Sunday’s final round at Winged Foot will go beyond crowning the 120th winner of the US Open. The stakes are high on a number of fronts.
The focal point will be how the irresistible force of Matt Wolff and Bryson DeChambeau fare against the immovable object — otherwise known as Winged Foot’s West Course. Wolff and DeChambeau occupy the final pairing with Matt ahead of Bryson by two strokes with a 205 total.
Wolff is competing in his first U.S. Open and the 21-year-old is looking to replicate what Collin Morikawa did just a few weeks ago at the PGA Championship — showcasing a new generation of players ready to assert itself on the global golf stage. The Oklahoma State wunderkind won his first PGA TOUR after just four starts in 2019 and his calling card is a swing that defies elegance but generates prodigious length. Consider that during Saturday’s 3rd round, Wolff carded a five-under-par 65 by landing in only two fairways. That’s no misprint — just two fairways.
DeChambeau has been the “mad scientist” in golf — transforming his body into a replica of what other generally see at National Football League games. Bryson’s take is quite simple — play King Kong golf at all times no matter where the ball ends up. DeChambeau led the tour in driving distance for the recently concluded 2020 season. Wolff finished 10th.
Hitting a golf ball a long way has always been an asset — most notably when accuracy is added. Jack Nicklaus demonstrated the marriage between the two elements for the bulk of his career. The defining moment came early on in Jack’s career at the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont when a 22-year-old Nicklaus was paired with Arnold Palmer during the 1st round. Both men hit strong accurate tee shots at the 1st hole. One ball ahead of the other by at least 30 yards. Both men walked to the distant ball believing it was theirs. As famed golf writer Dan Jenkins chronicled the walk was the longest Palmer ever took and signaled a new force coming onto the scene with Jack eventually claiming the title at age 22.
The above situation is now mirrored with the distances being achieved by a growing number of players looking to hit home run tee shots whenever they wish. 300-yard distances are not uncommon. Those failing to keep up are quickly realizing that no matter how many fairways they hit or putts they drop, the need for speed and power is reshaping the game. Wolff and DeChambeau are just the poster guys in swinging for the fences and not worrying where the ball eventually finishes.
In years past, the U.S. Open was the definitive event in which power was certainly needed — but so too was accuracy. And, most of all, Winged Foot this week was supposed to be the quintessential Darth Vader — reining in those who did not show proper respect for the club’s demonstrated record in bringing bold / reckless play to its knees.
Sunday’s final round will provide lasting proof in how the sport’s joint ruling bodies — the United States Golf Association (USGA) and Royal & Ancient (R&A) have kicked the can down the road — again and again. Mike Davis, CEO for the USGA, stated at Wednesday’s briefing that distance is clearly an issue but because of the pandemic any meaningful action will be delayed. Nicklaus himself has stated on numerous occasions that the golf ball needs to be reined back. To date – the USGA and R&A announced findings akin to someone confirming the world is round and not flat.
Sunday’s final round will showcase two men each seeking their first major championship. Each employing a golf game that showcases power at its center point. Can Winged Foot West push back and provide some balance? That’s the crucial question with Sunday’s final round. Both Wolff and DeChambeau have thus far been able to negotiate their way around the devilish A.W. Tillinghast design with little reason to dial down their wanton impulse to borrow the famed caddie Jeff “Squeaky” Medlin’s command to John Daly when winning the 1991 PGA Championship — “just grip it and rip it.”
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Taking action on the golf ball front is no easy task. But Davis made clear at his press conference that the continued increases in yardage gained is not slowing down but growing. How long will championship venues like Winged Foot remain relevant is a critical question? How much longer will courses have to be — is 8,000 yards just around the corner?
The USGA and R&A have shown a clear resistance to bifurcation — where elite players play a distance-imposed golf ball, while others, such as recreational players, continue to use the balls they use now. Clearly, the major golf ball manufacturers do not wish to see this happen as their brand identify would take a major hit. The PGA TOUR is also not chomping at the bit to do anything given the relationship the TOUR has with the golf club and ball companies.
When Wolff and DeChambeau step to the final tee one can expect to see each attempting to bludgeon the West Course. It’s important to point out – from Wolff’s perspective — that the best score past 3rd round leaders of a US Open at Winged Foot have shot is 74.
A final round at a major championship – especially a U.S. Open is unlike any other. Getting one’s name on the trophy is forever. Careers will be clearly defined by what happens Sunday.
Winged Foot has only yielded to two past players in previous U.S. Opens to finish 72 holes below the score of 280 — Fuzzy Zoellar and Greg Norman in 1984. Going into Sunday’s final round only three men are under-par and just behind are three men at even par.
Playing conditions will once again mirror what has happened over the past two days — cooler than normal temperatures with highs creeping into the 60s and a persistent northeast wind providing firmer playing surfaces. The fate of golf’s future can well rest on how things play out. Should Wolff or DeChambeau win even when continually missing fairways, it will send a very clear signal that meaningful corrective action must happen sooner rather than later.
Winged Foot West, undoubtedly and quite rightly, will have the final say with today’s final round.
We shall soon see.