After I completed my round at Plainfield Country Club, I hit the road for what I thought would be a leisurely two-hour drive to Long Island. Little did I know that the drive across Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens to Farmingdale, NY would turn into a stressed filled four hour drive in bumper to bumper traffic. How could it possibly take four hours to drive 70 miles? My plan was to get to Bethpage State Park on Thursday afternoon to scope out the place. I had some familiarity with the process for getting a tee time on Bethpage Black as a non-Resident of New York state. However, I wanted to ensure that I understood every detail of the process. I had intended to arrive at the park around mid-afternoon to spend time talking to the staff to get the details.
By the time I arrived, all but one office was closed. There was just one guy in the office. He said, “you need to show up early tomorrow morning and park in one of the numbered slots in the parking lot off to the left near the entrance to the park. Disappointed that I couldn’t get more information, I left the office and drove around until I found the parking lot that the guy in the office was referring to.
Two guys were already camped out in a van parked in space number one. I parked my car, walked over and introduced myself. They introduced themselves as Tim and Drew, a father and son. They told me that they make the trip to New York each year to play the Black Course at Bethpage. Tim, a retired Naval officer, currently works for a small military contractor in Connecticut. His son Drew is a University of Georgia graduate who currently lives and works in Atlanta. After years of making the sojourn to Bethpage, they were very familiar with the process for getting a tee time to play the Black Course. By camping out overnight in the first parking slot, they were poised to get the first tee time for 8:30 the next morning. They told me that if I returned at 6:30 a.m., I’d be there in penty of time to get a reasonable tee time. Feeling better about the details, I made the five minute drive to my hotel.
I was back at the park at 6:20 sharp. If 6:30 was early enough, 6:20 would be all the better. Much to my surprise, the first twenty parking spaces were already taken. I pulled into slot 21 and started to calculate the worse-case scenario. The first tee time was 8:30. If six groups teed off per hour, it could be three and a half hours or noon, by the time I teed off. That was assuming that each parked car had a foursome that was waiting to play the Black Course. There are four courses at Bethpage State Park. As I made my way past the 20 other cars in route to say good morning to Tim and Drew, I conducted a non-scientific survey of the people who greeted me along the way. It turned out that only about half of the people who said good morning, were planning to play the Black Course. That made me feel better about my chances to get out early. My flight from Newark to Columbus, Ohio where I was schedule to play Sciotio, The Golf Club and Muirfield Village over the weekend wasn’t until 8:35 p.m., but I also had an invitation to join friends at one of the hospitality suites for the afternoon matches at the Presidents Cup. A late tee time would likely make it impossible for me to get to Liberty National in Newark, New Jersey while the matches were still underway.
I made my way to slot number one where Tim and Drew were preparing for their traditional round on the Black Course. We said our good mornings and Tim again described that process that would take place. He said a park ranger would arrive between 7 and 7:30 to pass out wrist bands with numbers that established each person’s place in line. I told him that I was in slot number 21. We chatted for a while longer and then I returned to my car so that I’d be properly positioned when the ranger arrived.
I had only been back at my car for a few moments when Tim showed up. He told me that he and Drew had been talking and had decided that it made sense for me to joined them in their slot. He said, “ that way, you will get the first tee time with us.” I was blown away by their kind and generous act. After camping out in a van overnight while I slept comfortably in a nice bed with access to a hot shower, this father and son on their annual pilgrimage offered a random act of kindness to a stranger. It was another of those special moments along my journey that reinforced that by nature, people are kind and generous. Drew and Tim were no longer strangers; they were now fellow sojourners traveling along destiny’s path. I thanked them and joined them at their van positioned in the prized slot on this sunny, yet cool morning on Long Island.
The park ranger arrived on cue and passed out the wrist bands. I was number three. I returned to my car to repositioned it in the parking lot closer to the club house. Tim, Drew, and I then reunited in the clubhouse and got to know each other better over breakfast. I then took to the practice range to warm up ahead of our tee time.
Following my warm up I made my way to the Starter’s kiosk at the first tee. I requested a caddie and was also introduced to Sam. He rounded out our foursome. My caddie Walter arrived just as we started to walk toward the first tee. Walter grew up not far from Bethpage and had been caddying here for seven years. My guess was that Walter was in his early to late forties. He was the quintessential Long Islander complete with the accent and the swagger. He was cool, he was proud, he loved fishing and motorcycles, and most of all, he loved talking. From the moment he introduced himself to when we parted ways about four hours later, there was rarely a moment when he was not talking. I enjoyed our time together. He kept me relaxed and calm.
