99 Quaker Meetinghouse Road,
New York (NY) 11735,
- +1 516 249 0700
Bethpage State Park, Farmingdale, New York
Welcome book in advance
Joseph H. Burbeck, A. W. Tillinghast
When the USGA announced that the 2002 US Open Championship would be held on the Black course at Bethpage State Park in New York, little did they know what they were letting themselves in for. Not only was this to become the first publicly owned and operated course to stage a US Open, but the pre-Open media hype suggested that the Black was far too easy and there would be record scoring. But they were wrong. Players unanimously agreed that the Black was one of the finest courses in the world, a supreme test of golf and eminently fair.
The 102nd US Open was a defining moment for Bethpage Black and it was fitting that Tiger Woods emerged victorious at Farmingdale in 2002. But Noo Yawkers in the know realised that this was the jewel of the Bethpage State Park’s 90-hole complex from the day the Black course opened way back in 1936.
Only one player bettered par in the 2002 event and only five players broke par when the US Open returned to the State Park in 2009. Only time will tell how tough the Black will be set for the 2024 Ryder Cup matches.
Joseph H. Burbeck, a superintendent at the State Park, was the driving force and the project manager who led the construction of the Black, and A.W. Tillinghast was his consultant. The Black really is as difficult and penal as the high slope rating suggests. It’s not for the faint hearted, with narrow fairways, tangly rough, plateaux greens and huge sculptured bunkers. You need to be on top of your game to score well on the "Black Leopard" as Tillinghast used to call the course. For all those macho men out there, it’s recommended that you play from the forward tees, which have a course rating of 73.1.
So, are you up for the Black challenge? If so, which tee will you choose?
Make no mistake, Bethpage Black is a monster of a course, it requires not only supreme accuracy from the tee and the need to work the ball both ways but also be pinpoint with your irons or you’d better ensure your bunker and short game is sharp. Bethpage is an industrial sized facility with 5 courses and the infrastructure to process hundreds of golfers, don’t come expecting the feel of private country club, this is a proper public course. I played a month after the 2019 PGA, the stands and infrastructure were still being dismantled which gave some sense of the scale needed to host major championships. To avoid the crowds I played mid week, easy enough to book online and they do have space for walk ups blocked out as well. Standing on the first tee having enjoyed the warning sign you know a stern test awaits, do not for example try to carry the dog leg on the first, very few players will make it and your second shot will be a short iron to escape the thick rough at best. As mentioned earlier almost all of the holes need you to hit a long and accurate tee shot to surprisingly narrow fairways, even on the wet day I played the ball ran and often what seemed a great shot had made the deep stuff or at best the first cut. If you’ve made it to the primary rough don’t be heroic, take your medicine and grab a short iron, play for position and get onto the fairway at all costs! I don't think I’ve ever seen green complexes with such severe defenses, many elevated and protected by some of the most penal bunkers you can imagine, great fun to pit your game against them. Once you’ve made it onto the putting surface most of them relatively flat, I’m guessing Tillinghast thought you’d suffered enough getting onto the green without inflicting any further challenges with the short stick. They rolled beautifully true, even on a damp day they retained their pace, I don’t think I saw my ball bobble once. The course is carved from woodland but the trees don’t really come into play, it’s more of heathland set up than parkland, even the greens are frequently surrounded by brutal rough. I thought the hardest holes were the par 4’s, I played from the whites which meant they were nearly all over 400 yards, the back 9 had some of the toughest I’ve ever played. Despite its relentless toughness and unforgiving nature the black course is a must play track, not only with its history of hosting major championships it’s simply a brilliant design making the most of the terrain with the finest bunkering I’ve ever seen. I was 10 off my handicap and the weather was awful but loved every minute, if you're in the NYC area try and play, jump on the LIRR to Farmingdale to play one of the world’s best public courses.
I Can’t Believe this $^&%#@*$&* Guy is Beating Me
I addressed the ball on the ninth tee at Bethpage Black, swung and made solid contact. My typical ball flight, when I am playing well, is right to left and I was hoping that I had hit it far enough right and long enough to get by the bunker on the left hand side of the fairway of the dogleg left. My drive landed and took a hellacious kick forward left and past the bunker. As I exhaled and bent over to pick up my tee, I heard one of my playing partners say under his breath, “I can’t believe this @#$%^*&^%^[email protected]#$ guy is beating me.”
The history of Bethpage is as interesting and unique as the setting and the golf courses. The land was bought and settled by Thomas Powell in the late 1600s. At the time the property was located between villages called Jerusalem (now Wantaugh) and Jericho. In the Bible, one passes through Bethpage en route to Jerusalem. At one point in the mid-1800s the villagers successfully petitioned to have the name changed to Central Park, New York. After much confusion, where mail was delivered incorrectly and in some cases being left off of maps completely, the villagers reconsidered and reverted back to the original moniker.
