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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Open returned to the State Park in 2009. Only time will tell how tough the Black will be set for the 2025 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?
“Going viral” has never been my preferred version of journalism, so I humbly beseech you read the entirety of this post — and maybe a few other of my posts to hopefully confirm some semblance of know-how — before attacking the writer for this review. It contains shocking blasphemy:
Bethpage Black, as it stands, deserves better but not in terms of ranking. If anything, the course is far too highly ranked. Rather, it deserves better in terms of iteration.
I frequently recommend my friends in the GCA world check out the work of Ryan Farrow, a shaper who does frequent work for Coore & Crenshaw. During 2019, he created telling maps overlaying the Black fairway corridors of the ‘50s over the current setup. A summary of his findings: The average fairway width shrank from 52 yards to 30, and total acreage dedicated to fairways shrank by 60 percent.
The final 50 years of the 21st Century is often referred to as the “Dark Ages of GCA” because many architects dedicated attention to “protecting par” rather than creating stimulating architecture. The past few decades have seen dozens of celebrated restorations that brought Rosses, MacRaynors and, yes, Tillinghasts back to prominence. The nickname “Open Doctor” is not used with friendly intent, at least in my conversation circles, when describing Rees Jones.
So why does Bethpage Black, realistically the standard-bearer for outdated, penal golf receive a reprieve from critics? I can only reckon that there are too few willing to stick their reputation out and disagree with the Golf Digests and GOLF magazines of the world. Multi-Major hosts tend to inspire cult followings, and frankly Bethpage is making considerably more money by slapping the infamous “WARNING” sign on every piece of merchandise than by selling the legitimacy of its Tillinghast design.
At the risk of decapitation, I’ll stick my neck out.
Ron Whitten wrote a questionably-reported feature suggesting that Joseph Burbeck was the designer of Black, and not Tillinghast. Truth be told, Rees Jones is the current designer at Black...Tillinghast’s brilliance lies buried in wrist-shattering second cut.
Some readers will accuse me of calling for a “softening” of Black, and I would counter that proponents of Golden Age golf course architecture would call it “strategizing.” I wouldn’t dare make it any shorter than its current 6,700 “middle” tees. But I would absolutely restore Tillinghast’s intended fairway widths. Would these offer more birdie opportunities? Absolutely not. But they would offer the wiser/weaker golfer (myself included) the opportunity to at least attempt bogey golf, and the braver among us to suffer for attempting otherwise.
You know...in the same way that other strategic masterpieces of Tillinghast’s day and age operated.
As it stands, Bethpage Black is the case exemplar of “caveman golf”: Hit shot or die. Repeat. None of the nuance I, as a non-Neanderthal, crave when conversing with a great course. Contrary to beliefs of the dark ages Jones arose from, great golf is not black and white...it is 50 shades of grey, without fetishizing sadism.
That I still gave Black this rating reflects just how much faith I have in its potential. Black surely possesses the best part of the Bethpage property (this plot, Mr. Whitten, may be thanks to your beloved Burbeck) and I will throw Jones a bone and acknowledge his recreation of Tillinghast’s monumental bunkers restored an aura difficult to match in these United States. I only wish that he would have seen fit to give the fairways similar thought.
I’m the odd bird who doesn’t necessarily take ocean views into consideration when weighing architecture by itself, and because of that I believe that the potential for America’s greatest public course may lie in these hills. As it stands, however, I don’t believe it to be in the Top 10, contrary to what most publications would have you believe.
And that is a hill I may die on. Go ahead and throw those stones.
100% agree that restoring width would improve this golf course - for the benefit of 99% of golfers. A great bucket lister, but doesn’t sound like much fun as it is.
However, it would seem they are attracted to the US Open like a moth to a flame - with the associated sizzle of being an infamously tough course that the public can play. This must be a choice they have made, a niche they wish to occupy, rather than a careless accident.
But if they did restore significant width - and bearing in mind the greens are known to be fairly flat - how could they retain the challenge for the touring pros? Or are the 2 goals mutually exclusive?