As we approached the first tee, there it was! That famous sign stating that this was a course for golfers who wore their big boy undies. The sign warned that this was not a course for the meek or timid. I honestly think it’s an exaggeration – like my caddie, it was quintessential Long Island. The course is long, 7500 yards from the back tees and 6700 yards from the middle tees. It also has a 78.1 rating from the back tees and a 74.0 rating from the middle ones. The slopes are 152 and 145 respectively. Make no mistake, the course is difficult with its length, narrow fairways, and thick rough, but I didn’t think that it was nearly as difficult as Crystal Downs, the River Course at Blackwolf Run, Whistling Straits, nor Oakmont. None of those courses have signs warning you how difficult they are, but then again, none are on Long Island.
Nevertheless, Drew, the young flexible stud, chose to play from the back tees. The mere mortals in our foursome, Tim, Sam, and me, chose to play from the middle tees.
The first hole set up perfectly for my fade. The 430-yard par four with a dog leg right has sparse trees to the right and rough and fairway bunkers to the left. The bunkers were close and not in play from the blue tees. I aimed along the left edge of the fairway and tried to make my normal swing so that the ball would fade around the dogleg and into the middle of the fairway. The ball flew 250 yards and drew slightly instead before dropping into rough left of the fairway, leaving 210 yards to the middle of the green.
The ball had settled down into the rough. I didn’t see how I could miss the clump of grass and catch the ball cleanly so Walter and I decided that I should lay up. I made a smooth swing with my seven iron and hit the ball to 55 yards short of the flag.
My third shot landed on the right side of the green before rolling into the thick rough just off its right edge. I chipped on to three feet from the cup and made the putt for an opening bogey.
The short par four second hole with its narrow right to left bending fairway was not a hole that fit my left to right ball flight. The hole plays just 355 yards, but the narrow fairway is lined with thick woods on the left and the right. I aimed down the left side of fairway to create as much room as possible for my fade but I again drew the ball. This time there was no room along the left side of the fairway, so the ball went into the woods. Sam and I found the ball, but the best I could do was to chip out sideways through a narrow gap in the trees. I got the ball into the fairway but was left with 150 yards to an uphill green guarded by a deep bunker on the front and a rather large bunker on the right. I hit my third shot to 20 feet past the flag.
My putt slid past the hole. I made the come back putt for my second bogey.
As we walked from the second green to the third tee box, I chatted with Walter. Turns out that Walter grew up in Amityville. Yes, the same place that the Amityville Horror movies were about. Walter said the original premise of the movie was true. A family had been murdered there and he said his father knew the person that committed the murders.
The third hole on the course was the first evidence that playing from the back tees would have made for a disastrous day. The hole is a par three with a tight area between the tee boxes and the green. The middle tees measured 145 yards (up from the normal position of 160 yards) to the hole; the back tees measured 230 yards. The green is long and narrow. There are two bunkers along the left side and one small “u” shaped bunker off the front right side of the green.
I hit my tee shot on line with the flag. The ball landed short of flag and spun back, leaving 35 feet to the hole.
Walter pointed to a spot left of the hole, expecting a break to the right. The ball held its line and rolled two feet past the hole. I tapped in for my first par.
Walter picked up where he’d left off as we walked to the fourth tee box. He told me about some of the loops he had made during his seven years at Bethpage. I don’t completely remember the story, but he told me something about a guy he caddied for that shot a 63 for the course record. The previous course record had been a 64.
The fourth hole is a short par five. It plays 460 yards from the middle tees, but don’t let this fool you. I was seduced by the sheer beauty of the hole. How could such a scenic and short hole be rated as the most difficult hole on the course. It is difficult because the fairway is narrow and the trees encroach on its edges. It is also difficult because of the bunkering on the bifurcated fairway. The first half of the fairway has a massive bunker to the left and ends at a bunker that divides it from the elevated second part. I finally found my fade and hit my drive to the right rough.
The rough isn’t very deep, but it is thick. I tried to lay up over the bunker with my second shot. My seven iron caught a little too much grass leading to my ball hit on the top part of the bunker before kicking back into it. The massive deep bunkers on the Black Course at Bethpage are not to be taken lightly. My third shot cleared the lip of the bunker but landed short of the bunker off the front left of the green.
I pitched over the bunker right at the flag. The ball landed on the green and rolled down the slope to within three feet of the hole. I made the short putt for my second par.
