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Dave played Bethpage (Black) on Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bethpage State Park (Black)

...Only for Highly Skilled Golfers

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#1 - The openness of the first tee shot is deceptive. Make sure you keep it left or bomb it to avoid the trees.
#1 - A ridge running through the middle of this green creates a back tier for some good pin placements
#2 - I liked this short par 4. A sweeping draw is necessary if you want a wedge in to the green.
#2 - This uphill approach is well guarded by a hidden right bunker
#3 - The first one-shotter on the course requires a long iron or hybrid
#4 - Tillinghast's gem. He is quoted as saying "It should prove one of the most exacting three-shotters I know of anywhere."
#4 - The green complex at the fourth is definitely does not lend itself to a long approach
#5 - This isn't the first time you're going to have to choose how much to bite off a diagonal cross bunker
#6 - A view from the crest of the hill that serves as a speed slot. Notice a very well protected green here.
#6 - A well placed drive will ride that hill all the way down to about 80-90 yards
#7 - Another cross bunker on this par 5 gives the player a choice - risk the bunker and have a shorter second shot in, or lay back left and play it as a true three-shotter
#7 - This green is much more accommodating to second shots than the fourth...
#8 - This signature hole presents plenty of difficulty with a tree overhanging the right side and a bunker guarding the left. The green also pitches front-right, making for an extremely difficult up and down from the sand.
#8 - A great view of the run-off area in front of this long par 3
#9 - I really liked this long par 4. The contours of the fairway make for a difficult stance on your approach shot.
#11 - From the tee, the golfer wants to aim his ball at the flag. The fairway, however, curves out to the right and back to the hole, making your aim line closer to the right edge of the green.
#12 - Another excellent fairway bunker on this tough par 4
#12 - The green here is large, but probably one of the more interesting on the course
#13 - A view from the way back tee on this monster par 5
#13 - One of the best bunkers on the green. It lies about 40 yards short of the center of the putting surface, making for a very deceptive look on your approach shot.
#14 - A great look to this one-shotter. The valley between the tee and the green give it a much more dramatic look.
#14 - An idea of the depth of the par 3 greens. The seventeenth is the only par 3 with a green depth under 40 yards.
#15 - The toughest green on the course, built in to the side of a hill. This is also the most severe green on the course byfar.
#16 - This slight dogleg has one of the best views from the tee on the course
#17 - Just a really tough green to hit with a long iron or hybrid
#18 - A pretty well-protected finishing hole, I'd say.
#18 - A tough finish to a tough track

My experience at Bethpage State Park's Black Course was a little different than the ones you often hear.  I didn't sleep in my car.  I didn't wake up at 3:00 AM.  I didn't get in to a verbal battle with a surly New Yorker (thank god).  I played Bethpage Black with my cousin Brian, and we actually had a pretty run-of-the-mill public course experience.  That is until we actually started playing golf.  Then things got interesting...

We arrived at Bethpage at about 5:45 on a Tuesday morning in late October to find that the "bakery tickets" had already been given out, and there was no more line in which to wait.  We figured our apparent tardiness wasn't a good sign, but as we pulled in to the parking lot we noticed a curious lack of cars.  Soon, a Bethpage staff member would inform us that we were the first group off the Black Course. 

Well.  That was certainly easier than I expected.

Now, at this point, I was getting pretty excited.  Bethpage would be my third US Open course in 5 days.  It kind of hit me as I was putting on my shoes while sitting on the open trunk of my car: between them, Inverness, Oakland Hills, and Bethpage have hosted a dozen Opens.  ...A dozen.  I made sure to soak that in a little bit before hitting the range. 

As you arrive, everything at Bethpage screams modesty.  Everything, that is, except the Black.  The clubhouse is sizable, but not elegant.  The range offers just enough to get you warmed up - no frills, no glam ... no grass.  Just a mat and a small bucket of beat up old balls that were probably extracted from the tall grass on the golf course after Joe six-pack gave up looking and moved on.  The employees - and the golfers, for that matter - are working men and women who will just as soon kick you out of line as take your money. 

Once you've made sure not to screw up your tee assignment or crack any kind of joke with the starter, you'll earn your right to the first tee.  I was a little upset because on the day we played, they were doing some construction near the first tee, and had taken down the famous sign for the Black Course.   Apparently on this particular day, the Black Course was intended for anyone, not just highly skilled golfers.  About 5 hours later, I knew that was never true. 

This course is a bear. 

There are a few things at Bethpage's Black Course that set it apart from many others and give it the stature that it enjoys in the rankings and the USGA's Open rotation.  One is the routing.  A. W. Tillinghast was given a HUGE, dramatic piece of sandy property with which to create a course that the Long Island Park Commission told him should "rival Pine Valley as a great test."  Another is the bunkering, which some say is Tilliinghast's finest work.  Then you've got the shot quality; from tee to green, I don't know how many courses can hold a candle to Bethpage.  Put all these together and you've got a course that can battle the best in the world.

