Bethpage State Park – Black Course
Farmingdale, New York, USA
7468 YARDS (PAR 71)
COURSE RATING/SLOPE: 76.6/144
COURSE ARCHITECT: A.W. Tillinghast & Joe Burbeck (1936)
COURSE WEBSITE: https://bethpagegolfcourse.com/
ROUNDS PLAYED: 1
LAST PLAYED: May 25, 2011.
LOW SCORE: 77 (+6)
– Golf Magazine Top 100 Golf Courses in the World 2020-21: #53
– Golf Magazine Top 100 Golf Courses in the US 2017: #24
– Golf Magazine Top 100 Courses You Can Play 2016-17: #4
– Golf Digest America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses 2019-20: #37
– Golf Digest America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses 2019: #8
– Golfweek Best Classic Courses USA 2019: #25
– Top100GolfCourses.com Top 100 Golf Courses of the World 2020: #57
– Top100GolfCourses.com Top 100 Golf Courses of the USA 2020: #27
“This is the best golf course I’ve ever played, period. Not the best public course, not the best U.S. Open course, the best course. It has everything you could ask for. The fairways are perfect, the greens are spectacular. The rough is hard but not impossible. Every single hole out there is a good hole.”
– Billy Andrade, PGA Tour professional, speaking before the 2002 U.S. Open
“This place makes Augusta look like a dog track.”
– Tom Lehman, PGA Tour professional, speaking before the 2002 U.S. Open (Both quotes taken from the book “Open – Inside the Ropes at Bethpage Black”, written by John Feinstein)
A.W. Tillinghast is the designer of record for the Black Course but that designation has come into question in recent years, most notably after an essay was published in Golf Digest in 2002 by editor Ron Whitten that claimed Joseph Burbeck, the long-time superintendent at Bethpage, was the actual architect.
This article provoked author Philip Young to do some research of his own and his findings, while acknowledging some involvement from Burbeck, definitively state that Tillinghast is the man who designed and routed the Black Course.
New Yorkers have always known the greatness of the Black Course but the course was largely out of the national spotlight for many years due to extremely poor maintenance. In fact, the Black fell out of Golf Digest’s Greatest 100 Courses in 1977 and that relative anonymity would last for almost 20 years!
The defining moment in the renaissance of the course was the 1996 announcement by the United States Golf Association that its most treasured championship, the U.S. Open, would be held at Bethpage Black in 2002, making it the first truly public course to ever host the event.
Renovation work on the Black began in June 1997 under the supervision of Rees Jones, also known as the “Open Doctor” for his work on many other U.S. Open venues and the course was closed for almost a year. $2.7 million dollars were pumped into course improvements alone, which included rebuilt teeing grounds, course lengthening, new irrigation, fairways reshaped and seeded with rye grass and an extensive bunker renovation, among other things.
The course would reopen to rave reviews and the world would see the changes firsthand during the 2002 Open, won in thrilling fashion by Tiger Woods. The course has since hosted the 2009 U.S. Open (won by Lucas Glover) and seen hundreds of thousands of rounds played by golfers from all over the world, with all of them looking to tame one of the toughest tests in the game.
For the uninitiated, there are a few things I should add before going into detail about my experience at Bethpage. First of all, the Black Course is one of the stiffest tests in all of golf, with the par 71 course measuring 7468 yards from the back tees, with a 76.6 course rating and a 144 slope. It’s not for the faint of heart and there is a famous sign that greets players in ominous fashion at the first tee:
So the difficulty will keep some players away, as will the fact that the Black is a walking-only golf course…and a very arduous and invigorating walk at that!
Lastly and perhaps most important to note is the difficulty of securing a tee time on the Black Course. They have a phone registration system that greatly favours New York State residents – if you are from out of state, you’ll first need to register on their system and even after that, you only can call two days ahead to try to secure a tee time.
Good luck with that!
There is one notable alternative – the course sets aside the first hour of tee times for “walk ups”, along with one tee time every hour after that. And by walk ups, I mean “crazy people who show up the day before their round, line up in designated parking spots and sleep in their car to secure a tee time.” Much to the amusement of my friends and going completely against form, I decided there was only one thing I could do if I was going to have the full “Bethpage Experience”.
I was going to sleep in my car!
