How Keegan Bradley and his St. John's teammates secretly played Bethpage Black each week

Mar 10, 2018; Palm Harbor, FL, USA; Keegan Bradley watches his drive on the 1st during the third round of the Valspar Championship golf tournament at Innisbrook Resort - Copperhead Course. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

How Keegan Bradley and his St. John's teammates secretly played Bethpage Black each week

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How Keegan Bradley and his St. John's teammates secretly played Bethpage Black each week

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Back in the day, Keegan Bradley and his St. John’s teammates would pile into a van, golf bags in hand and head to Bethpage Black.

More specifically, the destination was the maintenance shed by the third tee.

On a Monday.

That’s when the People’s Country Club, as the magnificent brute in Farmingdale, New York, is known, turned into a private course for Bradley and his mates. For on the first day of the week, the course was closed to the public.

The Red Storm, however, had a spectacular wink-wink relationship with the course via the superintendent at the time, and well, they stormed the place every chance they could, feeling like they had hit golf’s version of the lottery.

The group did its best to keep the arrangement a secret and never crossed the road that dissects the course. They played holes 3 through 14 and kept away from the other side of the road, where holes 1, 15, 16, 17 and 18 reside, steering clear of security in the clubhouse that could witness their unlawful whacks of the golf ball.

“It was just so special to go out there and play,” said Bradley, who won nine events at St. John’s before graduating in 2008. “We were all so grateful for the superintendent letting us play. He used to give me a hard time whenever I talked about it, but the secret was out and it’s hard not to talk about it.

“We’d play in one group, seven, eight, nine of us, and we’d play as much as we could. It was so fun. I’m not sure many people ever got to do that, to have that great a course to themselves.”

Bradley returns to Bethpage Black for the 101st staging of the PGA Championship beginning May 16. He has been counting down the days since the PGA of America announced in 2013 that Bethpage Black would host the major championship.

The Vermont native, who lives and dies for the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics, incongruously fell in love with New York the moment he arrived at St. John’s, and Bethpage State Park – home to five courses – was love at first sight.

He made his first hole-in-one on the Red Course, in front of his mother, no less. The course’s connection to the common man – Bethpage Black became the first public course to host the U.S. Open in 2002 and then again in 2009 – holds meaning to Bradley.

He’s always felt at home in front of the raucous fans, and he’s the 2011 PGA Championship victor.

Keegan Bradley held up the Wanamaker trophy after beating Jason Dufner in a playoff to win the 2011 Championship. (Golfweek File Photo)

It’s the perfect storm for Bradley, especially after he failed to qualify for the 2009 U.S. Open, when he bogeyed his last two holes in a sectional qualifier to miss by one shot.

“I can’t wait to get there,” said Bradley, 32, who has won four PGA Tour titles. “I was super pumped when I heard Bethpage Black was going to host the PGA Championship. I was so devastated in 2009.

“It’s my favorite course in the world, and I have a lot of really great memories. I’ve played the course hundreds of times. I don’t think it gives me an advantage. In majors, you don’t know what the setup will be. I go in there with ease, knowing I don’t have to kill myself to learn the course.”

No, he did that during those Mondays in college.

“Most of the time we were so excited to do it that we skipped class,” said Mike Ballo, a former college roommate and teammate of Bradley’s, now an assistant pro at Winged Foot. “I’m sure St. John’s is going to love hearing we skipped class. But when you had two guys whose aspirations were to play on the PGA Tour and you get the green light, we took advantage.”

After Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open in 2002, Ballo recalls that Bethpage Black had flags in the fairways to show where Woods hit his tee shots in the final round.

“You’re standing on the tee and you see where he hit it, and you’re thinking to yourself that he was crazy long. It was amazing to see where he hit it,” Ballo said. “We knew we had a long way to go to get to the Tour, but that made us work harder.”

Bethpage Black is much like the Big Apple – an unrelenting, intimidating force that tests one’s core. A warning sign at the first tee – “The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers” – is an appropriate tell.

“Every hole out there is tough, and that’s fitting for New York,” Bradley said. “New Yorkers in general consider it their home course. They want to see their course stand up to the best players in the game. And it will.”

It already has. Woods was the only one to break par over 72 holes when he won there in 2002. In 2009, winner Lucas Glover was one of five to break par.

Sharpening the teeth of Bethpage Black will be the fans who will make their presence felt. Think of a Ryder Cup crowd, where noise pressurizes competitors. But many will be backing Bradley, who used to sport St. John’s headcovers and the school’s logo on his bag.

“For players, that’s what we live for, the noise, the excitement,” he said. “I’m lucky to have them on my side; it stems from St. John’s. That makes it extra special.”

Bradley caused a stir in 2011 at Atlanta Athletic Club when, playing in his first major, he defeated Jason Dufner in a three-hole playoff to win the Wanamaker Trophy.

“The majors weren’t even on my radar,” he said. “As a rookie, you’re just trying to keep your head above water and everything is coming at you so quickly. I didn’t know I qualified for the PGA and then I win. It seems like it was yesterday.”

As for this year, Bradley has failed to capitalize on his victory in the 2018 BMW Championship, when he trumped then-No. 1 Justin Rose in a playoff. This season one round in every tournament seems to lead to his undoing, as Bradley has just two top-10s in more than a dozen starts.

“I’ve played good golf, but I have to put it together all four days,” he said. “I’ve gotten some leads, some pieces of leads, and then I’ve sort of faded away. I just have to get the putter cooking.

“It would be great to put it all together at Bethpage.”  Gwk

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


   

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