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 midafternoon and spend time talking to the personnel there to get all the details.
By the time I arrived, most of the offices had closed. I found one guy who said I should show up early the next morning and park in a numbered parking space in a parking lot that was back toward the entrance to the Park. I left the office disappointed and not armed with much more information than what I already had.
I drove around and found the parking lot that the attendant was referring to. There were two guys already camped out in van that was park in space number one. I parked my car, walked over and introduced myself. Tim and Drew are a father and son team that make an annual sojourn to New York to play Bethpage Black. Tim is a retired Naval officer who 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. They were very familiar with the process for playing Bethpage Black. By camping out overnight in the first parking slot, they were poised to get the first tee time the next morning. The first tee time was scheduled for 8:30 am. They recommended that I arrive back at the parking lot by 6:30 the next morning. They said that should be ample time to ensure I got a parking slot that would receive a reasonable tee time. I then headed to my hotel, which was just 5 minutes from the park.
I arrived back at the park at 6:20 the next morning. I was shocked to find that the first open parking spot was slot number 21. I pulled into the slot and then did the worse-case scenario math. 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. I felt better about my chances of getting out early. My flight from Newark to Columbus, Ohio wasn’t until 8:35 that evening, but I also had an invitation to view the Friday matches at the Presidents Cup in one of the hospitality suites. If I didn’t get an early tee time on Bethpage Black, it would likely be impossible for me to get from Long Island back to Liberty National in Newark to attend the afternoon matches.
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 said 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, I’d get the third number in the sequence and would be able to join them for the first tee time. I thought that was quite kind and generous of them to do that. They had camped out all night and slept in a van. I’d had the comfort of a nice bed in a hotel room with a hot shower and there they were, this father and son on their annual pilgrimage, offering this random act of kindness. This was another of those special moments along my journey that reinforced that by nature, people are kind and generous. These two men where no longer strangers; they were fellow sojourners traveling along destiny’s path. I thanked Tim for his kind offer and joined him and Drew at their van positioned in the prized slot on this sunny, yet cool morning on Long Island.
The 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 club house for breakfast. After breakfast and more conversation, I headed to the practice range to warm up for a few minutes before 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 was the fourth golfer in the group with Tim, Drew and me. My caddie, Walter arrived just as we were about to head to 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. He had 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 is was! That famous sign that let you know, that his was a course for golfers who wore their big boy undies. The sign let you know that his 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 tees. The slopes are 152 and 145 respectively. Make no mistake, the course is difficult with its length, narrow fairway, 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.
Nevertheless, Drew, the young flexible stud, chose to play from the back tees. The mere mortals in our foursome, Tim, Sam, and I, chose to play from the blue tees.
The first hole set up perfectly for my fade. It is a 430 yard par four with a dog leg right. There are sparse trees to the right and rough and fairway bunkers to the left. The bunkers were close enough to the tee box to not be in play. 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. My ball had a slight draw. It traveled 250 yards but landed in the left rough, leaving 210 yards to the middle of the green.
The ball was sitting down in the rough. There was no way for me to get my club on the ball without catching a clump of grass. Walter and I decided that the safe play was to just lay up. I hit my seven iron to 55 yards out.
My approach shot was short. The ball landed on the front right side of the green and then rolled into the rough. I chipped on to three feet from the cup and made the putt to open my round with a bogey.
The second hole is a short par four with a very narrow fairway. The hole plays just 355 yards, but the narrow fairway is lined with thick woods on the left and the right. The hole has a slight dogleg to the left. I again aimed down the left side of this narrow fairway. Again, my ball drew. 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 side ways. There was a narrow gap in the trees that provided a path to get the ball back in play. My chip made it out of the woods and just barely onto the edge of the fairway. This left 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.
My caddie gave me a line to the left of the hole, expecting a break to the right. The ball held its line, stayed left of the hole and rolled two feet past. I made the two-footer for my first par.
Walter and I continued to talk 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. The hole is the number one handicap hole on the course. It is one of the most beautiful holes on the course, but you shouldn’t be seduced by its beauty either. This is a tough hole. The fairway is narrow, and tree lined. The fairway has two parts. The first half of the fairway has a massive bunker to the left and ends at a bunker that divides it from the second part of the fairway that is slightly elevated. The bunker provides a transition from the lower level first part of the fairway to the upper level second part of the fairway. I finally found my fade and hit my drive to the right rough.
While the rough isn’t very deep, it is very thick. I tried to lay up over the bunker with my second shot. My seven iron caught a little too much grass and the ball caught the top part of the bunker and rolled in. My third shot landed short of the bunker to the 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 fifth hole bought my first double bogey of the day. At 425 yards, it was just 35 yards shorter than the par five fourth hole. The fairway was just as narrow with a large bunker on the right side. I popped my drive up and the ball landed short of the fairway in the deep rough, 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 the rough.
I pitched over the bunker on the front left of the green. The ball rolled 20 feet past the hole. I missed the bogey putt, but made the next putt for the double bogey.
The fairway opens up a little on the 375 yard par four sixth hole. The fairway is slightly wider than it was on the earlier holes and the trees are set back a little further on both the left and right sides of the fairway. 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 the bunkers. I hit my tee shot to about 180 yards from a pin that was position on the back left portion of a well bunkered green.
It was the first fairway that I’d hit all day. I hit my five iron for my first approach shot from the short grass. I drew the ball and it landed almost pin high in the left green side bunker.
I hit my sand shot to 15 feet from the flag. I missed my par putt and made a bogey on the hole.