After a fun round at the newly restored Southampton Golf Club and a great dinner later that evening with fellow GCA’ers Gene and Keith and a number of their friends, I made the one hour drive west to Farmingdale and Bethpage State Park. I was a bit worried that I’d have trouble finding the specific parking area set aside for walk-ons but I noticed it right upon driving into the park, as it’s just off the right side of the main road as you enter. They had a set of rules on a sign in the parking lot and after getting out to read them, I backed into spot #4 and turned the ignition off.
It was 12:30am but you wouldn’t know it by the two cars on the far left, as they were blaring music and crushing beers when I arrived. One of the cars was actually left of spot #1 so I guess they were there for moral support or something for their four friends. Spot #2 looked like a single and there were two guys in the car beside me in spot #3, trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep with the noise in the background. It was a crazy scene that would get even nuttier when the guys occupying spot #1 decided to start racing their car with their buddies in the car to the left, doing donuts for good measure. It would take another two hours or so before the noise died down and I was finally able to nod off for a little bit.
Around 4:15am or so, a truck pulled into the parking lot and waved us forward. One at a time, starting with the likely drunks in spot #1, everyone drove up and got tickets from the Bethpage staffer before being sent up to the clubhouse. From there, everyone filed out of their cars, past the putting green and towards the pro shop. There, at around 4:30, a guy emerged and started calling out ticket numbers. Hilarity immediately ensued when the drunk kids, obviously trying to get some needed shuteye after their impressive drinking and driving exhibition just hours earlier, only sent one representative to claim their tee time.
“Where are the rest of your friends?”, asked the Bethpage staff member.
“They are sleeping in the car”, the kid stuttered.
There was no hesitation whatsoever from the staffer.
“Everyone needs to be here to claim their time. BACK OF THE LINE!”
With that, the poor kid went running out to the parking lot to wake his buddies and because of their mishap, I got paired with the single in car #2 and the twosome in car #3 at 6:51am, the first tee time of the day! I happily slapped down $135.00 for the green fee (it was only $60.00 for NY State residents) and headed back to my car to grab my clothes to change.
I had plenty of time to walk around before my time – dawn breaks very early on the East Coast in the late spring so the sun was already out at 5am. In fact, many of the other courses onsite already had players teeing off – the Black Course has the latest opening tee time due to the extra maintenance required. I decided against hitting balls, instead just soaking up the atmosphere and taking a few pictures.
Around 6:45am or so, there were already plenty of people gathering near the starter’s shack and the mini-amphitheatre setting behind the first tee. Soon, the starter finally lumbered up to the shack, opened the door and called for the 6:51am tee time – I grabbed my bag, walked over to him and he quickly snipped off the bracelet that was attached to my wrist two hours earlier when I got my tee time.
“Gentlemen, you’re on the tee. Play away.”
I was playing with two buddies from car #3: Danny and Danny. No shit! Two New Yorkers! The other guy, from car #2 with caddie in tow was another New Yorker named Marty and for a second or two I thought of introducing myself as Matty but I’d quickly come to my senses. We decided on the back tees, much to my delight and I’d watch as Danny #1 snap hooked his tee ball into the junk left of the fairway on the 426 yard par four.
Audible murmurs from the gallery after that one.
Danny #2 stepped up next and he went even FURTHER left, almost onto the adjoining hole from the other course. More murmurs from the crowd behind us.
Without even glancing at Marty, I practically ran to the tee box and somehow got the peg into the ground. A quick look from behind the ball to start, I addressed the ball, took a deep breath and swung…
Right down the pipe! No groans from the crowd for that one – hell, even a few “nice ball” whispers!
Marty joined the Danny’s by going far left and we were off! It was about 65 degrees and we had blazing sunshine greeting us as we made the walk down the hill toward the first fairway. It was an absolutely perfect day weather-wise and it would end up being one of the most special rounds of my life.
After searching for my playing partner’s tee shots, I walked up to my ball, took a 7-iron and hit it toward the green, right into the rising sun. I had no clue where it was but one of the Danny’s shouted his approval and I’d soon find out why, as my ball ended up below the hole, maybe ten feet away. After what seemed like an eternity waiting for my playing partners to hole out, I hit my putt and on its final revolution, it fell into the bottom of the cup.
Birdie to start! Holy crap!