There are five courses there today, with the imaginative names of Red, Blue, Green, Black and Yellow. Hence, the logo of the caddie wearing a red shirt, blue pants, green hat, black shoes and yellow hat. The first course on the property was developed and leased from Benjamin Yoakum. It opened in 1923 as Lenox Hills Country Club. Today it is the Green course. Yoakum passed away shortly after the Great Depression started and a few years later the Bethpage State Park Authority was created by none other than the legendary Robert Moses. His vision was to create a year round recreational area comparable to Jones Beach on the south shore of Long Island.
Moses was a driven polarizing figure, who never held public office, but as the head of public agencies controlled millions of dollars. He was responsible for the creation of numerous public authorities and public benefit corporations in New York. He controlled these organizations without having to be accountable to elected officials or the general public. These agencies are responsible for the majority of the debt for the state of New York yet they also created millions of dollars in income, such as tolls. This allowed Moses to issue bonds to borrow more money which allowed him to do it all over again. Some perceive him as a visionary that helped create the infrastructure for a vast modern metropolis and others see him as the devil incarnate, the man responsible for the decline of public transportation and even for the Brooklyn Dodgers heading off to California.
Regardless, without Robert Moses there would be no Bethpage as we know it today. With the implementation of the New Deal, the federal government had dollars to spend. Most state and local governments did not have projects ready to be subsidized, but Robert Moses did. And did he ever, the Northern State Parkway, the Southern State Parkway, Wantagh State Parkway, Jones Beach, and Triborough Bridge, just to name a few. Today we would call these projects, “shovel ready”. Moses delivered millions of dollars in Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to New York City and New York. If it were not for Robert Moses, there would not have been a Levittown, New York, the first mass production suburb. While it is safe to say that the urban sprawl that we know as the suburbs would have happened eventually; without the infrastructure that Robert Moses created it would have taken years or perhaps decades longer.
Construction at Bethpage commenced in 1934 under the leadership of another legend, A.W. Tillinghast. At one point this project employed 1800 men under the WPA. On August 10, 1935, with much hoopla and fanfare the Red and Blue courses opened, along with the redesigned Green course and a massive two story clubhouse with a Chinese motif. Interestingly, all of the furniture was manufactured in New York City, also by relief workers.
The Black course opened in 1936. While Tillinghast is generally credited with being the architect there is an unsubstantiated claim that the original Bethpage superintendent, Joe Burbeck, was the real architect. Regardless, it is a gem. The last course, Yellow, did not open until 1958.
On August 24, 2011 I received a call requesting my presence at a business meeting in Hackensack, New Jersey for Friday morning August 26th. This did not initially set all that well with me. While I travel a fair amount for business, I do not get to the northeast very often. There is a plethora of great courses in that region that I have yet to play, but I was intrigued with Bethpage Black because of its cult like following. Of course, I had heard the stories about how difficult it is to get on and people sleeping in their cars in the parking lot in order to get a tee time and that sounded like a lot of fun. Not knowing when I would be in that neck of the woods again, on a whim, with extremely low expectations, I called Bethpage. I explained the situation, that I was going to be in the area on business, and I was hoping to come out as a single on Friday afternoon around 2:30 and play the Black course. Would I be able to get out? To my surprise, I was told, “Sure no problem, come on out.” Having expected to be laughed at, I rephrased my question, “You will be able to get me on the Black course Friday afternoon around 2:30?” In a classic New York response I heard, “I can’t, but if you pay $130 that will do it.” I was astounded, that one of the toughest tee times in the country appeared to be within my grasp. I went in one more time just to be sure, “I am going to be driving over from New Jersey and I would hate to be disappointed. Are you sure there are open slots?” Amazingly, I hear, “You said you are a single, right? If you are a single, we have plenty of room.” I was still a little bit uncertain about this, so I decided to call back in about 30 minutes. I asked the same question and sure enough it was the same guy who answered the phone. He said, “Whatsa matta? Don’t you trust me?” I said, “Well, you are from New York.” He laughed and said that I could absolutely get on the Black Course Friday afternoon.
I hung up the phone, exhaled and said, “Wow.” I was stoked and sprang into action. I accept the Friday meeting request, jump on line to book a flight and look for golf courses near the Newark, New Jersey airport that I would be able to play on Thursday afternoon. I ended up playing Galloping Hill, in Kenilworth, New Jersey. Pretty neat course, I saw at least a dozen deer and a fox. This is on a course that from the number two green you used to be able to see the Twin Towers in New York City. The third hole is a long downhill par four and is known as Suicide Hill, because tragically a youngster did lose his life sledding there.
The next day I was fired up and I must admit I was not as attentive in the meeting as I should have been. We finally finished up at noon and then the client wanted to shoot the breeze. Normally, I would have been engaging but I had a date with destiny. I extracted myself at 12:27, jumped in the rental and started heading east. While it is only 40 odd miles, it is some pretty tough driving, across the George Washington Bridge and then the Cross Bronx Throughway to the Throgs Neck Bridge onto Long Island. I made excellent time, and I was out of my suit into my golf attire and standing in line at Bethpage at 2:08. I emerged at 2:11 with a tee time on Bethpage Black at 2:38.
