By Jason Bruno
The sign speaks for itself. A longtime favorite of ours, it doesn't get much better than
the facility at Bethpage that includes 5 eighteen hole golf courses: Blue, Green, Yellow,
Red and the world famous Black course - regarded by many as A.W Tillinghast's best work.
Our first trip to Bethpage in over a decade was on a beautiful summer day in late July.
Fresh off the 6am flight from West Palm Beach into La Guardia, I had just enough time
to grab a quick brunch at the local Bethpage diner (and a meeting with a longtime
friend, who I hadn't seen in years) and bolt for a quick warm up for my 12:51 starting
time on the Black course. Since I was in town to cover the PGA Championship at Baltusrol,
the hierarchy at Bethpage saw fit to give me a primo time slot, but since I was in that tee
time as a solo player - the starter paired up a father and son duo to join me. I was relieved,
because nobody wants to walk a top 100 layout for 5 hours by themselves. Meeting new
people is part of the experience when you travel, especially on the links - it certainly
makes for a much more enjoyable afternoon.
Mark and Sean were my playing partners for the day (Sean attends and plays a bit of
college golf in Georgia and was home for the summer), natives of Long Island's North
Shore, Sean tries to get out on the Black a few times each summer before returning to
school. Mark and I choose to play the middle tees at 6704 yards - with a rating and slope
of 74.0/145, while Sean played the back tees that have a staggering rating and slope of
78.1/152 (although listed at 7465 yards, many tees were pushed forward just behind our
tee box for daily play. I'd estimate it played at 7000 yards). The remarkable thing is the
rating/slope are on an 80 year old classic design - no OB stakes and the only water hazard is
a small pond that fronts the par 3 eighth green. Also, the putting surfaces on the Black are
fairly pedestrian in their undulations and pitch (The green speeds were perfect - a smooth
10 on the stimpmeter). When people ask, I always refer to the Black as the toughest totally
fair layout you'll ever play. You'll use every club in your bag, will be required to maneuver
the golf ball in all directions and likely will not suffer a single penalty stroke during your
stroll on the routing that hosted the 2002 and 2009 U.S Open Championships (and will be
the host venue for the 2019 PGA Championship & 2024 Ryder Cup). I've never come close
to scoring to my handicap on Tillinghast's "Mona Lisa" (and either does anybody else), but a
day of hitting golf shots on a design of this ilk is always a treat (and a challenge).
By now this sign on the first tee is as famous as the course itself. Even for the
most highly skilled players, the layout requires supreme ball striking to score.
Stay out of the gnarly rough and you have a chance to post a decent number.
High handicap players need not apply.
The Black was in prime shape just four weeks prior to hosting the Barclay's and kicking off
the Fedex Cup playoffs. If there is a better parkland par 5 in America than the fourth on
the Black, than I haven't seen it yet. My best drive on the outward side flew the left fairway
bunker and left only a 5 iron in, but after just missing the green on front left side, par was
all I could muster after a mediocre greenside chip from the heavy rye rough. As you'll quickly
learn (it took me a few holes to remember how to best escape from the Northeast nasty stuff),
use as much loft as possible. The 54 degree sand wedge never stood a chance, at times, even
my 58 degree seemed inadequate.
The fifth is every bit as "ALL TIME" as the fourth, and in my opinion is the best shot makers
hole on the property - a soft fade off the box is required to set up the proper angle to this
elevated green that has a bit of a bowl effect (it sits perfectly into the landscape). The
approach just begs for a smooth right to left shot shape on one of the best inland par 4
holes in existence. After I play the fourth & fifth I wanna turn around and play them again,
(there is no greater compliment to a great design than that) similar feelings to the seventh
and eighth at Pebble, fifteenth and sixteenth at Bandon Dunes, the sixteenth and seventeenth
at Merion, the fifteenth and sixteenth at Streamsong Red and thirteenth and fourteenth at
Seminole just to name a few.
The grandstands for the upcoming Fedex Cup Playoffs were already in place on many of the holes.
The fourteenth on the Black is the shortest par 3 on the layout and played about 150 yards to the
back left pin position (right in line with the middle of the small white VIP tent. Note the exquisite
design of the front right bunker. For all of the criticism Rees Jones takes for his U.S Open
restorations, his work on the Black that began nearly 20 years ago is worthy of the highest praise.
Everybody that plays this game for a period of time has their nemesis holes. For me
that has always been the 15th on the Black. For a hole with no hazards, boundaries
or fairway bunkers, it has always had my number. I've always referred to it as the
"Beast". Not on this day though . . .
The wind was of the helping variety and slightly left to right. Normally a long iron to
a severely elevated putting surface, a busted tee shot left a gap wedge approach. Crisp
contact resulted in a straight 12 foot uphill birdie attempt on the most undulated green
on the Black. After leaving the birdie putt on the front lip, the group remained birdie-
less, but par was secured on the "Beast". Breaking that dubious streak was one of the goals
before I even boarded the airplane in Florida. Finally, a first in six attempts over a 20 year
span. The Beast is dead, atleast for that Sunday it was.
Side view of the green complex on the par 3 - 17th
Just off the green on the 17th, you can see how healthy the rye rough has grown in.
The tee was up a few yards on the toughest one shotter at Bethpage and played 185
yards into a left to right breeze. A solid 6 iron left this putt for a deuce, but as with the
16 holes previous - feathers were not to be had. However, I'll always take a 3 on this hole
and bolt up the hill to the tee on 18th hole.
The view from the tee box on the last. Never regarded as the toughest hole on Tilly's classic,
it does present the need for a striped tee shot down the center - anything else is an act of
sheer folly. The new championship tee, some 60 yards behind the 394 yard middle tee will
present the proper challenge for today's elite players.
A piped 3 wood center cut into the shortgrass left this 138 yd uphill approach in. Desperately
striving for birdie (did I mention that our group remained without paydirt thru 17 holes), I
took dead aim but slightly over clubbed and ended up 30 feet above the hole. The last attempt
narrowly missed, but there were no complaints on this end after posting a workman like 75
(Bethpage Black is a par 71).
Gorgeous weather, better company and another great memory on my favorite "Muni" in America.
Exhausted from a long day of travel and toting around Tilly's finest design, I made my way towards
the Garden State where the assignment of PGA Championship week was on the horizon. This was a
summer day in Gotham that was certainly one to remember.
Bethpage State Park: http://nysparks.com/golf-courses/11/details.aspx