The seventh hole is one of the most interestingly played holes on the course. 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 if you decide to cut off more of the bunker. The hole then makes a dogleg to the right and a wide-open fairway transitions to a narrow tree lined one for the approach to the green. There is a fairway bunker just past the outside turn of the dogleg.
I chose to not take on the full length of the bunker off the tee. I hit my ball to the left fairway, leaving 295 yards to middle of the green.
While I had drawn the ball with my irons on several previous occasions during the round, Walter was concerned about the bunker on the right side of the fairway at slightly over 100 yards from the green. He suggested that I lay up well short of that bunker. I hit a nine iron to 160 yards from a back right pin that was tucked behind the right front green side bunker.
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, I would have faded the ball.
I two putted for my par.
The eight hole is a long par three, that again required a fade. The hole is long at 190 yards. There is a rough that runs from the tee box to a small pond that is in front of the green. It is the only time that water comes into play on the course. There is a large tree just off the front right portion of the green. There is a bunker along the left side of the green and one behind the green. The pin was positioned on the left front portion of the green. The tree on the front right of the green blocked the right side of the green and even though the pin was on the left, a draw could potentially hit the tree. The other choice of course was to hit the ball straight. I had just hit a straight ball on my approach shot on the seventh hole. I thought there was no way I could hit a second straight ball in a row. Well I thought wrong. I aimed slightly left of the flag. My ball flight was again as straight as an arrow. The ball flew the green and landed in the bunker on the left of the green.
As we walked from the tee box to my ball in the bunker, Walter told me a story about Zach Johnson during the 2012 Barclays at Bethpage Black. Walter said Zach Johnson hit his tee shot on this hole into the rough near the tree. Searched as they may, they could not find his ball. Walter 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. Walter said that next week, the grounds people found Zach’s ball. 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.
I made my way to my ball, set up in the bunker and hit what looked like a great sand shot. The ball came out of the sand and headed directly toward the hole. The ball had so much spin that when it caught the inside edge of the cup, it spun out and rolled 30 feet away. I missed my par putt and made a bogey on the hole.
The last hole on the front nine is another one of those holes where you say, “I’m so glad that I’m playing the middle tees and not the back tees.” The ninth hole plays 460 yards from the back tees and 385 yards from the middle tees. The hole plays uphill and has a dogleg left. There are trees along the right and bunkers backed up by trees on the left. I tried to hit a fade off the bunker on the left. Again, my ball didn’t fade. It went straight into the bunker on the left side of the fairway.
This was no ordinary fairway bunker. It was cut into a ridge that ran along the left side of the fairway. Worse than that is that there were grass rows like the pews in the church pew bunkers at Oakmont, that ran down the slop of the bunker. My ball was just behind and below one of those rows and the green was 150 yards away on the other side of those rows and around some trees.
There was no way I could clear the rows and reach the green. The green was guarded by two bunkers, one off the front right and one off the front left. I decided to hit a shot that would clear the lower end of the grass rows in the bunker and then draw onto the green after I’d completely cleared the bunker and gone around the trees. I made great contact with the ball, it drew, but not quite enough. The ball landed in the bunker off the front right side 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 on the front of the green. 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 over the bunker, landed on the back of the green and rolled onto the back fringe. I hit a lag putt to two feet and made the putt for a bogey.
The 11th hole is very similar to the 10th hole. Its long at 420 yards, is wide open with the trees pushed back on the sides, and has 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 just took dead aim at the flag with my five iron. Strange enough, the ball faded slightly and landed to the right of the flag and 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. The fairway got a little tight again. There was a carry over the rough to get to the 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 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.
I hit my driver from the rough. I caught the top half of the ball and 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 out the green, just below the flag, but rolled back off the green.
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 plays just 150 yards, but was playing slightly longer today with a back left pin, that was just four paces from the back of the green. The green has a very narrow front with bunkers on the left and the right. The right bunker had to be carried to get to the flag. I hit an eight iron with the help of a slight wind. The ball landed 25 feet to the right of the flag.
I missed my birdie putt when my ball rolled just three inches to the right of the hole. I tapped in for what was to be my last par of the round.
We crossed a public road to get to the fifteenth hole. This marked a return to long par fours. The 15th hole plays 430 yards with a narrow fairway that bows slightly to the left. The sides of the fairway are free of bunkers, but reaching the green requires carrying two bunkers at the front of the green. 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 on the front by a bunker, Walter and I decided that laying up to 80 yards would be the smart 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 counted 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 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 was left with a long par putt which I missed, but I made the next putt for a bogey.
The sixteenth hole is probably the most wide open par four on the course. It plays 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. It was my only double bogey on the back nine.
The seventeenth hole is a beautiful par three that was playing just 150 yards to a very shallow green that was completely surrounded by bunkers. There was no place to miss. Any shot not landing on the green would surely land in a bunker. There were bunkers that were short of the green, long over the green and to the left and the right of the green. 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 were 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 was going to make this easy for me. The green was elevated and surrounded by deep bunkers. The was just a narrow strip between the bunkers at the front of the green. My approach shot had a slight draw and the ball landed in the left greenside bunker.
I hit my sand shot just onto the green and two putted for a bogey to close out the back nine with a 43 and a total score of 87 for the round.
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 my chat with Joe, I headed 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.
I made it to the Presidents Cup in time to catch the last couple of groups completing their match. I then returned to Newark Airport for my flight to Columbus, Ohio to play Scioto, The Golf Club, and Muirfield Village.