The beauty of Bethpage continued with the 425-yard par four fifth hole. The hole was just 35 yards shorter than the par five fourth with a fairway that was just as narrow and the bunker off the right side just as large but not as deep. My ball didn’t even make the fairway after I popped my drive up. It landed in the deep rough short of the fairway and 285 yards from the hole.
I could only advance the ball 110 yards on my second shot. The ball was now in the right rough. Although it was sitting up, I still caught too much grass on my third shot. The ball landed short of the green and was still in deep rough. Three shots and I still hadn’t found the short grass.
I pitched over the bunker off the front left of the green. The ball rolled 20 feet past the hole. I missed the bogey putt, but on my fifth hole on the Black Course, I made my first double bogey as my second putt found the bottom of the cup.
The fairway on the 375-yard par four sixth hole is slightly wider than the ones on the previous hole and the trees are a little farther from the edges, however the bunkering is just as challenging. There are bunkers on the right and the left sides of the fairway at about 250 yards out. Walter recommended that I hit a three wood off the tee to avoid them. I hit a 200 yard shot down the middle of the fairway leaving 180 yards to a back left pin on another well bunkered green.
I hit a five iron from the first fairway I’d hit so far in my round. I caught the ball cleanly from the short grass, but it drew rather than fading like I’d expected and dropped pin high in the deep bunker off the left side of the green.
I blasted the ball from the sand to 15 fiftheen feet. I missed the hole on my par putt, but dropped the next one for another bogey. I’d felt better if I could have hit the green and made par but was happy that I didn’t let the double bogey from the previous hole linger and cause another one.
The par five seventh hole is an example of what makes the Black Course such so interesting. For starters, the drive requires a carry over a large bunker between the tee box and the right side of the fairway. It is a risk/reward proposition. The hole plays 525 yards from the middle tees, but could play shorter with an opportunity to reach the green in two by cutting off more of the bunker. Beyond the bunkers the fairway bends to the right and transitions from a wide-open one to a narrow one with trees lining the sides as it approaches the green. A bunker rests just beyond the outside bend.
I chose to not challenge the bunker. This was going to be a three shot hole for me so I hit my drive to the left side of the fairway which left 295 yards to the middle of the green.
Despite hitting draws all day with my irons, Walter was concerned about the bunker cutting into the right side of the fairway at 100 yards short of the green. He recommended that I lay up short of the bunker and leave a longer third shot rather than risk landing in the bunker. I hit my 140 club to 160 yards from the back pin tucked behind the bunker off the right front of the green.
I tried to fade my six iron around the bunker to the pin. The ball went perfectly straight. It didn’t move an inch to the right nor the left. It landed on the green, 22 feet to the left of the flag. Had I aimed directly at the flag and hit the exact same shot, the ball probably would have gone in hole. But this is golf and we all know that had I aimed directly at the flag, the ball would have faded.
I squandered my birdie opportunity by not hitting the putt firmly enough. I tapped in for a par.
The eighth hole is a 190-yard par three that requires a fade to avoid the tree off the right front of the green and the bunker to the left of the green. The rough between the tee box and the green is interrupted by a small pond off the front of the green. It is the only time that water comes into play on the course. After hitting a straight ball on the seventh hole, I thought there was no way I’d hit two in a row. I aimed toward the bunker off the left side of the green to play a fade. Just like my shot on the previous hole, the ball flew straight and landed in the bunker.
As we walked from the tee box to my ball in the bunker, Walter said, “you think your ball ended up in a bad spot, let me tell you what happened to Zach Johnson on this hole during the 2012 Barclays Championship.” Walter told me that Zach Johnson hit his tee shot into the rough near the tree. Searched as they may, they could not find his ball. He said, “a kid in the gallery yelled out that he saw where it landed. He went to the spot and pointed.” Sure enough they found a ball there, but it wasn’t Zach’s. The kid was sent back to the gallery and Zach went back to the tee to hit again. According to Walter the grounds crew found Zach’s ball the next week. And guess what? It was right were the kid said it was. Zach, his caddie and the marshals had given up when they found the first ball. Had they looked a little longer, they likely would have found the actual ball. Never give up.
I made my way to my ball, set up in the bunker and hit what looked like a great sand shot. The ball flew directly toward the cup. It had so much spin on it that when it caught the inside edge of the cup, it spun out and rolled thirty feet away. The line back to the cup wasn’t informed by the line the ball took when it spun out. I missed my par putt but saved bogey.
