My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences

I had to sit back and reflect a little to determine what I thought about Bethpage Black.  After walking off the course, it was more of a feeling of relief to be finished than wanted to get back out there.  From an architectural standpoint, the Black is extremely sound and impressive.  The features are all large, while natural, and well-positioned.  However, what I keep coming back to, is that the Black just isn't that much fun.  It's impressive, intimidating, and difficult--it's just not terribly fun golf.  So, I'm kind of on the fence.  It's a great golf course to be sure.  However, one of my largest measuring sticks of a golf course is how much I want to go back and play it again.  With Bethpage, it's more of a question of getting back and playing it from the right tees to see if I just missed the boat by playing too far back.  Would the course have been more fun from the White Tees?  That's what's luring me back.

Regardless of my opinion, it's definitely worth checking out the Black if you're in the area.  It's bargain golf in New York dollars and it's a course that's clearly worth playing.  Just don't expect to play to your handicap!

#18, Par 4, 411 Yards

After climbing another steep hill to get to the tee, you're rewarded with a commanding view of the 18th.  This hole is often criticized as too soft of a finishing hole for a course this brawny.  It definitely presented an interesting feel after getting back-to-back-to-back challenges from 15-17, and then facing a change to score at the end.  A bit odd.  There have been talks of using the adjacent hole of the Red course to create a stronger finish, but for now, the Black still finishes with this par 4 that can be gotten.  The bunkers tighten the fairway as you get closer to the hole, with the narrowest landing area around 100 yards from the green.  The hole plays downhill and then back uphill into the green, which has bunkers on either side.  A definite chance for birdie, or a good par to finish your round on a high note.

#17, Par 3, 207 Yards

When thinking of the par 3 17th, I always think of the roar of the crowd after Phil Mickelson made birdie on his birthday at the 2002 US Open.  The difficulty of this hole lies in its tricky green, which is extremely shallow and in the shape of a figure eight, laid sideways.  Missing a hole location to the right or left runs the risk of navigating some tricky undulations to get down in two.  As if the difficult green weren't enough challenge, there are five large and deep bunkers guarding the green on all sides.

#16, Par 4, 490 Yards

After climbing the steep hill to the 14th, the 15th plays back down the hill, which offers a bit of a false sense of security that you'll be facing an easier hole.  The trick to this one is to avoid the inviting acres of rough down the left side.  There are no fairway bunkers, but the fairway is offset from the tee and plays as a bit of a cape hole.  A drive down the left will run the risk of being blocked by a lone tree that stands in the rough.  One bunker is on either side of the green.

#15, Par 4, 478 Yards

After the 14th, it's a relatively long walk back to the other side of Round Swamp Road, where the course finishes.  To me, this is far-and-away the hardest hole on the Black, and probably one of the hardest holes I've played overall, at least from the back tees.  Truthfully, the hole really isn't really fair from the back tees unless you can drive the ball nearly 300 yards, because the approach shot is well uphill and over a massive bunker.  The green is about 35 yards deep at its deepest point, but is clearly not intended to accept an approach with a fairway wood.  So, if you've got a game that is worthy of the back tees, this is a world class hole.  If don't belong on the back tees (like me), you'll be fighting for bogey on this one.  The only good news is that there are no fairway bunkers!  A long draw is the ideal shot shape as the hole bends a bit to the left.  The green complex and the bunkers that guard the front are incredibly natural and were built right into the hill.

#14, Par 3, 161 Yards

Some great holes are remaining at the Black, and they start with the 14th, an excellent and natural one-shotter with a tremendous bunker carved into the hill that fronts the green.  This tiered green is also one of the most interest greens on the course.

#13, Par 5, 608 Yards

The last of the par 5's at Bethpage is a really long one, but also a good chance for par or better.  The hole snakes slightly as it gets closer to the green.  Bunkers are on the left side off the tee and again in the landing zone for your second shot.  This one also has dense trees lining either side, so keeping it straight and out of trouble is key.