I couldn’t resist; I had plenty of time to call several golf buddies and rub my good fortune in their faces. I then headed over to the starters shack and as I was walking up I noticed the large landfill in the distance. Somehow, that never quite made the TV coverage. I checked in and much to my surprise the starter asked me if I minded teeing off a little bit earlier. I wasn’t sure if that was a trick question or not, so I gamely answered yes. They said, “Okay you are now in the 2:22 group.” How about them apples?!
I introduced myself to my playing partners and I started warming up. After a little stretching, I took a few practice swings and then one of the group came over to me and asked if I have ever played Black before and I said, “No, I haven’t but that I am really looking forward to it.” He said, “You know this is a pretty tough course.” I said, “Yes, I have heard that and because I have heard so much about it, I want to experience it first-hand.” Then as if he was the ghost in” The Christmas Carol” he turned and pointed to the infamous sign that reads, "The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers." I nodded my head and thanked him for pointing this out to me. He then said, “We play pretty fast. Are you sure you will be able to keep up with us?” Those of you who know me are probably laughing right now. While there are lots of golfers who are better than I, there aren’t many who are faster and as someone who has walked three rounds in one day multiple times his question certainly sounded like a challenge to me. Uncharacteristically and with a straight face I said, “I will do my best not to slow you down.”
The tone had been set and the pleasantries were over, we were about to get down to business. When I had looked at Black on line and reviewed the yardages, I felt I would be best playing the 6200+ tees. Being sneaky short off the tee and playing a tough course, I thought this would be sensible. As we walked to the first tee my playing partners stopped at the white tees. Gut check time. The whites are almost 6700 yards (73.1 rating,140 slope) and the blues are 7300 (76.6 rating 148 slope). As the gauntlet had been thrown down, I really had no choice but to play from the whites.
The first hole is a dogleg right, about 430 yards. If you are too far right off the tee, even if you are in the fairway, you can be blocked out by the trees on the right hand side. I was the last to hit in our group and I hit a pretty good drive, but dead straight down the right side. Sure enough, I was blocked out. I was only 170 yards out but I needed to get the ball up quickly. I decided that I would try to hook a 5 iron around the trees. I hit it pretty good, but I caught the last branch and ended up about twenty yards short of the green (for a possible barkie). I made a decent pitch and sank a five footer for par. I was even at Bethpage Black! How long would it last?
We trudged across the street to the second hole. Note well, Bethpage Black DOES NOT ALLOW GOLF CARTS. If you are going to play the Black, get in shape because you will have to walk. The second hole bends slightly to the left and is uphill with a blind second shot from the right hand side of the fairway. The green is protected by a series of large bunkers on the right, which is where I deposited my approach shot. I ended up with a bogey. The third hole is the easiest hole on the course. It looks like a relatively benign par three but the green slopes hard right to left. I was on the front right and was able to two putt for a par.
The par five fourth has received all kinds of acclaim and rightly so. It is an impressive $^%&*#%^$^ hole that I misplayed (triple bogey). While it only measures 460+ yards from the whites, it is uphill and utilizes redan bunkers. Long hitters can get there in two, but it is fraught with risk. The tee shot must go down the left side. This will leave you with a blind second shot over greenside bunkers with a green that is the antithesis of a bride on her wedding night.
A more cautious approach would be to play down the right side off the tee all the way to the green. However with the contours and angling of the bunkers the margin for error is still relatively low. The picture does not do the hole justice and the scale of the second row of fairway bunkers is ginormous.
To me the 445 yard par 4 fifth hole, with another elevated green, is the signature hole. This is another hole with diagonal bunkers of epic proportion. Real golfers would hit a fade off the tee to carry the bunker and then a draw into the green. Ideally, your tee shot should be on the right hand side of the fairway. Of course, I was on the left. I would like to say I was blocked out but I cannot hit a 225 yard uphill fairway wood. Heck, I am not sure I could do it with a driver! I really had no choice but to lay up. After the last hole I forced myself to really think and focus on the best distance and angles with which to play from. Hence, I aimed way right, as the pin was on the left side so that I would have the most green to work with. My strategy almost worked as I just missed the ten foot par putt.
We got to the 386 yard sixth hole and I finally felt like I could exhale. I had plenty of time to do just that as the two foursomes ahead of us were still on the tee. The pace of play had been slow up to this point, but from hereon on in we would get to chat with the foursome ahead of us on just about every tee box. The sixth is one of the easier holes, pretty wide open off of the tee but the green is surrounded by bunkers.
