Review for Bethpage (Black)

Reviewer Score:


“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So why does Bethpage Black, realistically the standard-bearer for outdated, penal golf receive a reprieve from critics?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 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 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.

Date: October 11, 2021

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