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Waiting in the wings

By |  June 8, 2020 0 Comments
Stephen Rabideau (Photo: Beth Perkins)

Stephen Rabideau, CGCS of Winged Foot GC, is prepared to embrace the uncertainty surrounding this year’s U.S. Open. (Photo: Beth Perkins)

For Stephen Rabideau, CGCS of Winged Foot Golf Club, and his crew, the past seven years have been about more than prepping the West Course for the 2020 U.S. Open.

Between a full 36-hole restoration of the East and West Courses, headed by golf course architect Gil Hanse, and a brand-new practice facility to boot, the team has dedicated the last three quarters of a decade to restoring the nearly 100-year-old gem of a course to its former glory.

“None of the work was done for the U.S. Open, but we knew we wanted to do work to get the golf courses back to the standings they were at,” Rabideau says, noting that in 2012, the East Course had started to drop down the list in national golf ratings. “There were a lot of long nights working under the lights, trying to make sure we did everything as best we could in going the extra mile.”

Rabideau, who has been at Winged Foot since 2012 after serving for 10 years as superintendent of Wheatley Hills Golf Club on Long Island, is quick to add, “Hosting the U.S. Open, it’s an honor. There aren’t many people who get to host the U.S. Open. It fulfills a career goal to host a major championship.”

Since the first round of golf was played at Winged Foot in 1923, the Albert W. Tillinghast-designed East and West Courses have hosted five U.S. Opens (1929, 1959, 1974, 1984, 2006), the U.S. Amateur (1940, 2004), The Walker Cup (1949) and a PGA Championship (1997). The East Course has been the site of two U.S. Women’s Opens (1957, 1972), the inaugural U.S. Senior Open in 1980 and the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship in 2016.

The 120th U.S. Open, originally scheduled for June 18-21 and set to be Winged Foot’s 14th major championship, has been rescheduled to Sept. 17-20 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, with a resumé stacked with 13 major championships, a plethora of smaller tournaments and a total of about 40,000 rounds played per season, the team at Winged Foot is focused on polishing the course’s pristine reputation.

“A lot of guys have sacrificed stuff in their personal lives, and I think it shows on the golf course,” says Weston “Wes” Neff, who has worked with Rabideau over the past 11 years in nearly every capacity, including as an intern, assistant-in-training, first assistant, second assistant, superintendent and now as U.S. Open superintendent.

Winged Foot crew (Photo: Winged Foot GC)

The pristine conditions at Winged Foot wouldn’ be possible without every team member, says Stephen Rabideau. (Photo: Winged Foot GC)

“There’s a vibe here with the membership, staff, the town and the golf world that hasn’t been back here since (the U.S. Open) in 2006,” he says. “People are excited to bring it back and see what the course can do with the history and tradition of this place.”

Restoring a gem

Rabideau says it all started back in 2012 when Winged Foot hired Hanse to design its new practice facility.

Soon after work on the practice facility wrapped up, Hanse was enlisted to take on the 18-hole restoration project of the East Course in 2013, at which point, Winged Foot’s West Course had just been named as the host venue for the 2020 U.S. Open.

The East Course restoration took place in the shoulder seasons of fall 2013 to spring 2014 for the front 10 holes and fall 2014 to spring 2015 for the back eight holes. The team rebuilt every green, bunker and tee and installed 40 miles of drainage on the property, no easy task thanks to the site’s bedrock foundation.

“It wasn’t Gil coming in and doing a new plan. It was restorative off of old photos,” Rabideau says. “We were trying to go back to the early ’20s. The first Open was in 1929, so we had a lot of old photos from that time.”

At first, Rabideau says Winged Foot’s members weren’t receptive to a restoration of the West Course. However, after seeing the East Course results, the members were excited to pursue a West Course restoration.

Work on the West Course took place in fall 2016 through spring 2017 for the back nine and fall of 2017 through spring of 2018 for the front nine.

“We took what we did on the East Course, and we got better at it on the West,” Rabideau says. “We repositioned some of the bunkers farther down so they modernized where the new landing areas are. We lengthened a few holes for tees, so you’ve got more yardage.

Steven Bigelow, Weston Neff and JR Lapan (Photo: Winged Foot GC)

L to R: Steven Bigelow, Weston Neff and JR Lapan will draw on their experiences of volunteering at other U.S. Opens to prepare for what’s to come at Winged Foot. (Photo: Winged Foot GC)

The Poa annua greens on the West Course have been expanded by 25,000 feet, while still preserving the same contours.

“It’s a different set of greens than what the pros saw in 2006,” Rabideau says. “W gained some new hole locations, and the ball will have a chance to run some more with the undulations on the greens.”

To maintain the existing contours, the team used a surveying instrument called the Total Robotics Station. The greens restoration was so precise that the margin of error was .006 thousandths of a surveying foot. “It’s basically spot-on,” Rabideau says.

As for the finished product of the West Course, Rabideau says it’s likely going to play 7,450 yards as a par 70.

“The West Course is long,” he says. “It’s tree lined. It’s got narrow fairways. The rough is thick. It’s a classic U.S. Open setup, which is why I think they like coming here.”

Rolling with the punches

Unpredictable weather served as the unknown factor leading up to 2020, but no one foresaw the tournament being postponed until September due to a global pandemic.

And yet, Rabideau understands there are many factors out of his — and his team members’ —hands. “I think you just have to try to enjoy the moment and be level headed, because there’s just going to be so much that you can’t control,” Rabideau says. “I think the nature of who we are as golfers and superintendents is we try to control everything.”

That advice came, in part, from one of Rabideau’s closest friends, Craig Currier, who served as a superintendent at Bethpage for the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens.

“I’ve been very good friends with him since ’02 or before, so we talk every day,” Rabideau says. “It’s definitely nice and comforting to ask (for advice) firsthand from somebody who has hosted two U.S. Opens.”

Neff, Jamison “JR” Lapan, West Course superintendent who started full time at Winged Foot in 2014, and Steven “Bigs” Bigelow, East Course superintendent, say they’ve gleaned similar advice after volunteering at the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage.

The dream team

Neff acknowledges there’s a sense of brotherhood that’s filtered through the ranks at Winged Foot.

“We see each other more than we see our families,” he says. “We eat three meals a day together. We argue like brothers, but we also care about each other like brothers.”

Bigelow, who’s been at Winged Foot since spring 2015, says the camaraderie is heightened by the feeling that it’s a privilege to work at Winged Foot.

“Every day getting to be at Winged Foot is enjoyment in itself. The place is very well conditioned. It’s a very historic, cool place to work,” he says. “Working at a place like this, you get a lot of exposure and you learn a lot of valuable skills and have a lot of experience that will pay off down the line.”

Lapan adds that it’s the effort on everyone’s part that keeps Winged Foot in top condition.

“From the crew guys to our interns, our assistants, our superintendents, Stephen, it takes all of us to produce the product that we produce every day,” he says.

Rabideau agrees. “I sit here, and I do the interview, and I get the credit, but it’s all those guys who’re doing the work,” Rabideau says. “Yeah, they need a leader or somebody to be in charge, but I wouldn’t be where I am or the golf course wouldn’t be in the condition it is (if not for them).

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