Bethpage Black is famous for the size and SLOPE of its bunkers. Trust me, these bunkers were designed to be penurious. I hit my approach shot just a little chunky; it landed at the top of the bunker and rolled back to the bottom. Instead of a relatively simple greenside sand explosion I had to carry the ball another ten yards just to get over the lip of the bunker. Fortunately, I was able to do so. The playing partner who was skooching me before we teed off was not so fortunate. After pushing his approach shot into the right green side bunker, it took him three attempts before he finally got out. His third attempt was airmailed over the green into another bunker. What a pity.
The 500 yard seventh is a dogleg right and if you are a long hitter you can certainly get there in two. To do so you must carry the vast bunker on the right. Not surprisingly, it is another hole where bunkers are lurking for any shots that are just a little bit off line. I stuck to my plan, played conservatively, laid up to 80 yards on the right side to give me the best angle to the pin and promptly pulled my wedged left to give myself a 30 footer. I was thankful to walk away with a par.
Number 8 is 190 yard downhill par three. It is the only hole that I recall with a water hazard and the pin was in the front. I was somewhat surprised when my playing partner said that it plays longer than it looks or says on the scorecard. The good news was, as there were multiple foursomes on the tee, I got to watch to see what clubs people were hitting. The decent golfers seemed to be going with 6 and 5 irons. I had the honors and decided to go with a six and I am glad that I did. I hit it well, landed just short of pin high and rolled to about 20 feet away with a downhill putt. I lagged it down near the hole for a tap in par. I was then starting to wonder whether my player partner had positive intentions or not.
As I approached my tee shot on 9, I reminded myself to play smart and stay within myself. I was about 165 yards out, but the green is slightly elevated, there is a bunker in front, the breeze had picked up and the pin is back. I do not know why I had grabbed my five iron, but fortunately, I saw the error of my ways and replaced it with my $17 five wood. It was the right call. I ended up pin high with a 20 foot birdie putt. I had plenty of time to line my putt up as my esteemed playing partner continued to practice his sand shots on the course. I lagged this one within a foot and tapped it in for a par.
At the turn, he said, “You shot a 42. That is pretty good for your first time. Too bad you had that 8.” I smiled through my gritted teeth and said, “Thanks, want to play for some money?” He certainly wasn’t expecting this and he stuttered and stammered for a few moments, before he finally said no. I asked if he was sure and said that I had definitely gotten lucky and that the probability of me capturing lightning in a bottle on the back nine was extremely low, especially with my swing. He agreed with what I said but declined the wager and then quickly walked over to chat with the others in our group.
Ten is another long par four with a well-protected green. My drive was a little off line and came to rest in the rough. While I was only just over 200 yards out, I had a lousy lie and the fairway ends about 50 yards in front of the green. I decided to chunk it out, get it back in the fairway and planned on being in the 80 yard range. It worked but I missed the putt for a bogey.
Eleven is another long par four with an even more well-protected green, with bunkers on both the left and right with a twelve yard gap in between them. The contours of this hole are somewhat deceiving; the fairway has a gentle right to left swing. I hit a good drive but overcooked it a little bit and it came to rest in the rough just off the fairway. This time I did have a good lie and was about 210 out into the wind. My buddy came over and offered this gem, “This is a tough hole but with your little draw you should aim at the bunker on the right, let it bounce and roll on up to the green.” I thanked him for his input, whipped out my three wood and said, “That is exactly what I am going to do.” And I did. As soon as I hit it I knew it was going to be pretty good. A nice high draw, one big bounce and it rolled onto the green. Not that I am complaining but it would have been really sweet if it had gone in. It also could have been better if it had stopped closer to the hole. Instead, I had a 30 foot downhill putt. I was able to lag it close for a tap in four. If someone had told me on the tee box that I would par the hole, I would have been ecstatic.
Twelve is an even longer par four dogleg left with a monstrous bunker protecting the left hand corner. Once again the use of the redan bunker makes the tee shot much more difficult. The left side of the bunker is the closest to the tee box and the right hand side of the bunker extends past the midpoint of the fairway and is at the furthest point from the tee box. Real golfers bomb it over the left hand side of the bunker. Pretenders like me, really do not know what to do. Ultimately, I aimed at the right hand side of the bunker and figured if I hooked it I would hopefully clear the bunker. I ended up bailing out right, and it rolled through the fairway into the rough. I am 230 yards from the green with a skinny lie and recognize that the probability of hitting a pure 3 wood on back to back holes was infinitesimal. I decide to lay up on the left side about 50 yards as the pin was back and I had plenty of green to work with. My compatriot was about ten yards ahead of me and he went for it and much to his chagrin, splatted it into the right greenside bunker. I hit a nice pitch tight and my cohort left it in the bunker, and left it and left it and then kicked it. I made my putt for a major league par.
