I said “oh wow, this is cool.”

The 13th at Winged Foot East is one of the best on the whole property.

The 13th at Winged Foot East is one of the best on the whole property.

That’s often how I look back and think about my rounds. How many times was I surprised and delighted by a hole or feature of the course?

Those moments were more abundant for me on the East.

Favorite Par 4: Hole 14, 404 Yards

Winged Foot East Hole 14

This probably isn’t the popular answer here, but the dogleg right 14th was my favorite par 4 on the course. It’s one of the easier holes out here, and it plays very nicely into my giant slice. If you hit a good shot you can be left with short to mid iron in for a great chance at birdie.

Favorite Par 5: Hole 4, 549 Yards

Winged Foot East Hole 4

The tee shot on the par 5, 4th at Winged Foot East.

Water rarely comes into play on either course at Winged Foot, so that in itself makes the 4th on the East a bit of an outlier. A tee shot over the water to an uphill fairway leads to a hole that continues to wrap around the lake, before sweeping back downhill towards the green.

It’s a great hole, that you’re probably not reaching in two, and is a highlight in a memorable stretch of holes of 3-6.

Final Thoughts on Winged Foot Golf Club

Looking back at my time at Winged Foot, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the club is one of, if not the very best 36 hole property in the country.

There are some strong contenders: Baltusrol, Monterey Peninsula, LACC, and Oak Hill all come to mind.

But the setting and quality of golf throughout all 36 holes at Winged Foot is something special.

Along with that, I think it truly has some of the best greens I’ve ever played – and if you’re the type of person who weighs your opinion of a course heavily in favor of the green complexes, then you’ll love Winged Foot.

It’s clearly a tough ticket to get, and I feel very fortunate to have made multiple trips there now. But if you’re ever offered the opportunity, I can say without hesitation you should do whatever it takes to make it happen.

It’s one of the most special golf experiences I’ve had, and I can’t wait to revisit it again sometime in the future.

There are 3 comments

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  1. Ian Perrin

    As always, you’ve hit the nail on the head, Sean. The West is almost too brutal to enjoy, but you know the better golfer will always triumph there. It is such a great test of all elements of the game. Yet, East is just so much more fun!

    As for the best 36 holes in one place? One word. Barnbougle. No question.

  2. Mark

    Very good description and its excellent. Have you played Baltusrol since the Lower restoration ? Also , play the upper after its restoration (scheduled to occur in a few years). Collectively , they may be equal or better, plus its one of only four golf courses designated as national landmarks by the US government

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