Sunday’s final round of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., will challenge golfers with narrow fairways, fast greens and variable winds. But players will escape perhaps the toughest obstacle of a New York major: New York fans.
“Everything is exaggerated with people,” said Xander Schauffele, who finished Saturday tied for fourth, at even par. “People yelling, there's more noise, there's more things. You have to try and focus more. Right now it's so quiet, it's eerie, it's weird. It's not like anything anyone has experienced. It's hard to feed off of certain things. When you go birdie-eagle or something, usually you kind of ride a wave and you can usually focus a little more and get in a zone, and right now it's sort of like a college tournament, where you're doing your own thing.”
Most of the veteran golfers in the event believed that atmosphere would help current leader Matthew Wolff, a 21-year-old who was playing in college tournaments 15 months ago, when he won the NCAA Div. I men’s golf championship by five strokes.
Fans in general change the tenor of events. Golfers have long lamented playing in the same group as Tiger Woods, whose galleries dwarf anyone else’s and only have eyes for him. Many a major champion has found himself putting before fans' backs, as the crowds move to the next tee box in anticipation of Woods's drive.
And New York is a legendary crucible. These are the people who once sang to Rangers head coach Phil Esposito—to the tune of “Here we go Rangers, here we go”—“Kill yourself, Espo, kill yourself.” They swarm golf events, caterwauling and heckling players and generally making themselves heard.
Justin Thomas, who shot 6 over on Saturday to fall to a tie for 17th at 4 over par, lamented the atmosphere at the empty PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco last month. Collin Morikawa, 23, won that event, his first major championship. “It didn't feel anything remotely close to a major,” Thomas said. “It is a shame because Harding and here are just two terrific major championship venues, especially here in New York with the very passionate fans that they have here. To not be able to experience that takes away a lot of a championship, let alone a U.S. Open. Especially coming down the last nine and on Sunday, it's going to, I think, have a big impact.”
Fans got involved on a wild Sunday at the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage, in Farmingdale, N.Y. As Dustin Johnson tried to mount a comeback, someone yelled during his swing on No. 17. He missed the green and made bogey. Two groups behind him, eventual winner Brooks Koepka made bogey after bogey while crowds informed him that they preferred Johnson and encouraged Koepka to let his lead slip away. The reception was distracting enough that Koepka’s playing partner, Harold Varner III, said, “I was pulling for him after that.”
Koepka smiled wryly after he won. “It’s New York,” he said. “What do you expect, when you’re half-choking it away?” Someone mentioned that the Ryder Cup is scheduled to be held at Bethpage in 2024. “We've actually talked about this a lot during the week,” Koepka said. “Good luck to Europe with the fans.”
Winged Foot is tough enough on its own, with its unforgiving rough and greens that seem to undulate during putts. “It takes its pound of flesh every single time you seem to play this golf course,” said Paul Casey, who shot a 30 on the back nine on Saturday to lift himself into a tie for 21st, at 5 over. “It [even] does on a regular day. I’ve played corporate outings here off the forward tees and it’s still difficult. …This place is just flat-out hard.”
It can become excruciating under the weight of fans who want you to fail and want you to know about it. Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau, perhaps the two least-liked players on Tour these days, played in the final pairing on Saturday. On a normal weekend, they might have spent the entire round fending off haters. Instead, they played mostly before silence, although they did get a small taste of what an afternoon in front of galleries might have felt like: A few homes that overlook the course hosted people, and someone at No. 4 shouted, in reference to Reed's penalty for moving sand to improve his lie at the 2019 Hero World Challenge, “Hey Patty Reed, why’s your caddie carrying a shovel?”
Hecklers can get some people going: Reed then smacked his approach to three feet and waved. And Schauffele said he missed the energy of the crowd.
“I made a 20-yard putt or 17-yard putt on the 8th and then eagled the 9th and I was sitting there—it was just awkward,” he said. “It's the U.S. Open, and it's a major championship, and it's playing really tough. Those are sort of the shots that really get your tournament going around and fires up the crowd, and it was just—I mean, you hear crickets chirping. It was kind of lonely out there, not going to lie, but I think it's definitely easier to sort of stay in your own head space and not let anything sort of bug you too much since there's no one out here.”
Even Wolff agreed that he is getting a break here. He finished tied for fourth at the PGA Championship, the first major he has played, and shot a 5-under 65 on Saturday. If he wins on Sunday, he will be the youngest man to win a U.S. Open since Bobby Jones did it at a month younger in 1923. Someone asked Wolff after the round how the lack of fans affected his performance on Saturday.
“It hurt it,” Wolff said, then laughed. “No, I'm just kidding. Yeah, it's obviously a lot different. ...I think coming down the stretch it maybe makes me a little more calm just to see less people. …I have yet to play in a major with fans, so I'm really excited for the first time that happens.”
He should enjoy the reprieve while it lasts. The next time major championship golf returns to the tri-state area will be in 2022, at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J, for the PGA Championship. That one seems likely to draw a passionate crowd.