The thirteenth is a relatively short par 5. It does bend a little to the right, so one should avoid the bunker on the left elbow in the landing area. We were wondering what the group ahead of us was waiting for when all of a sudden a human being emerged out of the fairway bunker. I will say it again, Black’s bunkers are designed to penalize you. One interesting feature is a greenside bunker that is approximately 30-40 yards in front of the green. It is an optical illusion as it appears to be protecting the green but there is plenty of room to work your magic. The fourteenth is a 160 yard par 3 over a ravine with, you guessed it, another colossal bunker on the right.
My adversary had the misfortune to leave it short right and spent some more quality time at the beach. See a trend here? I was able to make another par. I was on a roll. I was one over on the back but heading to the toughest hole on the course.
Fifteen is brutal, 450 yards to an uphill green. I did not hit a great drive which made my decision to layup real easy. After surveying the situation, with the pin left, I felt I would have a better angle coming in from the right. I left myself 70 yards and hit a nice third shot to about fifteen feet. I lipped the putt. This is probably the toughest green on the course and I was told that it had been flattened a bit when Rees Jones did the redesign.
Sixteen is another long par 4, but at least it is downhill. I hit a decent tee shot but there was no way I could get home so I laid up, again. The left was the side to come in from for this hole. I thought I hit a pretty good pitch but it checked up on me and left me a 30 footer. I lipped this one too, but I was in no position to complain.
Seventeen is a 190 yard par three. Well protected is an understatement. The preponderance of the bunkers are on the right. If you are going to miss this hourglass shaped green, long left is the place to be. I am sure there is no surprise when I tell you I was short right. The pin was tucked right and it sucked me into its evil vortex. My tee shot plugged in the face of the bunker. I left my second shot and then flew my third shot into the center back bunker. I was starting to feel like my nemesis. I was able to two putt for a smooth six.
Onto eighteen, the last hole and we were running out of daylight. I hit my best tee shot of the day. I don’t know if it hit a sprinkler head or what but I was 130 yards to the elevated green’s pin. I was giddy because I got to hit a short iron to the green! I hit an 8 and thought it was going to be tight, but just like 17 it buried itself into the face of the greenside bunker. The good news was I had company, guess who else was in the same bunker? Not surprisingly, he left his and told me to go while he regrouped. I almost got mine out but it hit the lip and rolled all way to the bottom of the bunker alongside my buddy’s ball. I know I shouldn’t have but I just couldn’t resist the fun of saying, “Closest to the pin for a buck?” He just grumbled and then launched his next shot up past the flagpoles, a good 40 yards past the green. I was very close to saying, “I hope I can do better than that.” but was able to bite it off before it slipped out. He could not have been real happy when I nestled my shot inside of two feet. He further displayed his displeasure by walking up to his ball, picking it up and heading to the parking lot! Nary a goodbye or up yours. Welcome to New York!
It was 7:48PM. The round took us almost 5 ½ hours. I was quite confident that I did not slow down the pace of play. I then went into decompression mode. My first reaction was that the course was over rated; after all if a hack like me can shoot an 84 how hard can it be?
I went to TGI Fridays for dinner (How is that for a shameless plug?) I then thought about the events of the day and analyzed the course and my score. I drove the ball well, only missed 4 fairways and never by more than 5 yards. My 3 and 5 woods had to be tired from overuse. I hit my 5 iron well, especially to set up pitches and chips. I did not hit my 4,7,9, or pitching wedge at all! I have two sand wedges, one for pitching and chipping that I used 9 times and my real sand wedge 5 times. The pitching and chipping sand wedge saved my bacon. I was surprised to see that I had 31 putts. I thought I had putted better. I made a couple that I should have, lipped a few longer ones but most importantly I was never really in danger of three putting after my first putt. The key to my round was other than two holes I did not put myself in harm’s way. I really had to grind out each and every shot. I do not think that I have ever analyzed and dissected each upcoming shot more thoroughly than I did at Black. While it was mentally taxing I am euphoric with the results. I imagine I could play Black 10 more times and not score as well. Of course my buddy may have given me a little more motivation than normal. Ultimately, I believe the best description of Black is relentless as it does not let up and neither can you. If you go, and I hope you do, I would strongly suggest working on your bunker play. Lastly, get in shape. I was told it is a six and a half mile trek. This seems a bit of an exaggeration to me, but if you are playing military golf it is definitely more than 5 miles.
I had planned to stay in a hotel that evening but as I was finishing dinner I decided to see if what I had heard for years was true, that golfers queued up in the parking lot all night to get a tee time the next day. I arrived at 9:45 that evening and much to my surprise I was the fifth car there. The overnight parking lot is not the main parking area in front of the club but to the right as soon as you turn onto the premises. While I was not keen on sleeping in the car, I felt that in order to say that I had experienced the entire Bethpage mystique it was a requirement. I will let you in on a secret; some of us were drinking beer in the parking lot. One of the old timers said that with technology, i.e laptops, smart phones, ipods, the overnight parties are not as collegial as they once were. The unwritten rules indicate that the entire foursome does not have to be present to secure tee times but one representative must be present at all times. Some regulars rotate the graveyard shift ritual so that one person is responsible every four weeks.
