Local golfers will watch 2002 U.S. Open on home turf

The first-tee banter among the boys making up the Saturday foursome was about bets, handicaps and the beer the night before. But after a couple of holes, they started chatting about something very different. That was the U.S. Open, and the fact the 2002 championship was being held on their home course.

Only these weren’t high-rolling country clubbers who were part of some exclusive retreat. Rather, they were regular guys, native Long Islanders with the accents to prove it. And the layout the Open was being contested on was the same place they had been playing for years, the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y.

“That’s why we are so excited,” says Ron Levinson, 32, a personal injury lawyer from Locust Valley who carries a 2 handicap. “We’re public golfers, and the best players in the world are coming to our course. We are going to watch every hole, and we are going to know about every shot they have to make because we have been in those very same positions a hundred times ourselves. That’s not something any of us ever thought we’d be able to say. But we can now.”

For the first time in its 102-year history, the U.S. Open is coming to a municipal layout, and that means more spectators than ever will be able to relate to what transpires next week because they actually have played the tournament course. And they have played it many times, for unlike Pebble Beach and Pinehurst – the only other public-access venues ever used for that event – Bethpage Black is a wonderfully inexpensive ticket that still costs less than $50 to play.

And until very recently, it was also the easiest of the five-course Bethpage complex to get on.

“I started playing the Black when I was 13,” says Paul Ziff, 46, a marketing executive for the Chopard watch and jewelry company. “And I would usually wind up there only because it had the shortest wait. There was no reservation system back then, so it was only a matter of waiting in line. You might have four hours to get on the Blue and three hours for the Red. But the Black would be only 30 minutes. It was so tough that no one wanted to play it.

“Now it is a badge of honor to tee it up on the Black, and that’s what everyone who comes to Bethpage wants to do. But when I was growing up, it was considered torture.”

And that wasn’t only because of its demanding design.

“Conditioning had a lot to do with that as well,” says Andy Greene, a 45-year-old middle school principal and a 13-handi-capper. “It was a state course, and the state really let it go. The rough was so tall in places you could lose a small child in it. Hit a ball 5 yards off the fairway, and you’d never find it. Weeds grew in the bunkers, and the fairways were really nothing but grass that was cut a little shorter than the rough.”

Al Falussy, 36, chuckles in agreement.

“There was no irrigation system, and the fairways would get completely burned out,” says Falussy, a plus-2 who regularly competes in local amateur events. “You’d get flyer lies all the time, and we had what we called the Bethpage Flyer rule, in which you could roll your ball over (because) the lies were so bad.”

Conditioning, however, is no longer an issue now that the Open is coming and more than $3 million has been invested into course renovations. The Black is country club great from a maintenance standpoint. And the rickety old shack that served as a clubhouse is now a place where fancy weddings and bar mitzvahs are held.

“My son’s prom will be out here this spring,” says Ziff, who does not have an official handicap, but says he usually shoots about 100. “And that’s not something his school would have even considered five years ago.”

It is the improvement of those facilities and the conditioning of the course that have been the most obvious benefits of the 2002 U.S. Open being awarded to Bethpage Black. But regulars say there have been drawbacks as well.

“It’s a lot harder to get on than it used to be,” says Falussy. “They have restricted tee times to the Black, and where you once had mostly Long Island golfers, you now have people from all over the country who want to play here. That’s hard for locals because we always thought this was our course.”

In many ways, though, the locals don’t have too many problems with all the newcomers.

“But it drives me crazy to see guys out there who aren’t good enough to play the Black,” says Falussy. “It’s a tough course, and people like that hold everybody up. But they are not going to be denied their opportunity to play an Open venue.”

Another issue is lack of etiquette by the outsiders..

“You see people not raking the bunkers or fixing divots, and you go nuts,” says Levinson. “No one cared very much in the past, but with all the work that has been done out at the Black, and with the Open coming, we sure do now. So regulars get on the out-of-towners if they start to screw up. We tell people to take care of the course as they play it. We tell them to pick up the pace. And if they are really bad, we tell them they should play one of the other Bethpage tracks. It can get pretty heated as a result. But we’re New Yorkers, and we get that way sometimes.”

Attitude is one reason why fellows like Levinson get that way, and so is course pride.

“This has never happened to any of us before, so we are enjoying it,” says Levinson. “The pros are coming to our course, and we want it to look good and play hard. We want the wind to blow, and the greens to be fast. We want to be able to see what the best players in the world are going to do from lies and positions we all know so well. And we want to talk about the shots they make for years to come, saying this is where Tiger hit it on 15, and where Els got up and down on No. 2. It will make it that much better to play here because we will have that.”

And because those are things none of them has ever had before.

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