Barclays: Bethpage Black, hole-by-hole

Bethpage Black could present problems for even the most skilled of golfers.

Bethpage Black could present problems for even the most skilled of golfers.

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Now this is a golf course.

It's the only one on the PGA Tour – and in the country’s municipal ranks – that comes with an ominous caution on the first tee: “WARNING – The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers.”

Well, this week on Long Island, they get their highly skilled golfers, all of them gathered in The Barclays for the first of four FedEx Cup playoff events.

Here’s a look at what the PGA Tour’s elite 125 will face at Bethpage State Park's Black Course. A.W. Tillinghast's 1935 design, tweaked by Rees Jones for the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens, is ranked No. 21 on the Golfweek’s Best Classic List and will play 7,468 yards and to a par 71.

• • •

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No. 1, par 4, 430 yards

This dogleg right par 4 is the ugly duckling of Bethpage Black and probably the worst opening hole at a major golf venue, outside of Pebble Beach Golf Links' first hole. A contrived-looking wall of trees lines the right side, cutting off the inside path and encouraging safe play from the elevated tee with a layup club that lands the ball somewhere – anywhere – in the fairway. The farther left, the better to avoid having to flirt with a steep greenside bunker front right. The roughs are notoriously punitive at Bethpage. Middle irons just die in the thickets of ryegrass mixed with Poa annua, bluegrass and fescue. The rule here and throughout the course is to hit fairways and to play for the middle of greens. The surfaces are not that big, and getting short-sided usually means trouble recovering.

• • •

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No. 2, par 4, 389 yards

Another can’t-miss-fairway hole, this one dramatic in the voluptuous fairway contours – entirely natural – and the placement of the putting surface well above the landing area. Driver not needed. What counts is holding a green and putting deftly on a surface that, like everything at Bethpage, contains far more slope than seems the case. The knock on the course, that it’s greens are flat, is ridiculous. Though Bethpage lacks swoops and decks on its greens, it does offer steady one-dimensional tilt, usually back to front or working along a natural grade, such that putting from above is hard to control.

• • •

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No. 3, par 3, 230 yards

Tough hole, with a green that offers only a little room to work the ball in from right to left. Slightly perched and well-protected up front, the green promotes bold carries that, if not hit with perfect spin, tend to run through to the back, leaving an awkward recovery chip. The hardest hole location is front right; the “easiest” is back left.

• • •

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No. 4, par 5, 517 yards

This is an iconic Tillinghast par 5, presenting three dramatic banks of bunkers, all of them relevant and in play. It basically plays as two dogleg lefts, divided by a massive diagonal sandy waste in the middle that comes into play on second shots played short. The green is easily within reach for well-placed drives that hug the well-protected left side off the tee. From there, a bold second shot to the green is uphill, essentially blind, and has to carry frontal bunkers while stopping short of a steep fall-away chipping area to the rear. The beauty of this hole is that even a safe second shot has to be thoughtfully placed – the deeper and more to the far right, the better.

• • •

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No. 5, par 4, 478 yards

If golf strategy is all about diagonal lines of play, then this hole is the epitome of thoughtful play. A massive, gnarly bunker dotted with tall fescue and ryegrass flanks the right side of the landing area and requires a 290-yard carry to traverse. The closer to the drive to this side, the better the angle of approach to a small, elevated and heavily protected green. Players who favor the other (left) side of the fairway off the tee face an awkward draw shot around the corner that has to flirt with a copse of trees. Once again, the genius of this course reveals itself: a left-to-right tee shot followed by a right-to-left approach.

• • •

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No. 6, par 4, 408 yards

On this sharp dogleg leg, it's tempting to have a go at it off the tee because the left corner of the dogleg is protected by a bunker that requires “only” a 270-yard carry. But the temptation comes with considerable risk on a hole with the most intensely bunkered green on the course. Landing in the sand would be fine, but winding up in dense surrounding rough with a downhill lie would be real trouble. The smart play is a fairway medal/long iron to the top of the hill just in front of the bunker on the far right side. From there, it’s 160 yards in, a shot that’s far easier to control than an 80-yard wedge hit from thick greenside gunch.

• • •

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No. 7, par 5, 553 yards

What was one of the hardest greens to hit in regulation as a par 4 in the 2002 and '09 U.S. Opens will play to its normal designation as a par 5 for The Barclays and thus be among the easiest GIRs. The key is to avoid a sprawling diagonal bunker on the right – the largest sand pit on the golf course, with a carry of 280 yards. From there, the hole bends gently right to a low-slung green that invites run-in shots – one of the few at Bethpage. Expect eagles to abound here and par to be a disappointment.

• • •

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No. 8, par 3, 210 yards

Good thing this downhill hole has the deepest green on the course: 46 yards. The play across the only water hazard on the layout requires a middle iron to a narrow putting surface that sits snugly between a slope of tall roughs and wildflowers on the right and two deep bunkers on the left. The toughest hole location is up front; that brings the pond into play, though course officials at least have not resorted to the contrivance of shaving down the front edge.

