THERE was more than a touch of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here about the U.S. Open’s last visit to Winged Foot, back in 2006. Early on it was an unlikely cheeky chappie who thrived, as Geordie Kenneth Ferrie belied his qualifier status to claim a share of the 54-hole lead.
In the latter stages, the fancied big names turned the 72nd hole into a golfing version of the slippery hill used for the final hurrah. Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson, as desperate for major glory as faded showbiz turns are hungry for publicity, lurched toward the final green only to have their hopes cruelly dashed by the treacherous course and their own hubris. It was left for a slightly dazed Geoff Ogilvy to be crowned King of Winged Foot, if not quite the jungle.
The New York course has history when it comes to fearsome tests – the 1974 edition is even known as the “Massacre at Winged Foot”. Who will emerge triumphant this year? Let’s take a look.
Followers of January’s major championship ante-post column might already have Tommy Fleetwood in the book and hopefully at the recommended 40/1 which is a little better than is currently available after he played nicely in Portugal on Sunday. That preview also noted the claims of Patrick Reed, who heads this week’s staking plan.
Back at the start of the year I referenced the fact that Reed was getting heckled for rules infringements and wondered what impact that might have when he encountered the famously raucous New York galleries. “He quite clearly has the hide of a herd of cattle,” I suggested, little knowing that it would not be a factor once they finally teed it up. That said, the media may still toss a few barbs his way and, if it happens, it's a potential positive because throughout his career Reed has thrived on controversy rather than been cowed by it.
Moreover there is so much to like about him as a fit this week. In New York, he’s a past winner of The Barclays and was fourth at Shinnecock Hills in the 2018 U.S. Open. That latter effort is one of three occasions in which he has contended at his national championship from six starts. The 2018 Masters champion is a winner this year and was the seventh lowest scorer at the Tour Championship last time out, closing the week with a 65.
As things currently stand 27-year-old Berger will not be playing in November’s Masters tournament because when the event was supposed to be played, in April, he was not in the field. It’s an intransigent ruling that already looks a little foolish, but it might look even dafter by Sunday night because he looks to have a great shot at winning a first major championship this week.
Always a very fine PGA Tour performer, collecting two back-to-back wins at Southwind in 2016-17, his regular event returns went a little downhill shortly after that success and yet he performed promisingly in the majors and World Golf Championship, a trend that is common among winners of the big four events. This year that has remained the case, with second place in the WGC St Jude Invitational and T13th in the PGA Championship (he was second at halfway). He’s also revived his week-to-week returns, claiming three 2020 top tens before lockdown and four since, including a win at Colonial.
His stats this year are impressive: 15th for Strokes Gained Tee to Green and 17th for Putting. I also like that he’s first for Scrambling because the winner and three runners-up at Winged Foot in 2006 excelled in that category. I also genuinely don’t discount the possibility that the Masters snub will provide genuine motivation.
Winged Foot has two 18-hole beasts, the West Course and East Course.
— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) September 14, 2020
I can’t pretend to be thrilled at Schauffele’s price, but his case has me sold. First up, there is his fondness for the U.S. Open test: he was fifth in 2017, sixth a year later and third in 2019. In all, he has eight top 20s, six of them top tens, in just 12 major championship starts. That affinity for the strongest tests in the game goes further.
He won the 2017 Tour Championship, was tied second on debut at the Players Championship, won the 2018 WGC HSBC Champions, was second on defence of that title and owns a first and second at the Tournament of Champions. In more recent weeks he was sixth in the St Jude, tenth in the PGA Championship and no-one took fewer strokes than he did in the Tour Championship. He hits the ball a long way, can grind and ranks second this year for Scrambling. It’s a persuasive combination.