#12, Par 4, 501 Yards

The cross-bunker that stands in front of you from the tee is the primary hazard on this hole, which bends around it to the left.  If you can carry it, which is about 270 yards from the back tees, you'll have a reasonable distance into the hole.  However, if you have to avoid it to the right, you'll have 200+ yards into the green, and thus will need to play on your heels.  This hole is all about that bunker.

#11, Par 4, 412 Yards

More bunkers, more tall native grass, more difficulty here.  The greens on The Black are fairly benign and not particularly creative typically.  In most cases, they're just circles, though they're often surrounded by much more interesting and creative bunkers which make up for the dull shaping of the greens themselves.  The green on the 11th has more contours around it and is a bit more interesting than some of the others.

#10, Par 4, 502 Yards

This hole got a great deal of criticism in the 2002 US Open, as the mowing lines left a hole where many players couldn't even reach the fairway from the tee.  Couple that with the fact that it was the first hole of the day for players who teed off on the back 9 of a very wet US Open, and fairness was being questioned.  The mowing lines have since been changed to be more accepting of a shorter tee ball, but no more accepting of a wayward one.  The fairway has bunkers and tall native grass on either side that must be avoided.  The green, which is offset just a bit to the left, has two gorgeous bunkers cut into the front of the hill that it sits on.  Beautiful natural bunkering by Tillinghast here.

#9, Par 4, 460 Yards

The last hole of the opening nine is a dogleg to the left with a bunker on the inside corner of the dogleg that must be avoided.  It's about 260 yards to reach that bunker and about 300 yards to carry it, so for some, it might not even be in play off of the tee.  Similar to the 6th hole, the green here has two large bunkers that protect either side.  Similar to other holes on The Black, from far away, it looks like several bunkers, when in fact, it's only two.

#8, Par 3, 210 Yards

The only water hazard on the course sets in front of the green on the downhill 8th.  Make sure you bring enough club to get to the green as being just short will leave you on a steep slope that falls back into the water.

#6, Par 4, 408 Yards

After the difficult 4th and 5th holes, the stretch of 6-8 offers a bit of a breather and a chance to get your legs back under you.  The key to the 6th holes is to avoid the two bunkers that flank either side of the fairway.  A drive of about 270 yards with a nice draw will carry them, but a layup shot into the middle of the fairway wouldn't kill you either.  The green is protected by two large and intimidating bunkers on either side (look past the temporary green to see the real one).

#7, Par 5, 553 Yards

A definite chance to score here, and probably the best chance at birdie on the course.  Favoring the left side of the fairway off of the tee will yield a bit of a longer shot into the green on this dogleg right, but it will also take the right bunker out of play.  From the tips, it's about 250 yards to carry that bunker on a line down the middle of the fairway.  It's probably about 330 yards to the bunker where the fairway runs out.  So, unless you're Dustin Johnson or Bubba Watson, let it rip with a driver.  The pros play this one as a par 4, so they'll probably hit driver anyway.  The landing area for the second shot is much tighter than the landing area for your drive.  Keeping it down the middle and out of the rough and trees will provide a likely birdie chance.

#5, Par 4, 478 Yards

There is definitely no let-up after the tricky fourth hole.  With the fourth hole being the #1 handicap hole, the fifth is arguably even harder and stands as the #3 handicap hole.  The hole is built is the classic "cape" style of golf course architecture with a bunker that needs to be carried from the tee.  A shot as far to the right as possible presents the shortest and best line into the hole, but it also has to carry longer to cover the bunker.  A bear of a hole.

#4, Par 4, 517 Yards

To me, this is one of the best par 5's in the world.  Brilliant bunkers crosses the fairway at about 150 yards from the hole and then again in front of the green.  If your drive isn't in the fairway, carrying the cross bunker becomes a big risk, but laying back presents a difficult uphill approach into the green that would be blind and would need to carry two sets of bunkers.  Even though it's short for a three-shotter, especially in the context of the big and brawny black course, a par is a great score.  Just a brilliant hole.

