Tiger Woods has seen his share of tough golf courses over the years. He didn't hesitate when asked where Winged Foot Golf Club, site of this week's U.S. Open, ranks.
"Well, I think it's right up there next to Oakmont and I think Carnoustie as far as just sheer difficulty without even doing anything to it,'' Woods said during a pre-tournament news conference Tuesday. "I think those three golf courses, they can host major championships without ever doing anything to them.
"This one or Oakmont here is either one or two.''
Carnoustie is The Open venue in Scotland where Francesco Molinari won in 2018. Oakmont has hosted several U.S. Opens, the most recent, in 2016, won by Dustin Johnson. Winged Foot is getting the U.S. Open for the sixth time, the first since 2006 when Geoff Ogilvy won by a shot as both Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie double-bogeyed the final hole.
Woods missed the cut, the first time he had done so in a major championship as a pro. Woods tied for 29th at the 1997 PGA Championship played at Winged Foot.
The course, in Mamaroneck, New York, has long had a reputation for being difficult. When Ogilvy won in 2006, his winning score was 285, 5 over par. When Hale Irwin won at 287 in 1974, the tournament was dubbed "The Massacre at Winged Foot.''
Measuring 7,477 yards, Winged Foot is a par-70 with just two par-5s. It has a brutal finishing stretch of five straight par-4s, none less than 425 yards.
"There are not tricks to it; you've just got to step up and hit good shots,'' said Gary Woodland, who won last year's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. "The key this week is you've got to drive the ball in the fairway. If you don't do that, you're going to be wedging out and you're going to be trying to hit wedges close because you're not going to be able to advance it too far out of the rough.
"For me, this week and what I've kind of put an emphasis on the last couple weeks being home is driving the golf ball, and that's definitely going to be the key this week.''
Ah, the rough. It always causes problems at Winged Foot. Woods wondered if it might be cut prior to the tournament starting, given how wet it is now. Woodland said without spectators, it can be difficult to find a ball that travels into the rough. He played his first practice round on Saturday and said he couldn't find a ball when his caddie simply tossed it back to him while working on his chipping.
"We didn't find it until we stepped on it,'' he said. "The golf ball can disappear pretty quickly.
"I was talking to USGA [officials]; I was glad they were bringing marshals out yesterday. There was talks of not having marshals the first couple practice rounds. The practice rounds would have been 10 hours out here trying to find golf balls.
"The fact that we have marshals is going to help. Usually, if you hit it outside the ropes too, you're hitting it in the crowds and you got some trampled down lies. We don't have the benefit of that this week. So you're going to have to drive the golf ball in play.''
"So far it seems very, very hard,'' said Johnson, the No. 1-ranked player in the world. "One of the harder ones I've ever played. But it's fair. There's nothing really tricky about it. You've just got to hit good shots.''
None of this bodes particularly well for Woods, who at least got a taste of U.S. Open conditions three weeks ago at Olympia Fields, site of the BMW Championship. That course played a lot like a U.S. Open, but Woods managed just a tie for 51st. He made only nine birdies for the week and struggled with his putting.
Since the PGA Tour's restart in June, Woods has played just four events, his best finish a tie for 27th at the PGA Championship. During that time, he has just four rounds in the 60s and didn't break par in any round at Olympia Fields. Woods, who won his 82nd PGA Tour event last October, has dropped from sixth in the world at the start of the year to 21st this week.
"This year I really haven't putted as well as I wanted to, and the times I did make a few swing mistakes, I missed it in the wrong spots,'' he said. "Consequently, I just didn't have the right looks at it. I've compounded mistakes here and there that ended up not making me able to make pars or a birdie run, and consequently, I haven't put myself in contention to win events.''