I looked at the ninth hole and said, “I’m so glad my ego didn’t force me to join Drew on the back tees.” The hole measures 460 yards from the back and 385 yards from the middle tees. It plays even longer than it measures with its uphill fairway that makes a dogleg to the left. The trees along the right and the bunkers on the right backed up by more trees make it a challenging hole beyond just its length. I tried to find my fade off the tee, but again hit the dreaded straight ball into the bunker off the left side of the fairway.
This was no ordinary bunker. It was cut into a ridge that ran along the left side of the fairway. Making matters worse my ball landed behind one of the grass covered mounds running down the slope in the bunker somewhat reminiscent of the church pews at Oakmont. The green was 150 yards away blocked by trees.
I thought there was no way I could get the ball up quick enough to clear the mound and still reach the green. Walter looked me dead in the face and said, “you can do this. You’ve been hitting draws all day.” He told me to aim to right of the mound rather than trying to hit over it. That would also take the trees out of play. I struck the ball well. It sailed to the right and started bending back toward the green, but didn’t quite make it. It dropped into the bunker off the front right of the green.
After hitting what was an almost perfect shot out of the fairway bunker, I hit a perfectly imperfect shot out of the green side bunker. The ball flew over the green. I pitched back onto the green and two-putted for my second double bogey of the round to finish the front nine with a 44.
The back nine starts with a very wide-open fairway. There is lots of rough and numerous jigsaw puzzle piece shaped bunkers, but the trees on this hole are pushed way back off the fairway. Most of the bunkers line the left side of the fairway. There are also a couple of them on the right side of the fairway. The hole plays 435 yards from the middle tees. It plays a whopping 500 yards from the back tees. The fairway is fairly straight, but bends slightly to the left as it approaches a green with a couple of more jigsaw puzzle pieces off its front. I hit my drive to the left middle of the fairway.
My approach shot was another dreaded straight ball that I had expected to fade. The ball landed in the rough, short of the left green side bunker.
The ball jumped out of the rough on my pitch shot, flew over the bunker, landing near the back of the green before rolling into the fringe. I lagged the ball to feet and made the next putt save bogey.
The 11th hole is very similar to the 10th hole. Its long at 420 yards and wide open with the trees pushed back on the sides. There are numerous jigsaw puzzle shaped bunkers on the left and the right. The fairway is slightly narrower than the 10th hole and doesn’t bend as it approaches the green. The green is small but is again protected by more jigsaw puzzle pieces that cover most of the front and the sides. I hit a nice 230 yard drive that rolled just off the right side of the fairway and into the first cut of rough, leaving 180 yards to a front middle pin.
I finally gave up on trying to hit draws and fades with my approach shot and took dead aim at the flag with my five iron. Strange enough, the ball faded slightly and landed to the right of the flag about 25 feet past it, leaving a fast downhill putt with a right to left break.
As we approached the green, a nice red hawk landed on a mound next to the left greenside bunker.
Under his watchful eye, I hit my putt on line, but was so afraid of the speed, that I left the ball three feet above the hole. I was very happy to make the three foot putt for my first par on the back nine.
The 12th hole is the third of the three successive long par fours that open the back nine on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park. The hole plays 435 yards from the middle tees and brings back the tight fairways. There was a carry over the rough to get to that narrow fairway with a slight dogleg left. There are two bunkers on the left and the right as the rough ends and the fairway begins. I pulled my drive to the left rough, right behind a tree that blocked my path to the green.
I picked a line across the fairway and attempted to lay up to 80 yards. My ball carried 10 yards further than I had expected and landed in the rough. I had a clean lie and hit my lob wedge to five feet below the hole.
I hit my putt right on line, but left it one heartbreaking inch from the hole. I tapped in for my bogey.
The back nine has just one par five. It follows three long par fours and plays just about 50 yards longer than each of them. The thirteenth hole could almost just as easily be a par four from the middle tees. Not so much from the back tees. At 610 yards from the back tees, it is the longest hole on the course. There is no trickery to the hole. It is just long, straight, and narrow with a fairway that is bounded by trees on the left and the right. I popped my drive up and it landed in the left rough, 350 yards from the middle of the green.
After hitting what amounted to a pitching wedge off the tee, I hit my driver from the rough. I caught the top half of the ball so it traveled just 150 yards and remained in the rough. I decided to play it safe on my next shot and just lay up to the fairway. I had just hit my lob wedge to five feet on the previous hole and thought I could do it again. I laid up to 80 yards.
I hit my fourth shot right at the flag. The ball landed on the front of the green, just below the flag, but rolled back off.
I putted back onto the green, straight up the hill and directly at the flag. The ball stopped one foot short of the cup. I finished the putt for a bogey.
