PGA Championship: Bethpage Black famed for difficulty, its goal from the start

Bethpage Black Course David Dusek/Golfweek

PGA Championship: Bethpage Black famed for difficulty, its goal from the start

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PGA Championship: Bethpage Black famed for difficulty, its goal from the start

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“Every now and again…” famed architect A.W. Tillinghast wrote of Bethpage Black shortly after its opening in 1936, “there are to be encountered courses that snarl like a Sabre Toothed Tiger.” Some 80 years later, however, the Long Island legend will find another Tiger snarling back.

Thanks to a stroke of serendipity, it’s hard to recall a tournament venue better positioned for a profile boost than Bethpage Black is now. With the PGA Championship’s move to May aligning perfectly with Tiger Woods’ next chapter following his triumph at Augusta, all the storylines are in place for another major to remember.

That’s the hope, anyway, for the truth is Bethpage has not gotten all the bounces as a major venue.

The 2002 U.S. Open, which followed on the heels of a $4 million Rees Jones renovation, was a success. It produced a worthy champion in Woods – the only player to finish under par – and it validated former U.S. Golf Association executive director David Fay’s laudable decision to bring the national championship to a true muni for the first time. The 2009 reprise, however – with no disrespect to winner Lucas Glover – was a dud, marred by 100-year torrential rains that led to dreary golf.

A.W. Tillinghast

The USGA’s gaze began to wander, and star superintendent Craig Currier, who had done yeoman’s work just to keep the Black on its feet that year, departed for the plush surrounds of nearby Glen Oaks Club.

The PGA of America entered the breach with contracts for this championship as well as the 2024 Ryder Cup at Bethpage. It’s entirely possible the venue will match the free-wheeling “company picnic” vibe of the PGA Championship more than the USGA’s buttoned-up procedurals. Any New York major is bound to be a carnival, but there’s nothing quite like a major at the Black.

The U-S-A chants. The “Be Nice to Monty” buttons. The Sergio Garcia regrip count. The rolling lovefest that engulfs Phil Mickelson 400 yards at a time … it’s all a far cry from Augusta National, much less the genteel polo chukkas that have been golf’s neighbor at Bethpage State Park since the 1930s.

For New York-based fans, the Black is a major in their backyard. In sharp contrast to Winged Foot or Shinnecock Hills or Baltusrol, they walk around like they own the place – because they actually do.

All those who dare venture onto the sacred turf of Bethpage Black are warned of what lies ahead. (Eric Sucar/USA TODAY Sports)

Bethpage State Park represents the apogee of government investment in golf. In the winter of 1934, during the darkest days of the Great Depression, master builder Robert Moses consolidated power over every governmental agency involved with parks and roadways in the New York metropolitan area. Among these agencies was the Bethpage State Park Authority, which had been created by the state legislature the previous summer for the purpose of acquiring the 1,360-acre estate of the late railroad tycoon Benjamin Yoakum.

The property’s existing golf course, Lenox Hills, was transformed by Tillinghast into Bethpage’s first layout, the Green. The Blue and Red came next, followed by the Black. The fifth and final course, the Yellow, is a product of the 1950s.

The golf courses and the parkway leading to them were built by relief labor furnished by New Deal agencies, including the Civil Works Administration and the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. So was the $500,000 Colonial clubhouse by Park Avenue architect Clifford Wendehack, whose work at Winged Foot, Ridgewood and Mountain Ridge, among others, placed him at the pinnacle of his profession.

For arguably the first time in American golf history, private club luxuries were being made available to the common man. One account compared the park’s goal of bringing golf to the masses to “what Jones Beach (another state park) has done for swimming.”

The popular response was immediate and overwhelming. Some of the best-known tropes of Bethpage, including the “People’s Country Club” nickname, pre-date the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Opened at a time when the national unemployment rate hovered around 20 percent, the Bethpage golf factory, with “tees as big as skating rinks” to spread around the wear, was built to handle 1,500 rounds per day. According to superintendent Andrew Wilson, that’s still the case today.

“We’ll do roughly 30,000 rounds per month for the five courses,” Wilson said. “Could be higher if the weather is good or a bit lower if we have a poor month.”

