Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My first look at Bethpage Black

In the spring of 1995, seven years before the U.S. Open was played at Bethpage Black for the first time, the U.S.G.A. let the word out they wanted to hold the Open at a true public course. (Technically, Pebble Beach and Pinehurst are "public", but in fact they are resort courses that command sky-high greens fees and cater to the affluent.) Bethpage Black, a true public course on Long Island, was on the USGA radar screen, but no decision had been made yet whether to award it America's most important golf tournament. The A.W. Tillinghast gem had grown threadbare from neglect and needed an infusion of funds to bring the sand traps and greens up to Open standards. But the U.S.G.A. was apparently willing to do make the investment to restore one of the great public courses in the country. Sports Illustrated's managing editor, Mark Mulvoy, a 2-handicapper, called to ask me to write a scouting report on Bethpage Black. I put together a foursome of SI colleagues, and this is the story I wrote:

" Walt's voice was hesitant, maybe a touch apprehensive, as if I had invited him to, say, swim the English Channel. "The Black Course?" he asked. "Why not the Red Course? Or the Blue? I'm not a very good golfer."

Walt Bingham, a special contributor to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and the magazine's former golf editor, had first played the merciless Black Course at Bethpage (N.Y.) State Park in the late '50s. So when word leaked out that the United States Golf Association was weighing the possibility of holding the U.S. Open at Bethpage in the year 2002, I thought he might like to join me and two other staffers and give it another look.

"I swore I'd never play that course again," Walt said, the memories coming back. "It's a monster. They used to post the waiting times at all of Bethpage's five courses. The Red might have had a 45-minute wait. Green: 30 minutes. Yellow: one hour. The Black Course: zero minutes. No one wanted to play it. A couple of times we figured, What the heck—how tough can it be? Five holes later we'd be covered in sweat and ready to give up the game."

That certainly sounded like a place suitable for the U.S. Open. With one big difference. The Black Course at Bethpage, unlike the storied courses that traditionally host the Open—Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Merion, or this year's site, Shinnecock Hills, which is just 55 miles east of Bethpage—is a public course. Walt agreed to the outing, and I called Bethpage State Park to find out how long our foursome could expect to wait for a tee time if we showed up at 6 a.m. on a Thursday morning in May. "If it's a nice day?" the woman said. "Two to three hours. Sometimes people sleep in their cars."

On a recent Saturday in May, I was told, the wait had reached four to five hours. With the advent of the golf boom, the days when there was no wait at the Black Course are long gone. But the appeal of teeing it up on a potential U.S. Open course where golfers routinely spend nights in the parking lot to snag a tee time at first light was irresistible.

My next call was to David Fay, executive director of the USGA, to see if the rumors about the Open's possibly going to Bethpage had merit. He confirmed that he had taken three foursomes to the Black Course in early May to check out the suitability of the venue, which he'd last played as a high school student 27 years ago. "We do a lot and say a lot about the importance of building more public golf courses," said Fay. "But holding the Open at a true public facility is something we've never done. Over half our member clubs are public in orientation. Pebble Beach and Pinehurst are the only two public courses we play our national championship on, but they're really resort courses. The whole idea is still in its infancy, but it's a dream of mine to hold the National Open at a place like Bethpage, which is the quintessential public facility."

Quintessential is the word. An hour's drive from Manhattan, Bethpage State Park, which is the largest public golf complex in the country, hosted 296,000 rounds of golf in 1994. Forty-six thousand of them were on the Black Course, which is open from April till early December. A new reservation system lets golfers book tee times up to seven days in advance, but walk-ons are welcome from 5 to 7 a.m. on a first come, first served basis. Greens fees on the Black Course are $20 on weekdays, $25 on weekends, with half price on weekdays for seniors.

