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 the course architect. 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 lovingly refer to 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?
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.
The course starts with 4 relatively straight forward holes. The par 4 first requires a solid drive, the par 3 second a long iron and an accurate yardage to carry the trouble and the third is the only par 4 less than 400 yards long (from the tips). Then, after this gentle(ish) start the course warms up. The 4th, a par 5 is one of the best holes in golf. As you walk off the third green the beauty of it hits you like a Mike Tyson left hook. It is a sensational hole, then the fifth: 478 yards up hill, to a raised green guarded by two very deep front bunkers; play it as a par five! The sixth to ninth are all strong holes, none of which can be trifled at. Then starts the back nine, which at just under 4000 yards long is brutal if you can’t get it off the tee! The tenth is a par 4 and 505 yards into the prevailing wind. I was told that it was this hole, during the 2002 US Open, that forced Nick Price to move to the Champions Tour; in 4 rounds he didn’t make the fairway once! The eleventh presents a semi blind drive, the twelth is another 500+ yard par 4 (pray that on the day the tees are up or you’ll never carry the cross bunkers at 283 yards. Thirteen is a great long par 5 (605 yards) with trouble up the left. Fourteen a gentle par 3, but you mustn’t be long. Then starts the NY version of Amen corner: 15, 16, 17. Awesome holes but 15 is the trump card at 478 yards up hill with a 70’ elevation change to the green…oh and it’s into the prevailing wind again! I hit driver 250, ripped a 3-wood and was still on the hill short of the bunkers! Seventeen is a wonderful par 3, kind of reminiscent of 17 at Pebble Beach and the eighteen provides a great finishing hole.
Bethpage is a wonderful course. It is so fair but brutally long. If you don’t hit it well off the tee don’t bother showing up! You won’t have a good time. Others have commented on the caddies. One of my playing partners took ‘Bobby G’, he was fantastic. He is a real character with great experience and a wonderful eye for break on the greens. Enjoy Bethpage. It is a great course and one that the serious golfer must visit…it’s a golfing pilgrimage!