The second hole is a short par four measuring only 389 yards, the shortest par four at Bethpage Black. My three playing companions were veterans at Bethpage (the Danny’s estimated that they’ve each played over 200 rounds on the Black) and urged me to put the driver away and hit hybrid. Now, I’m a horrible hybrid player but I did as they asked and hit a pull left of the fairway. Thankfully, I had a relatively open shot to the elevated green but I was in some deep rough. My club wouldn’t get through the thick stuff and I’d end up in the deep front bunker. From there, I’d take three to get down, making a bogey to move back to even par.
The third hole is a lovely par three, measuring 230 yards from the tips. The tees were up about ten yards or so and I ended up hitting a 4-iron just in front of the green. I had a putt from the collar but ran it well past and missed the comebacker as well. Disappointing bogey.
The fourth hole is a spectacular piece of business and one of the greatest par fives I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. It only measures 517 yards from the elevated back tees but plays much, much longer than that. The tee shot is hit downhill and there is a large bunker flanking the left hand side that must be avoided but in order to gain the best angle for your second shot, you need to play as close as possible to it. Brilliant. The second shot is all-world: straight uphill over an immense cross bunker – you can choose to go for the green (I had 235 yards left for my second shot) or take the prudent approach and go well right to open up the view for your wedge approach. Having never played the course, I elected to be conservative and hit a mediocre 5-iron up the hill, a bit left of my intended line. I only had about 90 yards left but going left meant I had practically a blind third shot, where a more aggressive layup to the far right would open the view up. I’d take my 60 degree and hit a shot right toward my intended line.
Satisfied, I made my way to the green and noticed my ball. It was two feet from the hole!
I’d tap that in. Two birdies in four holes. Even par.
This is one of the greatest golf holes I’ve ever played, both from a design and scale standpoint.
The awesome continues on the epic par four 5th hole. 478 long yards from the tips, this is a classic risk/reward tee shot with a diagonal cross bunker once again challenging players to bite off as much as they dare. Adding to the brilliance of the hole is the fact that the obvious shot shape for the drive is a fade around the bunker while the approach calls for a draw into the highly elevated green.
I’d hit a beautiful tee shot that barely cleared the bunker and left me with only 196 yards for my second. I’d come up short once again with my 4-iron, chip on and two putt for the bogey. I’d have to imagine that’s a pretty good score here any day of the week!
The sixth features a bit of a blind tee shot, at least for this first-timer. The hole moves to the left in the landing area and offers a lovely vista on the approach shot, as the land moves down and then back up as you make your way to the green. I’d hit a good drive here that just ended up in the second cut then follow it up with a solid shot to the center of the green before two putting for a par, my first of the day.
The 7th hole is a mid-length par five that measures 553 yards and actually played as a long par four in the U.S. Open. The drive requires a long carry over a bunker lining the right hand side and again gives the player the option of biting off as much as he or she can chew. The rest of the hole is relatively straight forward and the green, unlike most at Bethpage, is even open in front. I’d hit another perfect drive here, a solid layup and yet another great wedge, this time to about five feet above the hole. I’d trickle that one in for my third birdie in seven holes to get back to even on the day.
The greatest compliment in my life came as we moved to the 8th tee from one of the Danny’s.
“So, did you play pro golf in the past or something?”
I kid you not! I almost swallowed my tongue after that question. I just laughed and told him my game that day was something to the effect of a blind squirrel finding a nut once in a while.
The 8th is a beauty – a 210 yard downhill par three over water, with a steep, shaved bank fronting the green set to swallow any shots that don’t fully reach the putting surface. I’d nail a solid 5-iron to the middle left and face a pretty treacherous putt to the hole cut middle right, easily the most heavily-sloped green of the day to that point. I’d have about six feet left for par to keep my streak of great play alive but I’d miss and tap in for bogey.
The 9th is a tough tee shot for the first timer and as the guy leading off most of the front nine, I had no idea what to do here on the 460 yard par four. I’d end up making my first poor swing of the day, hitting my shot into the bank just on top of the nasty bunker in the landing area, right in the not-so-wispy but aesthetically pleasing long grass. I’d do well from there to hack my second shot back to safety in the fairway but I’d airmail my 9-iron third shot long and take three more shots to get down, making an ugly double bogey to finish off what had been a pretty spectacular front side to that point in 39 shots.