"Retaining the challenge for touring pros" is an important concept in the ongoing battle between the the vocal minority of "woke" GCA fanatics (myself included, with the term used less than endearingly) and the greater majority of professional golf fans / the USGA / PGA. The idea of "protecting par" has been around for eons...but I think the bigger question is whether protecting par is necessary at all.
I frequently use the term "post-architecture" to describe the professional game. These golfers, to their credit, are beyond good...better than course architecture can account for without "shenanigans." So why bother? The best score wins, regardless of how low it is. If the best two scores are -24 and -23, you've still witnessed a fine competition. Unfortunately, viewers are more likely to associate an "E" winning score at the U.S. Open as better than the -24.
But as we've both suggested, those same viewers are beyond eager to get thrashed by the same course as their hero, and wish I could blame the Bethpage complex for owning that brand.
I am in transit today and about to catch a flight -- will just add the following with more to come. I have played the Black over 200 times in a 45-year period. Quite extensive and played the course when grass grew by accident -- and not by design there. I can also remember having a hammer with me -- an actual one -- and banging tees into the concrete-like tees !
I have also covered over 100 majors since 1980 and seen the world class professionals play up close countless times. The only way one can tame them is when you have an alignment of wind and firm conditions. The players are THAT good. The most memorable major that comes to mind is when the '13 Open Championship was played at Muirfield. The course was in ideal conditions -- quite firm and a bit of a breeze blowing. Ask Mickelson is most glorious moment in golf -- it's in Scotland -- and not this past May at Kiawah.
If one doesn't have firmness and wind -- the pros will go to town. Check out Jason Day's -20 at the Straits Course during the PGA in 2015.
In regards to the Black -- the fairways have been wider prior to the updating of the course that took place with Rees Jones.
The main deficiencies of the Black are fourfold -- the finishing hole is a big time dud. There's been a few ideas. I often thought how a "new" finishing hole could be added with the 18th green on the adjoining Red Course.
The second concern is that the greens are mainly vanilla in character. No question, when the two Opens were played in '02 and '09 -- the USGA had them running beyond 13 on the Stimp. One need not get silly but the Black is deficient when held against Tillie's gem at WF / West and what one sees at the revamped Ross / Hanse effort at OH / South. Give the Black those type of greens and the character of the layout would certainly rise.
The other missing element is in having a vintage short par-4 of real character. To use a baseball metaphor, the Black is akin to Nolan Ryan in his prime. You can expect serious "heat" with pitches topping 100 mph -- with no real changes in terms of pitch type or velocity. That is what the Black provides. Failure to hit the tee shot consistently means your likelihood of success is nil. You also have the other element missing when the Black is discussed -- hitting quality approach shots to elevated targets. The Black has numerous examples of this -- commencing at the 2nd and highlighted by the world class 15th hole. Just to illustrate how good the world class players are -- Dustin Johnson birdied the hole four consecutive days during the '19 PGA Championship. That is beyond mindboggling! When one is hitting to elevated targets you need to be in the fairway and with the proper angle of attack. It also means the need to choose the right club because of the added elevation involved.
The Rees Jones involvement clearly changed the fundamental character of the Tillinghast / Burbeck involvements.
The Black will host the '25 Ryder Cup and there's time to put the course in a different alignment with its fundamental character front and center. I am confident Kerry Haigh - assuming he is still in the position he occupies when the matches are held at the Black -- will do what's needed to provide the layout with its aura front and center.
Ryan's point on the nature of the terrain found at the Black is 100% spot on. The famed Manetto Hills of Nassau/Suffolk counties which the Black straddles can be enhanced and the shotmaking challenges bolstered.
I have long been a fan of the Black but no course is beyond being improved. The discussion Ryan started is a fair game matter.
To add my 2 cents worth to this fascinating discussion. Low scores are not only the purview of professional golfers. In 2021 the Tennessee state amateur title was won by with a score of 27 under par at Council Fire in Chattanooga, which is a fine golf course. The mid-amateur championship at Oak Ridge Country Club, another fine golf course, was won by a 53 year old golfer at 23 under par. These scores simply stagger my imagination. It reminds of something Tom Doak once said, and I paraphrase from distant memory, that you can build a course that is fun to play and you can build a course that will challenge excellent golfers, but you can't do both on the same course. I agree that wind, firm conditions, and possibly enough rough to impact the flight of the ball are the only things that can keep great players from low scores. You can't build a golf course long enough to challenge them, and you can't put enough hazards in to affect their game.