Fay told me that four of the five courses at Bethpage were built as a Depression-era WPA project. Some 2,400 people had been put to work building them, and, additionally, 800 caddies were employed when the complex opened in 1936. Everything had been built on a grand scale. The courses were spread out over 1,100 acres of rolling woodlands. Bethpage's central clubhouse was the largest building in Long Island's Nassau County when it was completed, and its huge, high-ceilinged cafeteria was, according to Fay, one of the great places in golf to have a cup of coffee while awaiting your tee time. Fortunately, on the day we'd chosen to play, the forecast was for thunderstorms. The parking lot had only a dozen cars in it when Walt and I drove in at 5:25 a.m., and when we paid our money at the ticket booth, we were given a starting time of 6:27. That made us the fourth group off. A thick fog completely shrouded the Black Course's 1st hole, a 430-yard, dogleg right from an elevated tee, but once the mist burned off, it promised to be a fine spring day.

We rented pull carts for $1.50. One of the many fine things about the Black Course, which was designed by the renowned golf architect A.W. Tillinghast, is that motorized carts are forbidden there. It is strictly a walking course. There are only two sets of tees—regular and championship—and from the back tees the Black Monster measures 7,065 yards and plays to par 71. The slope rating from the championship tees, which I had convinced our foursome we should play from, is 144. One of the par-4s, the 12th, measures 480 yards. The 16th is 466 yards, and there are four other par-4s of 430 yards or more, often uphill to elevated greens. The par-5 7th is 585 yards and requires a 200-yard tee shot over a bunker the size of Rhode Island to reach the fairway. We were going to be in for a punishing day.

The starter, 72-year-old Barney Adamo, had been one of Bethpage's original 800 caddies when the Black Course opened. He didn't figure it had changed very much over the years, despite the increase in golfing traffic. It's the same old grumbling bear it has always been.

"Everyone thinks they're John Daly," he said as a golfer on the 1st tee waited for the group ahead to turn the corner of the dogleg. When the man ". grounded his drive into the thick rough, Adamo nodded knowingly.

Once the foursome ahead of us disappeared into the gradually lifting fog, we never saw them again. Given the difficulty of the course, the pace of play, which is monitored by a polite but vigilant ranger, was impressively quick. Anyone is allowed to play the Black Course, but when you buy your ticket, you are discouraged from trying the course if you don't have a low handicap. That policy helps keep things moving.

The course is an endlessly interesting challenge. The tees provide one visual treat after another, usually involving vast distances and copious amounts of sand. Water only comes into play on one hole, the 8th, a 195-yard par-3. The rough, drenched with dew, was U.S. Open-length the day we played, two inches long in the first cut but more than five inches in the second cut. On certain holes there were also stretches of uncut prairie grass that came up to a golfer's waist. A wayward ball flying into it was as good as lost.

"I wonder if I'll recognize the tree a photographer friend threw his putter into," Walt said on his way to the 5th tee. "I had to climb up to retrieve it."

He never found that landmark, but Walt was a wonderful sport throughout. A 27 handicapper who was shod in sneakers and playing with rented clubs, his only par came on the par-3 3rd hole, which I double-bogeyed. His best drives repeatedly landed short of the fairway, in heavy rough or in some cavernous bunker. "I can't hit it any better than that," he said after belting a good drive that failed to reach the fairway on the 15th, an uphill par-4 that measures 438 yards and plays more like 475. His drive had nestled on the side of a bunker, amid a tangle of vines. The green, sloping high above us like a sleeping elephant, was still 200 yards away. Walt swung at his ball savagely, but it didn't budge. "I can't play it," he said, moving forward six inches and peering down. "I can't even find it. I hit it a foot." He finally found the ball, which he declared unplayable. "I'm on my way to a Laurel and Hardy."

"A what?"

"A Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. A 10. One worse than a hangman. Two worse than a snowman."

Walt in fact curled in a four-footer for a 9. For the round he shot 111. I have a seven handicap and got up and down about seven times to squeeze out an 81, which in 10 more tries I would not expect to improve on. Our foursome played in four hours, 10 minutes, and never waited on a shot.

