Letter from Bethpage
So many golfers have tried to take on Bethpage Black and been overwhelmed that in the early 1980s the park placed a famous sign behind the first tee that reads: “Warning: The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.”
While that’s been known to scare off a few passionate weekend hackers who sleep in their cars overnight to play this municipal monster, the 156-man field at the 101st PGA Championship should certainly qualify.
“It’s hard to even think that it’s a public golf course sometimes,” said defending PGA champion Brooks Koepka.
I feel bad for the guys that have to play that day in, day out. That’s a tough golf course.
Just don’t confuse this course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island — about 25 miles from New York City — with other public courses like Whistling Straits, the Ocean Course at Kiawah or Pebble Beach Golf Links, which have hosted PGA’s in the past.
Sure, Joe Public can book a tee time at those resort destinations, but you may need to take out a second loan on your home because greens fees at those luxurious layouts can cost more than $400 (€357).
Here, the going rate for a local is $65 (€58), and park officials leave the first six tee times open every morning to be filled on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The Black is one of five courses built within the state park complex as a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression, employing as many as 1,800.
Opened in 1936, it is a golf facility by the people and for the people. The imaginative flair of golf course architect AW Tillinghast stamped the Black’s greatness.
His signature is his bunkers, artistic creations with sharply-edged noses, bays and grassy fingers. Asked to describe them in a word, Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s chief championships officer, chose “dramatic.”
But over the years as the park keepers did the green-keeping, the bunkers had become rounded off and lacklustre, or abandoned altogether. Years of deferred maintenance left the course in disrepair.
Former PGA CEO Pete Bevacqua, who grew up in New York and made regular trips to play Bethpage with his father and a childhood friend, recalled bunkers like quicksand, shaggy greens and dirt tee boxes at the par 3s.
“We had a standing rule you could rake the bunker and place your ball and you could improve your lie in the fairway,” Bevacqua said.
But devotees of the course believed the bones of Tillinghast’s superb routing remained and when the USGA’s then-executive director David Fay dreamed up hosting a national championship there, he called on the “Open Doctor,” Rees Jones, to return the course’s best attributes for modern play. Jones restored the lustre to this cherished design in 1997-98.
“The biggest part of our effort was redesigning and rebuilding the bunkers, and in some cases relocating, them in a style consistent with Tillinghast’s original design,” Jones said.
The USGA poured $3m (€2.6m) into refurbishing the course. Playing the course for the first time, one golfer said was like finding a vintage Thunderbird abandoned in the woods.
Bethpage Black played host to a pair of US Open championships with Tiger Woods winning the first in 2002 and Lucas Glover capturing the 2009 title. Phil Mickelson finished as the runner-up each time.
In addition to the USGA championships, the PGA Tour’s Barclays Championship was held at Bethpage in 2012 and 2016. Bethpage only received some minor nips and tucks this time from Jones, including new tee options at Nos. 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15.
There’s so much trouble that it doesn’t matter there is just one water hazard on the course, a pond in front of the par-3 eighth green that rarely will come into play.
“Ten, 11, and 12 are by far the most difficult three holes in a row. The course slaps you in the face when you get to 10. That’s the meat of the course,” Mickelson said.
If you start there, you don’t have an opportunity to get into a rhythm or a flow.
The 502-yard 10th requires a long, straight drive to avoid a host of fairway bunkers. No. 11 is relatively tame at 435 yards. But then comes 12, a tough dogleg left at 515 yards and a hole that requires a carry over a fairway bunker and long to mid-iron approach to the smallish green.
Jones calls the uphill approach to No. 15 “the most difficult single shot of the championship.”
If there is any vulnerability for the pros to exploit, it may be the greens with less undulation than your typical major championship venue.
“Somebody can get really hot with a putter this week,” said Jordan Spieth, who needs a victory at the PGA to complete the career Grand Slam. “But if you’re not hitting fairways, that’s getting really hot making par putts.”
Bethpage is a brutish test with no let up. It requires thought and finesse and demands full control of all the shots. It’s also an easy place to become unnerved.
“You’ll probably see guys lose their head in frustration for how difficult it is,” Koepka said.
At least he and the rest of this elite field will have been properly warned before they even step to the first tee.