Around 4 in the morning volume really picked up. Prior to that, I would estimate that there were no more than fifteen cars waiting. By 4:30 there were at least 50 cars in the parking lot. Right at 4:45 a gentle man saunters into the parking lot and in a very orderly fashion everyone starts their engines and gets in line behind the car that was ahead of them. As each car is driven up they are given a sequential bracelet which will then allow them to go into the clubhouse to secure a tee time. The big demand is for the Black course. The previous evening several of the guys found it entertaining that I would sleep in my car after playing the Black to see what it was like and to get a tee time on the Red course. While it was certainly less than comfortable and I was a little stiff in the morning, I am still glad that I did it.
I had hoped to play the Red and another course that day, but unfortunately Mother Nature was not cooperating. Hurricane Irene was on its way and the courses would not take any tee times after 10 that morning. Many people consider the Red the second best course at Bethpage. It is certainly a fine course, but compared to the Black it seemed somewhat pedestrian. Also, despite being the third group out, pace of play was horrible. Not quite the swim meet that Black was but almost five hours. If you do go to Bethpage, perhaps a fairer way to judge the courses would be to play Black last, thus allowing you to enjoy the other courses on their own merits before comparing them to their famous sister.
Over a span of 45+ years I have been playing the various courses that encompass the 90-hole complex at Bethpage State Park. Over 200 rounds in that time frame have been played on the illustrious Black Course. The venue for two US Opens. including PGA Tour Barclays events now called The Northern Trust and a forthcoming PGA Championship in 2019 and Ryder Cup Matches in 2024. I started playing the Black when grass grew there by accident -- not by design. When I first started playing the course you got a tee in the ground by using a literal hammer to pound one into the rock hard ground.That's changed in a massive way when the Black was overhauled from both a design and turf perspective prior to the '02 US Open.
The Black is a brawny layout -- a muscle course -- demanding a healthy combination of substantial length and needed accuracy. The scale of the property is what catches one's immediate attention. You don't return to the clubhouse after nine holes -- you actually commence the round in Nassau County -- are for a short time in Suffolk County before returning back to Nassau in concluding the round.
To its considerable credit -- Bethpage Black has always been a "walking only" course. The reasons are a combination of things -- the first being that players would need to cross Round Swamp Road when going from the 1st green to the 2nd tee and returning after leaving the 14th green to the 15th tee. The second reason being the sensitive nature of the grounds of the Black -- endless pounding from power carts would only serve to obliterate the unique topography that makes up the course. The people who play Bethpage are golfers -- not those simply who play golf.
When you reach the first tee there is a sign placed in full view for approaching golfers -- "WARNING -- The Black Course is extremely difficult course which we recommend only for skilled golfers." How many courses forewarn players on what to expect? Yet golfers of all skill sets march to the 1st tee and prepare to be slaughtered like sheep unless they are able to play one gifted shot followed by the next. In many ways the demands of playing the Black are compounded by the tortoise-like pace of play that frequently happens. Rounds easily in excess of five hours are quite common -- so is major back-up of golfers waiting for the group in front of them to hit off a number of holes. The issue is a simple one -- it takes time to make triple and quadruple bogeys on a hole. The pace issue can also be a major turnoff as the needed rhythm that's required when playing golf is often not possible when playing the Black.
The first three holes of the Black do not fully expose what you will face later in the round. The 1st is a 90-degree leg right from an elevated tee. Forego the thought of trying to cut the corner -- many have tried and only the likes of a Bubba Watson can do it. The 2nd is a quality mid-length par-4 -- which requires an approach to an elevated putting surface -- a common item found when playing the Black. At the long par-3 3rd you face an angled green with sharp drop-offs to the left and rear areas.
At the par-5 4th the majesty of the Black comes into view in a superb manner. Teeing from an elevated area you see the hole as it turns gently to the left -- massive bunkers guard the inside corner of the dog-leg and there are a series of cross bunkers which separate the lower and upper portions of the fairway. The green can be reached in two bold strokes but the quality of those efforts requires a lengthy smash off the tee followed by an approach that has sufficient height to hold a green that is shallow in its overall depth. Tillinghast was famous for many fine par-5's but the 4th at the Black surely rates as one of his finest.
The next two par-4 holes -- the 5th and 6th are two completely different holes. At the former you must hit over bunkers on the tee shot and come into the green with a lofted club to reach the elevated target. At the later, you face a major decision at the tee. Do you attempt to lay-up at the top of a hill or do you dare go full throttle off the tee and attempt to hit a downslope which leaves you with little more than a flip wedge to the green. The consequences for failure are swift and certain.
The par-5 7th has been played as a long par-4 for the two US Opens and in many ways mirrors the 7th at Pine Valley with its "hell's half acre" of sand. It's been said that when Tillinghast did not get called into the Pine Valley job he recreated much of that South Jersey course with a number of holes at the Black. The par-3 8th at the Black is almost a carbon copy of PV's 15th hole.
