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Lack of raucous NY fans could help some, hurt others in U.S. Open at Winged Foot

A green is prepared by the grounds crew

A green is prepared by the grounds crew outside the clubhouse ahead of practices before the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

MAMARONECK — Thanks to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the U.S. Open golf tournament was moved from its traditional Father’s Day finish in June to a mid-September date that makes it more of a "Fall Classic" starting Thursday at Winged Foot Golf Club. Approaching their 15th event since the PGA Tour re-start in June, players agree the adjustment to playing without fans has created an eerie atmosphere.

As he left the range Monday afternoon, Rickie Fowler stopped to answer questions from a reporter but donned his facemask first. "It’s definitely a different atmosphere for sure," he said. "As players, it’s been nice on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. As far as practicing and just taking care of our business early in the week, it’s been nice for that.

"But Thursday to Sunday, the atmosphere is definitely not around, and that’s a big part of a major, the amount of people. You heard it from sports across the board that have been back without having fans, it’s the lack of energy. It’s very quiet out there . . . It is fun to show off in front of fans and play well. Yeah, the atmosphere and the energy is not there. It’s even more evident being at a major."

Fowler ranks among the crowd favorites and always has connected with the fans. But Harris English, who is one of the steadiest top players on the PGA Tour, believes the quiet, as opposed to raucous crowds that traditionally have turned out at majors in the New York metro area, might help calm him if he’s in contention on Sunday afternoon.

"We have a lot of fans on the PGA Tour, but they’re not following me," he said. "They’re following Tiger [Woods] and they’re following Rory [McIlroy] and Phil [Mickelson]. I can see how it would affect a guy like Tiger a lot more just from the energy aspect. He feeds off the fans. That’s definitely an effect. I feel like it will help calm the nerves coming down the stretch in a tournament like this when you don’t have 50,000 people watching you."

English is comfortable flying under the radar, and he has been in great form. He recently tied for second in the Northern Trust playoff event in Boston, marking the end of a stretch of six straight top-25 finishes.

"I love these type of setups, especially a course like this where you don’t stand up on a hole feeling like you’ve got to make birdie," Harris said of the tough U.S. Open setup. "It really brings in a lot of course management and you have to stay patient. I feel like my game is kind of built for that."

Describing the playability of the 7,477-yard, par-70 West Course, English said, "It’s very fair. It’s right there in front of you. There’s no trick shots out there. You’ve got to hit driver a good bit, you’ve got to hit the fairway, you’ve got to leave it in a good spot on the green and make a lot of pars."

Fowler said Winged Foot is comparable to Bethpage Black in terms of length but is tougher because it is less open off the tee. "If you drive it really well and hit a lot of greens, it’s not that bad," Fowler said. "But that’s not realistic. You’re going to hit it in the rough, you’re going to miss greens, and the rough’s brutal. It’s very thick. So, a lot of wedging out and just getting the ball back in the fairway. You’re going to make bogeys. It’s about . . . not turning them into doubles. It’s just a hard test."

Notes & quotes: American Scottie Scheffler and Sam Horsfield of England withdrew after testing positive for COVID-19 and were replaced by South Africans Branden Grace and Rory Sabbatini.

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