A Summer Day at Bethpage Black
by: Jason Bruno
The sign speaks for itself. A longtime favorite of ours, it doesn’t get much better than the facility at Bethpage Black that includes 5 eighteen hole golf courses: Blue, Green, Yellow, Red and the world famous Black course – regarded by many as A.W Tillinghasts’ best work.
Our first trip to Bethpage Black 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.
Bethpage 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. At times, 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 Bethpage 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 Bethpage 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, at least for that Sunday it was.
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 (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