Three key holes at Bethpage Black

Though the pond in front of hole No. 8 at Bethpage State Park's Black Course never came into play during the 2002 U.S. Open, expect added length to make it a factor this year.

Farmingdale, N.Y. – Subtle but decisive changes to Bethpage State Park’s Black Course will make this country’s No. 1 municipal layout even more compelling for the U.S. Open than when the national championship was here seven years ago.

The U.S. Golf Association and architect Rees Jones revived this A.W. Tillinghast masterpiece to where it sits at No. 18 on the Golfweek’s Best Classic list. The task this time around has been to tweak the layout and elicit the strategic nuance that makes for a true championship test. For 2009, par-70 Bethpage Black has been stretched 234 yards, to 7,445. The 3 percent lengthening outpaces the 2 percent increase in average drives on the PGA Tour over that time (280 yards in 2002; 286 yards in ’09).

The addition of five bunkers, including fairway hazards at the previously unbunkered ninth and 13th holes, will raise the premium on accurate driving. But the biggest change will be in the Black’s strategic flexibility, something that Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competitions, gradually has been implementing at U.S. Opens since 2005.

No more are Open fairways lined up in narrow, bowling-alley fashion. At Bethpage, they range from 22 to 45 yards wide, with most 26-28 yards but with the flex intended to make use of fairway hazards or to encourage bold play. Wide berths at Nos. 5, 6, 7, 9 and 12 invite bold carries of 285-plus yards. The reward: favorable angles into greens. Graduated roughs – 1 inch to 4-plus, with knee-high native grass on the periphery – will punish in proportion to the miscue, rather than forcing sideways wedge-outs.

Players will find a more flexible, strategic Bethpage, particularly at these three holes:

No. 4, 517 yards, par 5: Even a good drive near the left fairway bunker back in ’02 would leave 220-240 yards in, dissuading most from going for this elevated green. No longer, thanks to two new fairway bunkers that pinch the conservative second landing area and a dramatic opening behind the green, where a newly installed chipping area will hold overly aggressive approaches. Look for more risk/reward action here and less conservative play.

No. 8, 230 yards, par 3: A pond fronting this green was never a factor in 2002. Now it will be, thanks to an extension of the green front to afford new hole locations and a shaved-down slope that feeds into the water. Expect that on at least one day, probably the weekend, the hole will play only 135 yards or so to a forward hole location. Contrast that shot with another likely hole location back atop a shelf, 235 yards from the tips.

No. 15, 458 yards, par 4: Reverse-camber holes that climb up the back of a hill while doglegging are notoriously difficult. With the green 50 feet above the fairway and the most sloped on the course, it’s no wonder the 15th played the hardest at Bethpage in 2002: to an average of 4.6 strokes. A missed fairway exacts the highest price of any hole at Bethpage. To compensate somewhat, the fairway has now been widened on the right, but the second shot remains the gut-check moment of any round, with a short/middle-iron that has to climb fast and stop quickly. At expected Stimpmeter speeds of 13-14, this tiered green is brutal, with everything feeding into a lower punchbowl and anything above the hole virtually impossible to stop. Here’s the hole where modern green speeds make the entire hole feel like a dalliance with doom.

One other thing to watch for: Wind. With four of the five toughest par 4s (Nos. 5, 7, 10 and 15) playing basically downwind in a prevailing southwest breeze, Bethpage can be manageable. But should the wind switch and come out of the north, as it did during the second round in 2002, the round becomes a grinding chore.

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