The 10th hole made headlines in the 2002 U.S. Open for its difficulty – a whopping 502 yards from the tips, many of the pros had trouble even reaching the fairway on this behemoth due to cold and wet conditions early in that event. On this day, we were fortunate that the tips were set up at the middle deck and a much more manageable 450 yards or so. I’d hit a second poor drive in a row into the right fairway bunker but hit a glorious hybrid from about 200 yards over the green and through the short grass chipping area. I’d hit a pretty decent chip but miss my par putt, settling for a not-so-bad bogey five.
The 435 yard 11th hole is a deceptively tough driving hole and I had more issues here, similar to my troubles on the 9th hole. I’d end up making another weak swing and was over 200 yards out on my approach – I’d end up slightly short, pitch on and two putt for another bogey. I’m now up to 5 over for the day after 11.
The 12th is another very long par four, with this one measuring out at 501 yards from the tips. The drive demands length and accuracy and is blind to boot, requiring a long carry over a deep bunker to gain access to the desired landing area. The hole doglegs almost 90 degrees left from the tee and the approach is relatively straight forward and thankfully allows for a running approach. I’d get back on track here, hitting a nice tee shot that actually carried the bunker and rolled through the fairway. I’d pull my approach into the bunker but make a about a ten footer for the par and the sand save.
The 13th is the only par five on the incoming nine and the longest hole on the golf course at 608 yards. The hole snakes to the right off the tee before maneuvering back to the left, with ideal layup shots needing to be hit over a large cross bunker down the left side. Visual deception is at work here, as from way back in the landing area off the tee, you see the hole way off in the distance directly beyond that cross bunker but don’t immediately notice all the room off to the right. The green is pitched from back to front here and you’ll want to be below the hole to have any chance at birdie. I played this hole pretty solidly: good drive, nice layup, good approach to 20 feet and a routine two-putt par.
From the longest hole at the Black to the shortest, the par three 14th measures only 161 yards from the tips but it’s certainly no pushover! You’re basically hitting from hillside to hillside here, and the green is protected by a massive bunker short and right of the green. Long is dead here too, as the green falls severely over the back as well. With a very heavy back to front slope, any putts from above the hole will be treacherous to say the least. A wonderful short one-shotter and I had a relatively routine two-putt par here to stay +5 for the round.
The 15th was another supreme test for the pros during the U.S. Open, a par four measuring 478 yards, all of it uphill. The drive requires a long draw to a narrow sliver of fairway but it’s the second shot that’s the test here – straight uphill, likely from over 200 yards away and all carry, with the last 50 yards over rough and bunkers. There’s nothing forgiving here for the mid-handicapper, no bailouts or options of any kind…it’s just hit and hope! A brutal beast if I’ve ever seen one and I did very well to make a bogey five here after ending up short on my approach shot.
The long par fours continue at the 16th but thankfully, this 490 yarder plays from well above fairway grade, shortening the hole considerably. It’s a straight away, no frills tee shot with the approach hit to a green open in the front left but bunkered far left and front right. My tee shot was pushed way right and I did very well to somehow get my approach into the front left bunker. From there, I’d hit a glorious bunker shot to about three feet and make a second up and down from the fluffy stuff for the extremely satisfying par.
The 17th is a fantastic par three, 207 yards and all carry to a wide but very shallow green protected by cavernous bunkers all across the front and in behind. The bailout here is long left but the pin on this day was cut on the right side. Having never played the course, I had no clue just how shallow this green was so I stupidly went right for the pin.
Thankfully, it may have been the BEST 5-iron I’ve hit in my life, soaring up high in the air right toward the flagstick. Rarely do I smile while a ball is in the air but on that shot, at that moment in time, I may have even chuckled to myself as it started its descent toward the pin. There was no way to see how it ended up from the tee but as we walked up the fairway, Marty’s caddie, who was ahead of us, turned around and started clapping at me.
The ball was a bloody foot from the hole!
Tap in birdie, my fourth of the day. 5 over on the round with one to play.
