If you follow golf even a little closely you’ve heard all the stories about Bethpage Black.
The home of this year’s U.S. Open is known for a lot of things, mostly players driving the Long Island Expressway in the middle of the night to get in line for a morning tee time. Reservations aren’t required, just a couple of thermoses of strong coffee when the midnight temperature dips below 50.
You know about the most ignored warning sign in all of sports. You know that somehow Tiger Woods tamed the course back in 2002 when it was a controversial pick to be the first strictly public course to play the Open.
Mostly you know it is because, if you don’t want to pay enormous membership fees for a private club, Bethpage Black, along with the four other courses that comprise Bethpage State Park, you know it because it is your course. Except for the few weeks surrounding the U.S Open, anyone can play it without reservations if they are willing to spend the night.
You have just as much a chance as anyone to play one of the world’s most difficult courses. The courses play host to more than 70,000 golfers per year.
Just do yourself one favor: pose at the sign on the first tee. It might be the last smile of the day.
The signs sitting right at the first tee, reads, “THE BLACK COURSE IS AN EXTREMELY DIFFICULT COURSE WHICH WE RECOMMEND ONLY FOR HIGHLY SKILLED GOLFERS.’’
After waiting all night, few players heed the warning. In fact, David Catalano, the Bethpage Director of Facilities, said it’s mostly there now for show.
“It’s a really great sign with some great words that describe it perfectly,’’ Catalano said. “Everybody simply ignores it but it adds an aura to the course. I’ve seen golfers shoot up to 195 on that courser but, they read the sign, so we can only hope they had a good time anyway.’’
The course that the duffer plays is almost the exact same one that will be played by the professionals at the Open, which runs from June 18-21. The rough is grown higher than it is for the rest of the year, but the fairways are narrow, the greens are harsh and the undulations are the same year-round.
Just having the availability of tee times doesn’t guarantee a start. For most of the year the first six tee times are held for walk-ups and the rest are for players who reserve in advance.
New York golfers can reserve tee times one week in advance. After all, it is a state park.
The rest of the year, times still go to the first six tee times and the rest are a mix of walk-ups and reservations. Catalano said the course can’t please everyone, but that the Bethpage Red Course is almost as difficult, although there are no black danger signs at the first tee.
Bethpage Black has always been a monster, but was never really on the USGA’s radar to host its premier event. The course has been around since 1936 after a design by legendary golf architect A.W. Tillinghast.
He also designed Baltusrol Golf Club, which has hosted seven U.S. Opens, and Winged Foot. A Tillinghast course is known for its signature bunkers and are little like the typical TPC courses and newer tricked-up courses.
Simple, thin, bunkered and long, it places an emphasis on straight shots that can carry. It’s not target golf like so many of the new courses, such as a Pete Dye signature course.
So how did the U.S. Open arrive at Bethpage Black?
It’s a long story that started in 1994 when USGA Executive Director David Fay decided to take a walk on Bethpage Black and had a pipe dream of having an all-public facility put on the national championship. It would be the people’s championship just outside New York City.
The hurdles that had to be jumped would have discouraged anyone. For one, the course had taken a terrible beating for decades and was in disrepair by the early 90s. Only a golf historian who knew all about a Tillinghast design would have found it to be much more than a local muni.
Still, Fay had visions of an Open and pursued it more the next several years. There were television contracts to work out, frightful logistics, the remaking of a golf course while keeping its old design, and retaining its public course charm, letting anyone play it while transforming it into the monster it used to be.
“The design was magnificent,’’ said Catalano, who grew up in the village of Bethpage. “We were centrally located in New York, we were affordable so anyone could test it at almost any time and see what it was like to play an Open course. We had five great courses and it never matters what, if you are tall or short, you can play it and it’s affordable. We thought, ‘why not?’”
The disrepair of the course was just one of the hurdles. Tillinghast’s bunkers were in the worst shape of all.
Parking for thousands of people posed its share of problems, even though having four temporarily empty courses nearby and a great mass transit system alleviated things as long as it didnn’t rain, which, of course it did at times during the 2002 tournament, including during the final round, causing such mud on some courses that parking had to be rerouted.
“It was all because we had people who wanted to take a leap of faith,’’ Catalano said. “Even we were amazed. By 1998 we were a world-class course after just one year of renovation. Still, we never lost sight of what Bethpage was all about.’’
The Black course is open all the way up to two weeks before the tournament. Catalano said the course would host 120 golfers a day up until June 10, just days before the Open week begins.
Amazingly, when you consider the grandstands, hospitality tents, gift shops, concession stands, television equipment that have to be removed, the spectator walking paths that will have spent a week being trampled, the other four courses will be opened again to the public three days after the final putt, on June 24. Black will be opened to the public on June 26.
Catalano said he felt something different about Bethpage the day he heard there was a serious effort at hosting that first U.S. Open.
”With a great golf course, people relate to its personality,’’ Catalano said. It’s more of a community course. All of the courses that host a U.S. Open are world-class, but there’s just something special about Bethpage.’’
When the Open came to Bethpage Black in 2002, Woods added another trophy to his crowded mantle, winning in virtual darkness by three shots over Phil Mickelson and five over Jeff Maggert. Sergio Garcia, who started the day in the final pairing with Woods, stumbled down the stretch, finishing six off the lead.
It wasn’t long after the carnival left Bethpage State Park that word was out that Fay wanted another championship at Bethpage. First, he immediately took a look at Ponkapoag Golf Club, a nice 36-hole facility just outside of Boston. Great course, word had it, but not the Black.
In the summer of 2002, the 2009 was the next opening on the schedule. After Torrey Pines in San Diego was awarded the 2008 Open. Bethpage Black got it again for 2009. It’s also being casually discussed for a future Ryder Cup.
The Bethpage Black story can be summed up in Fay’s dream that was considered crazy. While U.S. Opens straddled between Pebble Beach, Merion, Winged Food and the classics, Fay’s vision that led the way and Catalano’s direction that got it done and brought back to the people.