#3, Par 3, 230 Yards

This one-shotter wouldn't be too bad, were it not for the distance from the back tees.  The green goes in a diagonal away from the player from right to left, so a draw is the preferred shot shape into the hole.  Pin position is very important as the green is 45 yards in length from one extreme to the other.  I think I had about a 100-foot putt on this one.

#2, Par 4, 389 Yards

After the first hole, you walk through a tunnel that goes underneath Round Swamp Road.  13 holes play on the East side of Round Swamp Road, with the first hole and 15-18 setting to the West.  Number two is definitely one of the easiest par fours on the course, mostly due to its length.  It's the only par four that measures less than 400 yards, though the shot into the green is steeply uphill, making it play longer.  A draw off the tee is the ideal play, and driver isn't critical.  

#1, Par 4, 430 Yards

On the first tee, there is no advantage gained by the shorter tees, as all three tees are set on the same tee box.  After reading and accepting the warning that you probably shouldn't be playing the black course because you're just not good enough, you face a shot to a narrow fairway with no bunkers in sight, but just deep rough.  The hole bends to the right and you have to avoid a shot to the right that end up in the jail presented by mature trees that will block your line into the green.  It's about 300 yards to end up through the fairway (downhill), so most will be able to hit driver, the big hitters might need to throttle back on this one.  The green is narrow, but deep, with a bunker on either side.  Aside from the fact that Bethpage has a makeshift range at best (with mats only), so you might be making your first swing of the day off the tee, this hole actually isn't all that hard if you can keep your ball out of the trees.  This was one of the six temporary greens for me, so ignore where the flag is placed.  The green is behind it.

"Renovations carried out were hardly about cosmetic changes, though. Instead, the extensive repairs were meant to enhance the original design of course architect A.W. Tillinghast. For example, teeing grounds were entirely rebuilt and pushed back to add length to the course. (Note to trivia buffs: Bethpage Black now measures 7,295 yards from the championship tees, which will make it the longest course in U.S. Open history, surpassing Congregational Country Club (Blue Course- 7213 yards) in 1997.)"

"Other changes made to Bethpage Black included: Fairways being renovated and reseeded with 100% rye grass; in addition, the rough was extended to put a premium on shot accuracy. Bunkers being reshaped to reflect the original design philosophy of Tillinghast. More than 8,100 tons of sand were needed to completely refill the bunkers. All 18 greens being completely refurbished with new irrigation lines and sprinkler heads. Greens on holes three, eight, and fifteen were expanded, while eighteen was reduced in size. More than one million square feet of Fescue and rye grass sod installed around bunkers and next to the greens."

"Officials planned on closing the course to the public May 28 to finish last-minute details, such as filling divots, grooming greens, and ordering fairways to the exacting standards of the USGA. Prevailing thought is that by June 13 this $30-a-round public fee course will have been transformed into a true challenge worthy of the worlds best golfers."

Now back to my words...  

So, the USGA came in a renovated Bethpage Black to be a nasty test of golf.  Was that good for the daily fee players?  Probably not really.  For one, the cost to play went up.  Second, their golf course became much more difficult to access, as tourists and locals together would flock to the course to see one of the best bargains in golf.  This created a situation where people famously sleep overnight in their cars to get a chance at a tee time.  So, the locals have a harder time getting access to the Black, and they have to pay more for it....not great.  However, this renovation did create more revenue for the Park and the State of New York, and has likely subsidized the other four courses on the property.  Where golf courses are shutting down nationwide or changing ownership, especially municipal one's, the courses at Bethpage area clearly not going anywhere.