"It's obviously one of Tillinghast's best," golf course architect Rees Jones told me later when I asked him to critique the Black Course. Jones was with Fay at the USGA outing in May, and his words of praise were a mouthful. Tillinghast, who designed more than 50 courses in his career, is certainly one of America's greatest golf architects, with five of his courses in the top 27 of Golf Digest'?, 1995-96 list of America's 100 greatest golf courses. Tillinghast's gems include the East and West courses at Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Quaker Ridge in Scarsdale, N.Y., the San Francisco Golf Club and Somerset Hills (N.J.). The Black Course was the last course Tillinghast built. Afterward he retired to Beverly Hills and opened an antiques shop. Golf Digest omits the Black Course from its Top 100 list, but it is regularly mentioned in Golf magazine's rankings. And former PGA champion and television analyst Dave Marr, who last played Bethpage 35 years ago, puts the Black Course among his alltime top 10.

"Neither Baltusrol nor Winged Foot is in as dramatic a setting as the Black Course," says Jones. "I guarantee you, if they hold a tournament there, it'll become a world-renowned course. It needs some work up the middle. The tees have to be redone, and the bunkers need new sand. Some of the fairways could use some work. The greens have become smaller over the years and need to be brought back to their original size. But it has all the elements the USGA looks for—the long par-4s, and green contours that will enable the putting surfaces to get up to Open speed. The bunkers are larger than anything I've seen Tillinghast do. He used to walk Pine Valley a lot, which was the hot course of his time, and he might have been influenced by some of the Pine Valley bunkers. The Black Course is the most bold of any of Tillinghast's courses I've seen. I'm sure he intended it to hold major championships."

The Black Course has twice held the New York State Open and annually is host to the Ivy League golf championship. But it has never been dressed up for a major. "It would be great for golf," says Jones. "This is no longer a private country club game. More golf is played on public facilities than private ones."

Chances seem excellent that at long last the Black Course will get its day in the sun. Fay has yet to present a formal proposal to the USGA board, but he's guardedly optimistic that if a few hurdles are cleared, it'll be well received. With its huge acreage, Bethpage can easily handle the logistics required of a U.S. Open site: the corporate tents, the practice range, sufficient public parking and accessibility to golf fans. A public road that runs through the middle of the course would have to be shut down during the tournament. But there doesn't seem to be any insurmountable problem.

New York State Parks and Recreation commissioner Bernadette Castro is enthusiastically behind the idea. "It would be tremendous for Long Island and for the golf course," she says. "We'd never be able to sink a million dollars of public money into the Black Course to bring it back to its original condition. But if the USGA were to make that investment, we'd maintain it. Once you host a U.S. Open, you have an obligation to keep it looking like a U.S. Open course."

Asked if the golfers who usually play at Bethpage would object to the course being closed a few weeks for the Open, park superintendent Jim Evans says, "The pride it would give our golfers, knowing the USGA was so enthused about our golf course they'd make that sort of investment in it, would be terrific. They'd really go for it."

Certainly, Walt is enthusiastic about the idea. "By all means, bring on the Open," he said after our round. "I'd like to see the Black Course pick on someone its own size."

....That was the story, which SI ran 13 years ago in its June 17, 1995 issue. Seven years later Tiger Woods won the Open at Bethpage, a wire-to-wire win that validated the course's greatness. Phil Mickelson finished three strokes back. Bethpage was a bear. This year? Like everyone else, I'm picking Tiger, though the wet June weather has softened the greens and will make the course play easier, which brings many more contenders into the mix. The real winner, though, will be Bethpage Black, a grand old man now recognized as the great taskmaster the locals have always known it to be.

1 comment:

  1. I think golf is one of the best sports in the world, requires patience and concentration, I remember a long time ago some player that stated that he by mistake took a sildenafil pill, and couldn't play on the tournament he was invited.