• • •

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No. 9, par 4, 460 yards

There won’t be many spectators out here on the farthest point from the clubhouse on a layout that’s eight miles round from first tee to last green. From the elevated back tee of this dramatically sweeping dogleg left, players face two options: a safe, shorter drive to the flat of a fairway, leaving 200 yards in, or challenging the bunker and, if carrying it 296 yards past the sand, playing from a garden spot that’s 150 yards out. This is one of those holes where the options are decisive because the perched green, tightly bunkered up front, is not all that receptive to a middle iron.

• • •

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No. 10, par 4, 502 yards

There’s nothing complex about the calculus here, just two long straight shots on a low-lying hole. It’s tight off the tee and does not set up well to the eye, as it’s all set on the same flat horizon line. This is one of those holes that looks a whole lot better when viewed from an aerial camera than it appears to the golfer on the ground.

• • •

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No. 11, par 4, 435 yards

Another low-lying hole, but with enough of a turn to the left across a sea of sand splash on the tee shot to convey different lines of play. There’s not a big advantage to hitting a driver. At 290 yards out, the landing area is at its narrowest and most densely bunkered. The main thing is simply to hit the fairway and then to hit a well-struck approach shot – even from 175-185 yards – that can hold one of the most devilishly sloped greens on the course. The front left area is notoriously quick and elusive, and anything hit behind and above the hole leaves a perilously quick next stroke.

• • •

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No. 12, par 4, 501 yards

A massive cross bunker requiring a 265-yard carry is not as daunting here for The Barclays as it was back in 2002 during the U.S. Open, when players first confronted it. Back then, the average drive on the PGA Tour was 280 yards; this year, it’s 289 yards – enough to reduce the angst of the tee shot. From one of the widest fairways on the course, it’s a long or medium iron to one of the most receptive putting surfaces at Bethpage.

• • •

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No. 13, par 5, 608 yards

Odds are they won’t play this all the way back all four days. However, even from the back tees, reaching this green in two will be in the wheelhouse for some players, especially if, as expected, the firm turf conditions that have prevailed all summer hold up. It's crucial to hit one of the narrowest fairways at Bethpage. For anyone who lays up, there’s a bunker 120 yards out that is more in play than it seems, because the fairway tips in its direction. The table-top green is protected by a receptive front-right bunker that is 20 yards short of the green and tends to make players come up a little short. This hole more than any other at Bethpage rewards long, straight driving.

• • •

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No. 14, par 3, 161 yards

A sublime sense of shifting rhythms presents itself here on Bethpage’s most delicate little hole. There’s great spectator viewing here at the most intimate scene on the golf course, thanks to a busy little green, well protected front right and side left a la the famed 11th at St. Andrews. A tiny front tongue, squeezed on both sides by sand, offers the smallest hole location on the golf course. Just behind it in a bit of a bowl is the spot where holes-in-one are commonplace. And there’s a back-right shelf for the flag that’s simply brutal if overshoot by a hair.

• • •

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No. 15, par 4, 478 yards

From the sublime to the ridiculous, this long, twisting uphill hole leads to a green that feels like its sliding off the hill. In a much-needed modification after 2009, Rees Jones “softened” the green by reducing some of its precipitous back-to-front contour. It’s still a helluva of hard hole, with a reverse-camber fairway (turns left/tips right) that feeds drives away from the center line. From there, you feel like you’re standing on your side trying to hit a mid-iron up a 30-foot slope, knowing that if you hit it past the hole, you’re toast.

• • •

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No. 16, par 4, 490 yards

This one plays down the same slope on which you just played up, though with more grace and elegance – enough to make you overlook that it’s basically a blind drive over a hill. It’s just easier here than anywhere on the course to feel the land turn to the right, and if you wind up in the ideal position (left), the putting surface opens up perfectly. Some players simply will find trouble here by trying to overpower the drive and hanging it out right – into dense trees, heavy grass and trouble all the way back.

• • •

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No. 17, par 3, 207 yards

Great theater here, thanks to a natural bowl-like setting that keeps spectators glued to the action from all directions. It’s hard to believe that in 2009, David Duval came to the 71st hole one shot out of the lead in the U.S. Open but bogeyed and hasn’t been seen since. The green here is elusive – an hourglass tipped on its side, pinched short and long with deep sand. There’s no getting away with a poorly struck shot here; it simply has to be flighted perfectly.

• • •

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No. 18, par 4, 411 yards

An odd finishing hole, with a fairway corseted by oceans of sand on both sides. Recovery from here all the way to the green would require extraordinary play. There’s an inviting large fairway up front that invites a layup. Beyond the pinched-in area 300 yards off the tee, the landing area bellows out again – though to what effect isn’t clear because the green is perched well above the fairway, and hitting it isn’t much easier with a wedge than with an 8-iron. The main thing, as if to drive home the point one last time, simply is to hit the fairway at all cost. The one drawback here is that the fairway sits atop old marshland and is notoriously poor-draining after a rainstorm. If Bethpage gets rain, as it did in torrents in 2009, the fairway will crater with divots. But if dry conditions prevail – as expected – the hole will give players one last chance to spin the ball and hold this diagonally canted, well-protected green.

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