Bethpage Black Course Review
The history of the Black course at Bethpage State Park is a long and slightly muddled one. Opening in the spring of 1936, it was always assumed that the architect was the legendary A.W. Tillinghast. Known for such courses as Winged Foot, San Francisco Golf Club, Baltusrol, Ridgewood CC, Philadelphia Cricket Club, as well as a host of others and a huge collection of courses he redesigned or consulted on, Tillinghast was one of the most prolific American course designers of the 20th century.
During the buildup to the 2002 US Open, historians and authors (such as Golf Digest’s Ron Whitten) began researching the history of Bethpage Black and discovered that, in fact, Tillinghast may have only consulted on the design of the course for then-park commissioner, Joe Burbeck. Even still, it’s clear that Tilly had at least some influence on the final design – and perhaps did more than many think.
What makes Bethpage’s collection of courses so unique is that it’s a municipal golf facility, owned and operated as part of the Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, New York. As such, anyone can play it, with NY-state residents paying only $65 during the week. The course itself is known for being extremely difficult – so much so that there’s a (now infamous) sign behind the first tee reading...
The Black course made history in 2002 when it became the first entirely public facility to host a US Open. Because it is a municipal facility the course was in need of a major facelift prior to hosting the event. The USGA hired Rees Jones to come in and restore the bite that would be needed to host a major championship. Jones and his team did that by lengthening holes, narrowing fairways, reshaping massive, sprawling bunker complexes and surrounding them with thick rough.
Although generally quite flat, the greens are also very small, making ball-striking the premium stat for the week. Although the rough won’t be as long for the PGA Championship, players who hit the fairway will have a huge advantage as they’ll have a much easier time controlling their spin, especially into some of the longer holes. The last two major winners at this venue – Lucas Glover in 2009 and Tiger Woods in 2002 – destroyed the field when it came to ball-striking, both finishing between 10% and 20% higher than the average in both greens-in-regulation and driving accuracy.
So let’s look at some of the key holes on the Black course...
No 1 / Par 4 / 430 yards
As noted earlier, the sign sitting behind the tee lets you know that although you’re technically golfing at a park, the round will be no picnic. The first hole drops dramatically from the tee and players are forced to hit 3-wood or driver into what looks like a ribbon of fairway grass. Play too short or right with your drive and you’ll most likely be blocked out by the trees on the inside of this 90-degree dogleg. Even those who find the fairway though will have a difficult shot to a narrow, two-tiered green. Every player in the field would gladly take par and move on.
No 4 / Par 5 / 513 yards
The most photographed hole on the course (and for good reason) this stunning, uphill, double-dogleg par 5 plays only a little over 500 yards from the championship tee but with a few massive bunkers and a green that sits 50 feet above the landing area, it’s no pushover. The aggressive line off the tee is over the left corner of the fairway bunker which leaves a shorter second shot, though the angle isn’t as good. Players who miss the fairway though have to contend with how and where to place their layups. The fairway is divided by one of Tillinghast’s “Great Hazards” a massive, diagonal bunker complex surrounded by thick rough. The more aggressive a player chooses to be on the layup, the more of this hazard they’re forced to carry and since the best approach angle is from the right, players have a serious decision to make. Although there will be lots of birdies here this week, don’t be surprised to see a few big numbers as well.
No 5 / Par 4 / 478 yards
The next hole is probably the most difficult on the front 9. Again, a huge diagonal bunker guards the tee shot. A moment of brilliance though as #4 favored a right-to-left tee shot while #5 favors the opposite. The ideal drive carries most of the bunker and lands in the right portion of the fairway, leaving a shorter and more open look at the green. Miss your tee shot left and you’ll have a difficult time even reaching this tiny green, most likely being blocked out by trees. Avoid those and chances are you could still find one of the three large bunkers surrounding the putting surface. Expect lots of bogeys here this week.
No 15 / Par 4 / 484 yards
Holes #2 through #14 sit on the other side of Round Swamp Road. Players will head back across the street for the final four holes -- and what a stretch it is — #15 was THE toughest hole in both the 2002 and 2009 US Open and there’s really no confusion as to why. Players are forced to thread a tee shot into a tight landing area from which their second shot is played to a smallish green 50 feet above. Finding the rough means you’ll have little chance of reaching this green and those that try will most likely end up with a blind bunker shot in the one of the massively deep greenside bunkers short of the putting surface. Long and right of the green is no good either as the ground slopes steeply away from the green which is built into the side of a hill. Bottom-line: find the fairway.
No 17 / Par 3 / 207 yards
The penultimate hole on the Black is probably the best Par 3 on the course. Most players this week will be hitting a mid-iron into this shallow, well-bunkered green that measures 43 yards across, making distance control key. The green is split in half by a ridge so finding the correct section is key to an easy par or a birdie opportunity. The hole is set into a natural amphitheater so the setting will be electric come Sunday afternoon.