Players will find Bethpage no walk in the park

Quiz time.

What’s the longest course ever to host a U.S. Open?

What’s the first daily-fee facility ever to hold the event?

What’s the first U.S. Open venue with a warning sign on the first tee?

The answer to all three questions is . . . Bethpage State Park’s Black Course in Farmingdale, N.Y., 25 miles east of midtown Manhattan. The par-70 layout measures at 7,214 yards.

Public golfers line up the night before to pay $31 green fees. And when they reach the first tee, a sign greets them: “WARNING: The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.”

The Black Course – ranked No. 26 in Golfweek’s America’s Best Classical Course list – is the best-known of a five-course state facility that annually plays host to 280,000 rounds. It opened in 1936, designed by A.W. Tillinghast in conjunction with longtime park superintendent Joseph H. Burbeck. It quickly gained a reputation for being the toughest course on Long Island.

Even as course conditioning and maintenance lagged, the basic design of the holes shined through. In August 1997, the course closed for 11 months while architect Rees Jones rebuilt bunkers and tees and generally restored the layout to its intended playing character – with the addition of 300 yards. The project was funded by the U.S. Golf Association and received the cooperation of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation. As part of the agreement, state officials agreed not to increase green fees beyond inflation in the years following the Open.

Expect glacially slow play during practice rounds and the first two tournament rounds. Players will be making many adjustments, the chief issue being when and where to choose driver on par 4s and par 5s where the fairway landing areas are only 23-28 yards wide. Many of these holes dogleg, so the effective playing width is much narrower, and there are elongated, diagonal bunkers on the insides of many holes that threaten to gobble wayward drives. Perhaps more ominous is 4-inch-deep bluegrass rough – enough for a short-iron escape, but certainly not for a mid-iron.

With six par 4s over 450 yards (including four in the range of 479-499 yards), there will be plenty of mid-irons needed – and long irons, too. Driving the ball long is important, but keeping it in play is critical. With the greens sitting in classical push-up mode and most putting surfaces circular in shape, there are not many pin placements tucked behind bunkers. Thus, angle of approach is not crucial, but having a clear shot in is. It also will be much easier holding greens when approaching with a lofted club, whereas lower trajectory shots will roll to the back. Once again, the advantage goes to the long, straight driver.

The rebuilt bunkers at Bethpage are very deep. In keeping with recent USGA philosophy, the bunkers will play as hazards, with deep sand rather than the thin, firm 4-inch covering found at PGA Tour events that allows players easily to spin the ball. Partially buried lies and balls that roll out after landing will be commonplace. But short game options are limited, since there’s generally a collar of thick rough around the greens rather than roll-off chipping areas characteristic of Pinehurst No. 2.

Crucial holes? Many players will be able to reach the uphill, 517-yard, par-5 fourth hole in two. But the green falls away from the line of play and kicks golf balls into oblivion. The smart play on the second shot is short right, leaving an easy angle in. Watch for a good spread of 3s and 7s on this hole.

If there’s one back-breaker par 4, it’s the 459-yard 15th hole. It’s always awkward for a hole to climb right to left up the back of a slope that falls left to right. The putting surface, perched above a phalanx of frontal bunkers, looks like it’s about to slide off the hill. Expect this to play the hardest of any hole on the course.

Players will have to gear themselves for a long, tough walk in the park. The ground is rugged and there are several long hikes between holes, many uphill. Bethpage Black is thus tough enough on a calm day. In the face of winds, which are commonplace on Long Island, conditions could get rather unsightly and scores could skyrocket. Whoever drives the ball well has a chance to shoot red numbers and probably even wind up in double-digits under par for the week. But along the way, many competitors will discover that the warning sign on the first hole is true to its word.

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