Now, to MY experience at the Black Course.  First off, I had no problem getting a tee time.  In fact, I would have done just as well, and save $5, by just showing up without one.  But, for full disclosure, I played during the week, in mid-May, and there were six temporary greens.  So, the course wasn't fully open, technically.  Initially, I was disappointed that I would face the temporary greens, but after walking off the course, it really didn't bother me at all.  The truth is that I was aiming at the real greens for most of the day, but would then pick up rather than putting on them.  The course is so hard that the odds of me actually hitting those greens from where I was hitting from were very low, so I wasn't going to be doing them any damage.

There are a handful of things that make the Black hard.  First off, is the rough.  It's dense, thick, wiry, lush, nasty stuff.  There is no way you're playing a long iron out of it and advancing the ball very far.  It's at least a half-shot penalty hitting into the rough in most cases unless you get very lucky....and it was only cut at like 2.5 inches.  I can't even imagine how difficult, and near unfair the course would be when they let it grow.  Next up, the bunkers.  There are lots of them, and they're big, and they're deep.  Many of them were built with some very interesting cape-and-bay features that are visually appealing.  Also, many were built into the sides of hills, which make them quite natural in their placement.  Lots of the greens are Bethpage are elevated and many require carries over these bunkers.  This is an aerial golf course, with nothing linksy about it (another opposite from the aforementioned Shinnecock).  Oh yeah, and it's LONG and hilly.  The back tees are the Blue Tees, and measure 7,468 yards with a Par 71 rating and slope of 78.1 and 152.  Scratch players don't come to Bethpage to break par, they come to break 80!

In front of the Blue Tees, there are only two other tee boxes, which is probably part of the reason the famous warning sign is placed in front of the 1st tee.  The White Tees are 6,684 yards, and the front Red Tees are still 6,223 yards of brute.  There are no "ladies tees" or "senior tees" to make this course more playable.  What's more, its seemed to me like most people don't play those front tees anyway.  I watched lots of groups playing the tips, who didn't belong there.  It's the New York way I guess, so I went back there too.  I guess The Black is kind of like the professor who wanted to make his tests so hard that the curve was set against an average of like 50% or lower.  Playing the Black from anything less than the tips and you're almost going into the test with an "open book" or "open notes"'s almost cheating.  You come here to take your lumps and see how you stack up to the pros who played see how you measure up to Tiger (or in New York speak, "Tie-guh")

I'll quote those absurd Blue Tees below, because odds are most people will give them a shot when they play here, and take their beating with a smile.  I did:

The history of Bethpage State Park is an interesting one.  It was a public works project in the 1930's that converted Lenox Hills country club into this mecca of municipal golf.  The project would include the renovation of the existing golf course, more golf courses, polo fields, bridle paths, picnic areas, recreational fields, playgrounds, and a modern clubhouse, and would put countless New Yorkers to work during the Great Depression.  However, it is more the history of the Black Course that we're concerned with on this page.  From Bethpage's website:

"The Black Course was opened in 1936, featuring a championship layout designed by internationally renowned golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast on a giant course that stretched 6,783 yards. Tillinghast built similarly monstrous courses, including Winged Foot and Baltusrol, as simple, straightforward designs, but the spectacular Black Course was his crowning achievement as a designer. The Black quickly gained a reputation as one of the country's toughest, attracting such storied professionals as Sarazen, Snead, Runyon, and Nelson to test its strength. Over the years the course has continued to expand, as has its legend. In 2002, the world came to Bethpage to test the toughness of the Black, and once again in 2009. 2002 marked the fifth time the US Open will be held at a Long Island venue, following in the tradition established by previous sites Inwood, Fresh Meadows, Garden City, and Shinnecock Hills. The 102nd Open was an occasion rich in tradition and excitement, one made even more fascinating by the challenge of the Black, which Sam Snead memorably called "an unfair test of golf" after defeating Byron Nelson there with a 68 in a 1940 exhibition match."

"It is told that this was the last course designed by "Terrible Tilly" (so named because of a tendancy toward temper and intemperance), that he was last seen sitting under a tree on the Black with a bottle in hand before storming off the grounds never to set foot on the course again. Perhaps the Black, on some level, was too much for even Tillinghast, as it has proven itself to be to the legions of golfers since. Nonetheless, for over half a century, "The Black" has stood the test of time, a monument to the expertise of A.W. Tillinghast and the innovations of Robert Moses."