The 17th hole at Bethpage State Park – Black Course. (Eric Sucar/USA TODAY Sports)

Other elements, of course, have gone by the wayside or exist only in vestigial form. In 1935 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle marveled at the Park’s caddie program –uniformed “little gentlemen” who were trained to refrain from shooting craps in the yard while waiting for their loops. Though the silhouette of the “Caddy Boy” – another Robert Moses touch – became the Park’s well-known logo, today’s loopers are available only through third-party services.

The most famous characteristic of the Black is its punishing nature, and this was very much the original design intent. Tillinghast was no shrinking violet when it came to taking credit for a course, but he readily shared when it came to the Black.

“Never have I received heartier support and cooperation than from Joe Burbeck, the state engineer, who was in daily direction of the work from the start to its finish,” Tilly wrote, adding, “It was Burbeck’s idea to develop one of these [Bethpage] layouts along lines which were to be severe to a marked degree. It was his ambition to have something which might compare with Pine Valley as a great test …”

Players quickly picked up on the comparison.

“I don’t know Pine Valley, but it can’t be any tougher,” said Mike Cestone, a postman from Branch Brook, N.J., after winning the 1937 Metropolitan Golf Association Public Links. “Why, this Black course never relents – not until you reach the 18th – and by that time a little relenting makes no difference.”

For the 2019 PGA, though, organizers tinkered with the finisher once again. Where in previous majors the fairway had something of an hourglass shape, now it is a consistent 24 yards in width and flanked by bunkers, making a once-mindless bailout, well, unrelenting. Still, it never will be counted among the better home holes in championship golf. The 18th is more reminiscent of 19th-century penal golf, its ruler-straight bearing at odds with the characteristic that defines the Black at its best, as the rest is a course of hard doglegs and vicious angles.

This character is noticeable right from the famous first tee shot where, for this PGA Championship, some additional trees have been planted deep downrange to frustrate corner-cutting bombers. The theme continues on the dogleg-left, par-4 2nd, which might be one of the most hostile bowled fairways in golf and where a left-hand hole location can add a value of several clubs to the approach.

The secret to the par-5 4th is to play far enough right on the second shot to open the angle to a decidedly unreceptive green, but the breathtaking beauty and grand scale of the hole are more than enough to conceal this for a time. It is almost certainly on the short list of holes that have opened the most eyes to what golf course architecture can be. One blazing August afternoon in the early 1990s, armed with mismatched Spalding Executive persimmon and metal woods and second-hand irons, my teen-age self wondered if I could even finish the hole, much less wrestle a par out of it.

For the likes of Woods, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, the 4th perhaps isn’t much more than a sporty par 4-and-a-half, but there are plenty of other card-wreckers out there.

The rest of us will continue to play the 3 a.m. parking lot waiting game – and old-timers will point out that before Rees Jones came in with a truckload of USGA cash, the Black often had the shortest wait time due to its scrappy conditions.

The par-5 fourth hole at Bethpage Black will play at 517 yards in the PGA Championship. (Gary Kellner/PGA of America)

In any event, it’s still worth it for the chance to throw a bag on the shoulder (the Black is the park’s sole walking-only course) and explore the rolling hills of the ancient Hempstead Plain. Stands of waving blue stem and broom sedge may swallow a golf ball on occasion, but they also draw out the color and native texture of the only natural prairie east of the Alleghenies. Golf this taxing would not be sustainable were it not also a legitimately beautiful place.

“Tales of the terrors of Bethpage’s Black course, instead of chasing players away,” chirped the Brooklyn Daily Eagle way back in 1937, “have brought … an unusual list of illustrious visitors.”

One of the first, Sam Snead, likely only inflamed interest among weekend warriors when he called the Black “an unfair test of golf” … after he’d won his exhibition match.

Through a combination of a vastly increased maintenance budget and Jones’ late-’90s work, which softened contours on some greens (notably the once-fearsome 15th), Bethpage Black is probably more welcoming today than at any point in its history. But don’t get the wrong idea—as the PGA Championship field soon will discover, the Black still lives up to Tilly’s nickname: “Man Killer.”

And although it’s unclear when the warning sign by the first tee was originally posted several decades ago, no one ever has questioned it. It might as well have been there from the start.  Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the May 2019 issue of Golfweek.)


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