Bethpage Black's reputation as big, brutal monster remains intact 14 years later

Ricky Barnes slashes out of the rough at the 2009 U.S. Open, where he would finish T-2.

Bethpage Black's reputation as big, brutal monster remains intact 14 years later

PGA Tour

Bethpage Black's reputation as big, brutal monster remains intact 14 years later

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Sure, he was overwhelmed when he arrived in 2002. Bethpage Black was as advertised — big and tough and relentless.

Yet, Derek Tolan’s trepidations were easily brushed off, however. After all, he was just 16 years old.

But how could you ignore that others shared the teenager’s sentiments. Adam Scott, for instance. He was a young professional, already exposed to the European Tour, already a top 10 finisher in a major championship (2002 Masters). What did Scott think of Bethpage Black?

“My first impression? It blew me away, really,” said Scott, then just 21 but already a two-time winner on the European Tour. “It was my first U.S. Open and at the time I’d never seen a golf course so difficult. I was completely overwhelmed and my score reflected that.”

Scott didn’t just miss the cut that year, he missed it badly. Shot a second-round 80 and those are the type of scores that embarrass professional golfers. Thing is, Scott had plenty of company in that 2002 U.S. Open, because a whopping 47 scores of 80 or higher were recorded, two of them by Hale Irwin. Another former major winner, Wayne Grady, went 84-83, Jim Furyk had a second-round 80, and the unheralded Felix Casas, a big-hitting Filipino, shot 82-92.

Battered, bruised, beaten. That was the overriding sentiment players had as they played Bethpage Black 14 years ago. When it was over, it was no surprise that the world’s greatest player, Tiger Woods, had tamed this beast of a golf course, but if others felt as if they wanted to say, “good riddance” to Bethpage Black, they were sadly mistaken. What they should have been saying was, “I better get to know it,” because this A.W. Tillinghast design is unquestionably one of our greatest championship layouts, a brilliant design and demanding test.

The U.S. Open returned in 2009 and the PGA Tour swept in and embraced Bethpage Black for part of The Barclays’ rota. The FedEx Cup playoff opener in 2012, it is repeating that role this week and in 2024 the PGA of America will come to town for the Ryder Cup.

A brave new world for a public course that David Fay, the former executive director of the USGA, insisted be brought into a wider view. In 2002 it became the first public golf course to host a U.S. Open and Scott perhaps speaks for many of his brethren when he says, “It’s tough. It’s an intimidating course in the right conditions, depending on how they set it up. It’s one hell of a challenge.”

Seven years later, Scott was 28 when he returned for the 2009 U.S. Open. That memory is far gentler than what 2002 left.

“Thankfully,” he said, “when I returned in 2009 I was a much more experienced golfer.”

What arrived in 2009 was big rain and Bethpage Black played longer, but was softer. Having missed the cut as a 22-year-old in 2002, Lucas Glover had an idea what to expect, only the landscape was changed dramatically.

“It was a survival of the patient,” said Glover, remembering how Thursday’s play was postponed and thus was the event morphed into a marathon. Long days for all, never did players leave the course with a clear understanding of where they stood, for rounds were never completed on time.

“It was a weird week, to say the least, although I like the end result,” Glover said.

Glover won at 276, which was one better than Woods’ winning score seven years earlier. But don’t interpret that as Bethpage Black being softer or easier. True, Nick Watney won The Barclays at 274 in 2012, but PGA Tour set-ups tend to be more player-friendly than once-a-year U.S. Open set-ups. With “the Black,” you put aside the peripheral matters like height of rough, speed of greens, width of fairways and just soak in the flow of the course, the severely elevated greens, the brilliant doglegs, the massive length and the overall expansive scope of the area and, well, it might just be the definitive “big boy’s golf course.”

That infamous “warning” sign posted on the railing as you head to the first tee (“The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers”) is there for a reason and is true to its word.

Having returned to Bethpage for the first time since 2009 (he was hurt and couldn’t play in the 2012 Barclays), Glover simply shakes his head. “It’s just one tough golf course,” he said.

Yet he has just opened with a 2-under 69, right? Glover nodded his head, then added, “I know the formula here.”

Plus, he’s 36 now and a veteran of 12 PGA Tour seasons. So, imagine how Tolan felt in 2002 when he was a high schooler who had qualified for the national open.

“Man, I remember telling myself, ‘Play one shot at a time.’ That was the best I could do, knowing I was going to get in difficult spots,” said Tolan, now 30 and still grinding away at golf on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica.

He remembers signing for 8-over 78 and making an early double in Round 2. “But 10 over was going to make the cut (it did), so I still thought I had a shot,” Tolan said. But his second-round scorecard consisted of seven 6s for an 18-over 88, and he spiraled down the leaderboard.

Bethpage simply was too much for him.

“I really wasn’t that (nervous). I figured I was just there to play golf,” Tolan said. “But it was just so hard.”

Guess what, Derek. It still is.

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