Hats off to architect Rees Jones for his clear efforts in elevating the nature of several of the holes in the pre US Open preparations. The dog-leg left 9th has become an even better hole because of the added yardage.
The inward half of holes at the Black starts with a trio of superlative long par-4 holes. The 10th was famous -- or infamous - in '02 when the USGA kept the championship markers at full length even when a major headwind and driving rain made the carry to the fairway in excess of 260 yards. The 11th is one of the best holes on the course with an array of bunkers flanking both sides of the fairway and the green ingeniously contoured to punish too bold a stroke. The long par-4 12th requires a herculean tee shot to avoid cross bunkers that protect this dog-leg left.
The last par-5 on the course is the 13th -- a three shot hole save for the strongest of players. At the par-3 14th you play to a seductively small green that punishes quite severely those who are too aggressive in pin hunting.
After playing the 14th you then head back across Round Swamp Round for three of the most challenging holes found not only in Long Island but all of New York.
The uphill par-4 15th -- at 478 yards -- played as the toughest hole for the '02 and '09 Opens -- a stroke average in excess of 4.6 and it did so by not even using the extreme championship tee because grandstands were placed on that area. The uphill dog-leg left features a narrow fairway that must be found. The approach must then reach a green that appears to be located in Olympus -- a full 50-60 feet above the fairway. The green is devilishly contoured and walking away with a par for the average golfer is the equivalent in winning the lottery.
The downhill 490-yard par-4 16th is another demanding driving hole -- getting on the left side provides a more open approach to a green angled diagonally from left to right with a pesky fronting bunker that grabs all but the most purely hit approaches. The par-3 17th is one of the finest short holes in America. The green is actually two different targets -- an upper and lower areas. When the pin is cut in the far left side -- the approach plays at least 1-2 clubs longer and must be high enough to avoid a bunker that is the equivalent of the shark in the movie "Jaws" -- it grabs everything.
The main weaknesses of the Black? The greens are fairly pedestrian in their demands. There are a few exceptions such as the 8th, 11th and 15th when at full tournament speed. If the Black were to have the green sophistication found at another Tillinghast gem such as Winged Foot West then in all probability it would easily be the most demanding of all championship courses notwithstanding the likes of Oakmont or Oakland Hills / South in the USA.
The other glaring deficiency of the Black comes with a finishing hole that has had more work done it than even the amount of plastic surgery Michael Jackson had carried out. Frankly, when Lucas Glover -- the '09 US Open winner -- teed off with a six-iron in the final round to secure his victory -- it became clear to all who had two functioning eyes that the 411-yard fine hole at the Black is simply anticlimactic and on par with the likes of the finisher at Cypress Point for just a truly weak concluding hole.
The Black also does not have a quality short par-4 among its offerings. As I mentioned -- muscle is the essential element at the Black. Failure to hit consistently long and accurate tee shots is the main requirement. In many ways -- the Black is akin to a major league baseball pitcher whose only calling card is the near 100 mph fastball time after time. Having one or two such top tier holes would have rounded out the total package of holes and it is why the Black cannot be mentioned in the same breath as fellow Long Island golf heavyweights such as Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links, to name just two classic courses as well as Friar's Head.
When my fellow area golfers would gather and one would mention how his game was in top form -- the invariable response was to say, "let's see how you fare on the Black." The course is like an honest judge -- no bribes accepted and no amount of short game expertise alone will suffice. If you can't get off the tee consistently the net result is a long slog of frustration followed by more frustration.
Bethpage Black is not really fun golf. It is the American equivalent of Carnoustie. For average golfers -- surviving is essential. Avoiding the dreaded "snowman" on the scorecard is something to constantly be mindful of when playing. For the world's best players -- Bethpage Black is the kind of course they relish. It will not permit players to scrape the ball around -- you must be adept in truly being capable in producing fine shotmaking. The Black is not a putting contest -- it is a ball striker's course first and foremost.
When you stand on the 1st tee at Bethpage Black it is the same as what the surfer feels when ready to climb a 30-foot mountain of water. The ecstasy in being successful is beyond words -- but the ice-cold reality on the flip side is knowing that nothing but one's best will be tolerated. Wipeouts at the Black are like surfer ones -- they are painful and permanent. I often think it would be apropos for the head professional at Bethpage to be Darth Vader. For the golfer had best be able to wield one's light sabre adroitly -- because the Black, like Vader, will not be taking prisoners.