Bethpage blew me out of the water. It is hands down the best course I have played up to this point in my golfing life. I would say this course is a drop everything you are doing and make your way to Bethpage as soon as possible. The price, the experience, the wow-factor, the conditioning, everything about it was incredible.
Known as the "People's Country Club" Bethpaage really is a truly remarkable experience and place to play golf. And the warning sign really does mean business. Try not to miss fairways or else you will struggle to make Par. It is a tough but wonderful golf course.
Can't wait to go back and pair this with the Red course and maybe a private club or two in the area if I am lucky.
Bethpage Black is a treat to any municipal golfer. The reason behind this is based on my upbringing in municipal golf. No matter the level of quality courses one has played, this will be on every golfer's top 10 courses. The history, environment, and envy that it produces to private clubs is the one reason why this course is a true national treasure.
It is rare for a course with expectations like Bethpage to exceed them, but I can say with 100% confidence that Bethpage did just that. The first thing you notice while playing Bethpage is the scale of the property.
Although many of the corridors are large, the fairways are not. Instead they are squished by the infamous rough, that is thicker than anything I’ve experienced before. Any shot hit into the rough will almost certainly require a layup.
The bunkering is extraordinary and demanding, especially on holes 10 & 11.
Almost every green is an island in a sea of sand and rough, which requires you to carry your shot all the way to the putting surface. This is where I believe much of the Bethpage’s challenge comes from as most of the greens are extremely flat.
The conditioning of the course is superb with grass everywhere, however, the greens are quite slow by championship standards but still run true.
Bethpage is a public course with very reasonable green fees, but it is difficult for out of state golfers to secure a tee time. That being said everyone should add it to their bucket list of courses as it lives up to the hype.
Favorite Hole: #4 (view from 3rd green is one of the best reveals in golf)
Other Notables: #6, #15, #17
Bethpage Black will beat you to your knees and you will still want to go back and play again. Conditions are always great year round and is very affordable for anyone looking to play.
As the Open was coming to the Black, I desired to finally give it a go. At the time playing as an out of state player created either a pay too much to a service or go get a parking spot in the lot. So I drove to the lot and parked and got spot 7 at 5:00pm the night before I desired to play which was the next to last day the course was open for play prior to the open. There are just 6 4somes so being 7th meant I might miss. After chatting with all the drivers parked ahead of me I realized one was going to play the Red. The starter comes out at about 5am and whoever is standing next to the car parked gets a bakery chit numbered and the first 24 will have the first 6 tee times. My son drove up and met me just before 5am so we were good to go. We got in line and paid and the sky opened up and it poured. If you recall that first open at the Black the course was crazy wet. My son and I played with two young men who were good players and those 3 wished to play the full course. So I joined. 7600 yards of wet ball plugging debauchery. The course is a wonderful array of challenging holes. Predominantly the greens are relatively flat. It's a course which is special and I'm so glad I got to experience the full monty.
Plenty have raved appropriately. Falling in love with this home course has been the best abusive relationship of my life. I just can't quit Beth.
Bethpage lives up to they hype of being a true, great test of golf. It's well routed with a huge variety of holes, terrific bunkering, cool visuals and it's reputation gives you the feeling that you've conquered something by just getting through 18 hols It isn't the most "fun" course, but at the same time playing less than horrible at Bethpage puts a smile on your face and leaves you wanting another crack at it.
Out of this world. Need to get there early to play and get a ticket but worth every minute. Great condition and was lucky enough to play 2 weeks after the US PGA so in great nick.
What can you say about Bethpage Black that hasn’t already been said. Historic, beautiful, and downright diabolical. The rough is beyond belief, especially when it grows out in peak season. Multiple picture worthy holes, especially #4, which is breathtaking when looking down the valley from the 3rd green. Not to miss, but hard to get on unless you are an NY resident (luckily I am). The biggest steal in golf for NY residents at 65-90 bucks. Do be aware, it is walking only, but that only improves conditions and the experience. Not to miss.