Bethpage offers wealth of options

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — It’s often said of golf course architecture that if you can get inside a player’s head and make him think, he’s done. And yet what really happens at certain peak moments like a U.S. Open is that a few players rise to the level of the playing field and figure out its varied demands.

Which is what makes this week’s venue, the Black Course at Bethpage State Park, so interesting – especially the way senior director of competitions Mike Davis has overseen the course setup. This time, compared to the last time the U.S. Open was here in 2002, the course has more strategic flexibility. And the best players are noticing it and are not afraid to think their way around accordingly.

OK, there won’t be any driveable par-4s options out there, as there were in 2005 at Pinehurst (No. 3), 2007 at Oakmont (No. 17) or 2008 at Torrey Pines (No. 14). But the 408-yard, dogleg-left sixth hole at Bethpage has been altered to create more options off the tee – what insiders call “risk/reward.” In 2002, the fairway ended at the top of a hill, about 270 off the tee, and it was rough all the way downhill from there to the green. As a result, everyone laid up off the tee. Boring.

This time around, the fairway was extended, and curved around a big bunker on the inside left so that if you bombed a drive and caught the right angle you were left with a flip wedge in. Not that the creation of options means that everyone will take it. Phil Mickelson, in assessing the relative weight of risk and reward on the sixth hole, judged it not worth the gamble. His reasoning?

He said of the sixth hole: “I hit a couple of drivers right down to the bottom of the hill. Had 90 yards left. However, five yards off the fairway left the hole was so thick that most likely you’ll lose your golf ball. And also not be able to get back to the fairway.”

The result, he concluded, was that the risk of a driver there was too great for him. “I didn’t feel as though gaining 50 or 60 yards into the green,” he said, “was worth the potential two-shot penalty. So I’ll end up playing back on a hole like No. 6.”

There are lots of ways to flex a course and to create uncertainty and get players to think. Sometimes it’s just by adjusting tees on a par 4. Or it can be moving around the tees and the hole locations on par 3s to vary the hole from one day to the next. In the search for more yardage, interesting short holes have been lost in the process as architects and setup people mistakenly have thought that distance alone was the crucial variable in creating challenge.

At Bethpage, attention already has focused on the 210-yard, downhill par-3 eighth hole (pictured), where a front pond that was never a factor in 2002 now has been brought (back) into play by the simple process of extending the front of the green and shaving down the approach area above the hazard. The hole can play as long as 235 yards – and will, at least one day. But by utilizing a forward tee and the very front hole location, USGA officials also will be playing the hole at 135-140 yards, thereby bringing the water into play.

Geoff Ogilvy, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour and 2006 U.S. Open champion, is among those who applaud such a flexible setup for Bethpage. “Mess with the par 3s and holes that are interesting if you move them up,” he said. “I’d definitely move the par 3s around quite a lot. Play them short one day and long another day . . . to create a bit of indecision.”

Ogilvy was speaking primarily of the eighth hole, but one hole that is discussed little where flexible options exist is the shortest one on the course, the par-3, 158-yard 14th. With expansion of the tee and the creation of newly extended hole locations front left and back on a precarious shelf, this little hole now can play wildly differently. At least one day this week, the players will tee off from back left of the tee to a back-right hole location on the shelf – a shot of 170 yards. And on another day – and I’d bet it’ll be during the final round – the hole will be set up as a drop-shot par 3 of only 130 yards, with the tee set forward right and the hole sitting in that little forward area nestled by deep bunkers all around.

One day, it’s a 7- or 8-iron where you absolutely cannot go long. The next day, a great birdie opportunity (the last one of the day) with a pitching wedge in hand, but one you cannot afford to miss short, left or right. That’s the kind of strategic flexibility which makes Bethpage Black a venue worthy of a major championship.

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