The fourteenth hole is a short par three. It normally plays just 150 yards, but was playing slightly longer today with a back left pin, just four paces from the back of the green. The green has a very narrow front with bunkers on the left and the right. I needed to carry the right bunker to get back to the flag. I hit a high arcing shot to 25 feet to the right of the flag.
My birdie putt missed the cup by three inches to the right. I tapped in for my par.
Why did the golfer cross the public road? To get to the fifteenth hole at Bethpage Black, of course. The hole measures 430 yards with another narrow fairway that bends slightly to the left. I hit a 230 yard drive to the right rough.
I was on a mission to avoid double bogeys. I’d had two on the front nine and was determined to play more conservatively on the back nine so that I can avoid having any more. With two hundred yards remaining to a small green that was completely guarded by a large bunker off its front and several along its sides, Walter and I decided that laying up to 80 yards would be the prudent play. I hit my gap wedge to just off the left side of the fairway and into the first cut of rough.
Now I had a decision to make on the right club to hit my next shot with. I had left the ball five yards short of my target and had not accounted for the uphill nature of the green. I wanted to get the ball close enough for a one putt par. The pin was all the way at the back of the green. Hitting the ball all the way to the pin would risk landing it in the rough behind the green or having it roll off the green into the rough. If I left the ball two short, I’d have a very long putt for par. We decided on the sand wedge rather than the lob wedge. I hit a high shot to guard against the ball rolling off the back of the green. I hit it so high however, that it landed way short of the pin.
I missed the long par putt but made the second putt to save bogey.
The sixteenth hole is probably the most wide open par four on the course. It measures 460 yards but plays downhill. There are no trees and no bunkers to be concerned about, just fescue on both sides of an extremely narrow fairway. I striped my drive right down the middle of the fairway, leaving 230 yards to the middle of the green.
After such a nice straight drive, I decided to throw caution to the wind and not worry about the fescue nor the long bunker on the right of the green that started about 25 yards out from the front of the green. I had a nice clean lie in the middle of the fairway. That turned out to not be such a good decision. I sliced the ball to the fescue on the right.
My next shot landed in the bunker on the right. My fourth shot remained in the bunker. I put my fifth shot onto the green and made the putt for that double bogey that I was committed to avoiding.
The seventeenth hole is a beautiful par three that was playing just 150 yards to a very shallow green completely surrounded by bunkers. There were bunkers short of the green, off the back of the green, to the left of the green and to the right of the green. There was no place to miss. I hit my tee shot fat and it dropped into one of the bunkers off the front of the green.
I hit my sand shot onto the green and two putted for a bogey.
We had now finally reached the finishing hole on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park. Barring a major disaster on the 18th hole, I was poised to break ninety. Given the sign near the first tee, I would now be able to say that I must be a “highly skilled golfer.”
Walter took a picture of Sam, Tim, Drew, and me on the 18th tee box to memorialize the moment. We had taken on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park and were still standing and still smiling.
The hole plays just short of 400 yards from the middle tees. Like the 16th hole, there are no trees to worry about, but there was a hodgepodge of jigsaw puzzle shaped bunkers in the landing zone on both sides of the fairway. An already narrow fairway, bottlenecked along the middle of these bunkers to form an hour glass with the sand on the outside. I struck my drive purely. The ball sailed down the middle of the fairway leaving 135 yards to the pin.
I some much wanted to end my round with a nice par. The 18th green wasn’t going to make this easy for me. The green is elevated and surrounded by deep bunkers with just a very narrow strip of grass between the bunkers off the front of the green. I hit my approach shot directly at the pin. The ball drew slightly and landed in the left greenside bunker.
My sand shot barely made it out of the bunker. The ball landed just onto the green. I two-putted for my bogey to close out the back nine with a 43 for a total score of 87. I’d taken on Bethpage Black and lived to tell about it.
Following my round, I stopped by the pro shop to meet Joe Rehor, the Director of Golf for Bethpage. We had an opportunity to talk about my quest. I told him that Bethpage Black was the 35th course on my quest to play the top 100 courses in the United States as ranked on the Golf Digest 2017-18 list.
Following our chat, I hopped in the car and drove back across Long Island to make my way to Liberty National. I thought I was in good shape until I got to Manhattan. It took two hours to make the short drive across Manhattan to the Lincoln Tunnel, but I made it back to the Presidents Cup in time to catch the last couple of groups as they completed their matches.
My long day ended with a late flight to Columbus, Ohio. It was a day I would recommend only for skilled travelers in their big boy undies.