Unfortunately, as time went on, this course started to go to pasture to some degree.  The course was known for its difficulty, but also for its horrible conditioning, making it not much more than an average municipal course with world-class bones.  It wasn't until some forward-looking folks at the USGA realized what was possible at the Black Course and invested money that the State of New York didn't have, that the course regained its true potential as a great golf course.

"Between 1997 and 2002, the USGA has poured more than $2.7 million into course improvements on Bethpage Black in preparation for the U.S. Open, scheduled to be held there in June. The scope and depthe of the work makes it by far the USGA's most ambitious Open course preparation to date. Moreover, the improvement will essentially be a gift from the USGA to the daily-fee golfers of Bethpage Black, who will enjoy the renovated course for years to come without a drastic increase in the cost of a round. Work began on Bethpage Black on July 21, 1997, and the course was closed for nearly a year as extensive renovations were completed. The project was directed by renowned golf course architect Rees Jones, who has been nicknamed "The U.S. Open Doctor" for his work on preparing five other past Open venues. Jones donated his time, working without pay to guide the immense project through completion. McDonald & Sons contractors executed the course changes with the assistance of USGA Championship Agronomist Tim Moraghan."

It's hard to imagine a two-day stretch that checks off two bucket lists courses and presents two bigger polar opposites than what I faced in May, 2015, on Long Island.  Both tracks have hosted US Opens, but that's about where their similarities end.  Of course, I'm talking about the Wednesday-Thursday stretch where I played Shinnecock Hills and Bethpage Black.  Shinnecock, for better or worse, is a club for the elite, located in a vacation area.  Bethpage Black is a course for everyone else, located near one of the largest cities in the world.  When you're a guest at Shinneock, the club's rules and customs are made available to you to ensure that you don't embarrass yourself or your host.  It includes the typical dress code, don't wear your hat backwards, don't wear your hat indoors, etc...  At Bethpage, you're told the following:

"Be sure that others are out of range before you play your shot.  Stand behind and away from a player making a shot.  Yell 'fore' to warn others of an errant or upcoming shot.  never throw a club, ball, or other object."

OK, good tips.  Pretty clear that Bethpage is catering to a slightly different clientele...not that there's anything wrong with that....just an observation.  At Shinnecock, I would have felt out of place wearing old run down golf shoes.  At Bethpage, I felt out of place wearing nice ones!  And in the clubhouse bar at Bethpage, you'll be a bit out of place if you can't inject one of George Carlin's seven dirty words into conversation with ease.

Ok, so we've clarified that Bethpage State Park is a complex "of the people."  It has give golf courses of varying difficulty and merit all beginning and ending at the same clubhouse and parking lot.  And they're both huge!  The red course gets some attention as an underrated gem, but the majority of the attention goes to the Black Course, due to it ratings in various Top 100 lists, but even more so due to the fact it has hosted two US Opens, one playing of The Barclays, and has a PGA Championship and Ryder Cup on its calendar of upcoming events.  What's more, New York residents can battle the Black Course for $78 during the week and $90 on the weekend...dirt cheap for high caliber New York City area golf.  For taking on that bargain, you must walk (the Black doesn't allow carts) and you must accept that you're going to get a beat-down!

Bethpage State Park (Black Course)

Farmingdale, New York

Checked off the Bucket List May 21, 2015

Golf Magazine:
#36, Top 100 Golf Courses in the World (2015)
#23, Top 100 Golf Courses in the U.S. (2015)
#4, Top 100 Courses You Can Play (2014)
#1, Best Public Golf Courses in New York (2014)

Golf Digest:
#9, America's 100 Greatest Public Courses (2015-2016)
#43, America's 100 Greatest Courses (2015-2016)
#8, Best in the State of New York (2015-2016)