The 18th is easily the most criticized hole on the Rees Jones-renovated course – he added some much needed length to bring the hole up to 411 yards but even then, it’s as short as 411 yards can get, with an elevated tee shot allowing pros to hit as little as 7-iron off the tee in the ’09 Open (I think that’s what winner Lucas Glover hit on the final day). More offensive to the critics are the ridiculous number of fairway bunkers flanking both sides of the hole, many of which are redundant and likely see very little play. I wasn’t that offended by it but it certainly is overkill on such a short hole. The approach isn’t easy either – a short tee shot will require a long, uphill approach to a pin that’s likely, at best, half blind whereas shorter approaches might be completely blind. Despite my playing partners efforts to get me to hit hybrid here, I took driver and pulled it slightly into the left fairway bunker. I could only advance it about 30 yards from there and would make a two-putt bogey to finish my glorious round at Bethpage.
I shook hands with the Danny’s and Marty and we’d head off to the patio for some lunch. It was 11:00am on the nose, meaning we had finished in slightly over four hours (4:09). We’d end up over an HOUR ahead of the group directly behind us.
More importantly, I’d make four birdies on the day from the back tees in one of the best ball-striking days of my life, finishing my day in 77 strokes (39-38 +6). I’ve had hundreds of rounds in my life with a lower score than that but very few as satisfying.
The beast brought out the best in me!
After lunch, I walked around for a bit more and actually contemplated playing a second round. It was only 12:30 or so and they had a 2:00pm slot open for a single…
I didn’t think for very long – I knew that there was no way I could top what I accomplished in my first go-around and smartly decided to head back to my car and make my way back towards Niagara. I figured I’d stop halfway, grab a hotel room and get home the next day but adrenaline took over and I just kept driving, actually getting all the way back home by 10:50pm that same night!
It was an incredible day, one that is still vivid in my mind over a year and a half later. Yes, it’s been that long!
Bethpage Black is deserving of all the praise it receives as being one of the toughest tests in the game of golf. The land is absolutely incredible – what a canvas Tillinghast had to work with! The scale of the golf course is almost indescribable – take note once again of my playing partners walking off the 5th tee, with the massive bunker complex from the 4th green right behind them. The whole golf course is like that and I can definitively say I’ve never felt as “small” on a golf course as I did at Bethpage. It’s truly a majestic piece of property.
The routing is absolutely superb and despite the incredible climbs throughout the round, the walk at Bethpage, while difficult, is never exhausting. With the notable exception of the 18th hole, the bunkering here is masterful and among the best I’ve ever seen, both in scale and from a strategic standpoint. Risks and rewards abound throughout the day and I’d say there are very few courses I’ve played that test a player off the tee more than at the Black.
Aesthetics are very strong and despite the heavy criticism he’s received over the years, there’s no question that Rees Jones did some of his best work here at Bethpage. The long grass that frames the bunkers is very pleasing to the eye and the conditioning was also quite good, especially for a municipally-run facility, with firm and fast playing surfaces in abundance.
That all said, Bethpage Black isn’t devoid of weaknesses. The finisher is relatively weak on a course filled with great holes but putting the individual holes aside for a moment, there are some general deficiencies in the design and in the course presentation. First of all, there are a lot of people who feel that the course tee to green is among the best in the world but the relatively flat putting surfaces are a massive letdown. There is no question that the greens offer more subtlety than intrigue but I can only imagine how long rounds would take if the greens had more slope out here!
Another negative would be the lack of options on approach shots. Very few of the holes allow a running shot, with most demanding a precise aerial approach. The limited options continue if you miss the green, with rough or bunkers surrounding most of the holes and only a precious few have short-grass recovery areas that allow different shots.
Lastly, there are many who feel that the course presentation has regressed in recent years, with excessively narrow fairways sucking the fun out of the round for anyone not carrying a single digit handicap and generally turning the course into a tough slog. There is no doubt that the grassing lines are, in some cases, completely out of whack with the grand scale of the property. It would be nice if they could widen the fairways a bit for general play and just change the grassing lines before a major competition. Thankfully, improving grassing lines are likely one of the easier problems to solve.
Despite those perceived negatives, I absolutely loved my day at Bethpage, one that was no doubt influenced by my surprisingly good score. I think it’s a course that needs to be seen by all aspiring architects and anyone interested in seeing strategic design on the grandest scale. It may not be a course you want to play day in and day out due to its difficulty and its unrelenting nature but I certainly can’t wait to get back there and see it again. It’s one of the best courses I’ve had the privilege of playing and I highly recommend seeking it out, even if it means a sleepless night in an uncomfortable car!