MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Waiting for the green ahead to clear, Sergio Garcia looked behind him at the five holes he had played Wednesday at Winged Foot Golf Club and recited a list of clubs that rarely come out of his bag.
A 6-iron, which he used on the opening par-4 hole. A 5-iron on the next hole. He had just finished the fifth hole, where he smoked a driver and then used a 4-iron to put the ball pin high and about 35 feet to the left. That's just getting to the green.
Patrick Reed stood in deep rough about a yard beyond the green on the first hole, hit a gentle flop shot and watched the ball roll down a ridge, feed over to another slope and run off the front of the green.
Welcome to Winged Foot's West Course, the site of a U.S. Open that starts Thursday morning but needs no introduction. Narrow fairways. Thick rough. Tough greens.
It's a simple formula that for years has defined the American national championship, an approach that has been missing in recent years by trying new venues (2015 at Chambers Bay and 2017 at Erin Hills) or receiving gentle weather (last year at Pebble Beach Golf Links). Even then, there were times when the United States Golf Association tried to influence the degree of difficulty in its big show, such as the pin positions and green speeds during the third round two years ago at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.
None of that appears necessary at Winged Foot, the century-old design that has yielded only two 72-hole scores under par in the five U.S. Opens it has hosted since 1929, when Bobby Jones secured his third of four U.S. Open titles.
"Something would have to go seriously wrong to get into the realms of goofy golf," said Rory McIlroy, the 2011 champion at Congressional Country Club who has missed the cut in half of the eight U.S. Opens played since then, with just two top-10 finishes at the tournament in that span.
No one expects the winner to break par for 72 holes this year, even with the move from June to September, no one expects the USGA to have to do much to tinker with the layout during the tournament, and no one summed up the test better than John Bodenhamer, the senior managing director of championships for the USGA and the person in charge of setting up the course.
"We will let Winged Foot be Winged Foot," he said.
His comment was inspired from digging through history of U.S. Opens at the club less than 25 miles northeast of Manhattan. A reporter wanted to know if the USGA was going to toughen the course in 1929.
Bodenhamer cited this reply from course architect A.W. Tillinghast: "We're not going to outfit Miss Winged Foot in any different way than she otherwise would be. No fancy clothes, no special jewelry ... just wash her face up for the party, and she'll be good enough."
This year's final dress rehearsal was Wednesday. Tiger Woods was out first in the morning dew by himself, gearing up for a course where he is 18 over par in six previous rounds — four at the 1997 PGA Championship, two at the 2006 U.S. Open, the first time he missed the cut at a major as a pro.
The measure of a difficult U.S. Open for years was how loudly players complained. Jack Nicklaus always talked about ruling players out when he heard them griping about the conditions. That's the highest compliment Winged Foot can receive, though. It tends to produce the highest scores and the fewest complaints.
No one is keeping score just yet.
"Listen, the players haven't put a pencil in their hand yet, so we'll wait and see," said Mike Davis, the CEO of the USGA. "I think you go back 125 years, and there's a little bit of history of it being a tough week. And when you think about some of the greatest U.S. Open players of all time — Bob Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods — you never heard them complain. They accepted the challenge.
"Part of the lore of a U.S. Open is it's a very tough golf course, hopefully set up in a fair but a stern manner, and we are just poised for a wonderful week here at Winged Foot."
The field is only 144 players, the smallest since there were 143 players in 1932, because of the move to September and the loss of nearly three hours of daylight. Included are two Baylor School graduates: Harris English, with a first-round tee time of 7:34 a.m. on No. 1, and Stephan Jaeger, who goes off on No. 10 at 2:11 p.m.
There also was no qualifying for the first time in more than a century because of the coronavirus pandemic. Like every tournament since the highest level of golf resumed, there will be no spectators.
Winged Foot still might be more crowded than any other tournament so far in the return to competition, mainly because of more volunteers required to help find tee shots in the rough. That's what the U.S. Open brings that other tournaments haven't. Normally the USGA event would have big crowds that trample the thick grass by the end of the week — and this is some seriously thick grass.
"If you get it outside the rope lines this week, it's going to be significant," Bodenhamer said.
The forecast is good, perhaps the coolest U.S. Open outside of Pebble Beach or Olympic Club in San Francisco. The players? Golf is getting so deep that five players have taken turns at No. 1 this year, the most for a calendar year since the world ranking began in 1986. Dustin Johnson occupies that spot now and is the betting favorite.
The star attraction, though, is Winged Foot. As always.
"We have seen a couple of U.S. Opens where it might have gotten away from them," said Webb Simpson, the 2012 winner at Olympic Club. "When a golf course gets away from you, you're bringing in luck. ... I think there have been setups in the past where you could argue that a great golfer with a good amount of luck won that week.
"But you're not going to have that here at Winged Foot. Whoever wins on Sunday is the best golfer here for the week."