By M. James Ward
Once you are through all the rigmarole of getting a tee time, your reward is one of the best courses in the world. It is one of Tillinghast’s outstanding designs, is superbly maintained, and is a stern test of golf. The 4th hole at Bethpage Black is a par five with three levels of elevation and is unquestionably one of the best in the world. A dogleg left, you have to hit three good shots to get on the green. And you have to hit them to the appropriate side of the fairway, the right side being the more favorable coming in on your third shot. This great hole is immediately followed by the 5th hole, a very hard par four where you need to hit the ball a good 220 yards, albeit, downhill, to hit the fairway. Good luck if the wind is blowing at you as it was when I played. Your second shot plays very hard uphill. The beauty of the hole, among its visual splendor, is that the best shot off the tee should be played left to right and the best shot to the green should be played right to left. Bethpage doesn't feature any par threes where you hit a short iron. The 161-yard par three fourteenth is as close as you'll get to an easy shot, if you consider a green that has an abundance of well-placed bunkers easy, that is. The Black doesn't have an easy (or a bad) hole on the course. Its formidable 15th hole is among the most challenging in the game; the hill you ascend to reach the green is so strikingly steep you can feel your hamstrings straining. The biggest downside is the pace of play—a five-and-a-half-hour round is not uncommon. Make sure you take a caddy so you can soak up the full Long Island experience.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
I chose the white tees, as did Joe, Cal and John, and we were off. It was damp and even a bit chilly and threatening rain. By the time we walked up the 18th fairway more than five hours later, the drizzle was beginning.
Of all the par 4s, only four were less than 400 yards and many were 420, 430 and 440, too long for me. But it is a beautifully designed course and in very good shape. Just how it stays in such good condition when it gets played from dawn to dusk every day is a mystery to me. It has lots of elevation changes, many heroic carries over fescue to the fairways and small heavily bunkered greens. In fact the bunkers give this course its character. A WWII veteran once wrote. “I have seen no bomb craters that I’ve studied as anxiously as that bunker guarding Number 2 of the Black Course. They do come bigger. When the ruins are cleared away, plenty of them look more like the third hole from tee to green.”
Long, thick rough abuts the fairways, with long fescue and many trees just outside of that. The Black Course demands long accurate play to small, well bunkered greens…
No comment on how the front nine went, but I shot a 45 on the back and was damn proud of it. My short game was on through the back because most of the par 4s were unreachable for me. Larry Berle
The course is a "man-sized" course with incredible design elements. The hazards are HUGE but very fair in their positioning. Only 1 water hazard is present on the entire course so the hazards are in the form of mammouth bunkers, waste areas, and the brush that borders most holes before reaching the woods. The only downfall that I have ever noticed in the routing is that a lot of the greens are completely encircled by rough which puts a premium on flying the ball in to the target. I am not saying that this takes away from the experience at all. Longer hitters (like myself) enjoy the target golf style here but shorter hitters may find it difficult to hit many greens in reg let alone reach the green in reg.
Holes 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 15, 18 are all par 4s where the player is forced to fly the ball in for the approach and this is extremely difficult if you are not in the fairway at an acceptable distance to the target. The par 3s are super in their variety and are actually not too overpowering. The par 5s (3 of them in the normal non Open setup) are varied in length and offer a great chance to score if played wisely. Personally I feel that 3 par fives would have been a better setup for the Opens. Why the US Open has to be about length year after year is beyond me. Let the guys score and have some fun out there. Hole 7 is better played as a par 5. Overall the course lives up to the hype and is a true classic. Every golfer should cross swords with this beast at least a few times in their life. Once would not be enough.
Designed in golf's "Golden era of Golf Course Architecture" this was last course designed by the legendary AW Tillinghast, the area's most prominent Architect. One of his best, he'd be proud to see his baby today.
An understated harbinger is the sign on the first tee that warns, "The Black Course is for highly skilled golfers only." Had Ben Hogan ever played Bethpage-it's unlikely that Oakland Hills would be associated with "monster." With slick greens, impenetrable rough, and enormous bunkers, Bethpage Black is a beast. Its USGA Course Rating of 76.2 speaks volumes, as does its impressive 151 slope.
A mad, mean, unforgiving beast that shows no mercy, swallowing golfers whole, spitting them out and looking for the next victim, The Black is punishing, intimidating and often times simply overwhelming. With double bogeys and "others" lurking at every turn, it is a lesson in humbleness. The par 4's are brutal and play forever long. 480 yards, 485, 490, 510, and 490 paint a vivid picture. It can make the golfer feel as if he were a pawn. Adding to this, it’s a walking only course.
The USGA caught on; in a historic move, Bethpage Black, would be the first to hold an Open at a "truly public" course. Rees Jones renovated and restored it in 1997 and the "US Open Doctor" earned his stripes. Rest assured, Tillinghast nodded in approval. So highly embraced, it was dubbed the "People's Open." The world's best players had their hands full and the 2002 scoring attested to this as only a handful bettered par. Accordingly, The Black was bestowed with the highest of honors and awarded a second U.S. Open just seven years later.
A strange breed indeed, it’s the same scene daily. Golfers come in herds, lining up to take a shot at the beast, brushing off any discomforts or inconveniences they might endure along the way – even sleeping in the car. Never has pain and torture felt so good. Beau Kazzi.