The first hole is one of the easiest holes on the course.  Yes, I'm talking about the 430-yard, trees on the right, almost 90-degree dogleg right first hole with the bunkered-on-both-sides green.  It's pretty much a piece of cake compared to the rest of the course.  You see, that's kind of a theme out at Bethpage.  It's big.  It's tough.  It's not afraid to get right in your face and give you hell.  Kind of fitting that it's in New York.  

A road runs through the Black Course, separating holes 1 and 15-18 from the rest of the course.  Once you cross the road behind the first green and head in to the woods, there's no mistaking that you're heading in to the meat of the golf course.  Holes 2-9 are built on the most dramatic pieces of the property.  Aside from the ridge that provides the settings for the 15th and 17th greens, and the 16th and 18th tees, the property on the clubhouse side of the road is relatively open and flat.  There is another ridge atop which the clubhouse sits that is also home to the first tee and 18th green. 

From holes four to nine, though, Tillinghast put on a clinic.  Four is regarded as one of the best par 5s in the world.  Five and seven have cross bunkering unlike anything I've ever seen before.  Six is a really fun hole that - if you hit it long enough - features a speed slot that can add 40-50 yards to your tee shot, leaving a wedge in to a small, well-protected green.  Eight is a sight to see; downhill and difficult, with a huge, sloping green that probably has hundreds of pin placements.  Nine's fairway is the most unique on the course, featuring very few flat lies from the approach area.  While other holes on the course have excellent features and are routed well, these six on the front nine are the most stunning, as they use the most interesting features of the expansive property. 

The bunkering at Bethpage is some of the best I've seen aside from Cypress Point.  Tillinghast used bunkers not just for the purposes of golf strategy, but also for their visual effect.  The par 5 fourth is an excellent example of this.  The hole is gorgeous.  The bunkers pop out at you.  The faces on the second set of fairway bunkers are at least 15 feet high.  I can think of few bunkers more grand than these.  The cross bunkering on the fifth and seventh holes make the golfer think.  While both are able to be carried in favorable conditions, one should still really think about the line off the tee.  Even the slightest chance of ending up in one of these expanses should be avoided at all costs.  Other bunkers, like the fairway bunker on 12 and the bunker short of the green on 13, play more with the golfer's head than his golf ball.  12's fairway bunker should be easily carried (if you're playing the proper tees... which you should be...), but still serves to scare the crap out of the tee-baller.  The pit short of the green on 13 hides the 20 or so yards between it and the putting surface, making your approach look a great deal shorter than it actually is.  The best greenside bunkering on the course would have to be the 17th.  This long par 3 provides literally nowhere to run the ball up.  Three bunkers in front span the entire width of the green while two others on the right and back right lie waiting to consume pushed and overstruck shots. 

I could talk about the bunkering at Bethpage until my face turned blue, but I'll try not to.  The only thing that I wasn't happy about when I played the Black was that they must have just replaced the sand, because every bunker I was in (a sizable number) had WAY too much sand in it.  I hope their plan is to compact the sand or allow it to be compacted over a period of time.  You also should prepare yourself for having to play out of a few footprints throughout the day - something that bothers me to no end.  Rake your bunkers, people.  Believe me, if you're playing slow, it's not because everyone is taking too long to rake their bunkers.  It takes two seconds.  Have some respect for the golfers who play after you, and just do it. 

Alright...  Lecture over.

I've said this before and I'll say it again.  Bethpage's Black course may be the best test I've ever played, tee to green.  There's a key phrase in there...  and it's there for a reason. 

I was unimpressed with the greens - quite unimpressed, actually.  I think I missed a dozen putts on the high side on the Black Course.  Nothing really broke.  There were a few greens that stood out, and that I thought were very nice (1, 6, 8, 17) and one that was excellent in the 15th.  Aside from these, however, I was disappointed in the contours of the dance floors.  Now, I understand that Bethpage is a gigantic course, and that such a trying test from tee to green paired with undulating greens would be over-the-top difficult.  I also understand that Joseph Burbeck - not Tillinghast - was responsible for a lot of the construction and most, if not all, of the final touches at Bethpage.  Perhaps if Tillinghast himself had overseen the entire project, the course would be his best work, as he would have more than likely seen to it that the green complexes be more interesting.  It was almost off-putting that a course so exciting and difficult and long and visually pleasing could have such bland greens.  Maybe it is because of the grandness of the course that the greens seem this way.  Maybe they are splendid greens in their own right but are shadowed by the monstrous and demanding fairways that lie before them.  All I know is that when I walked off the course, I felt as though I had relatively straight putts all day - and believe me, it wasn't because I was placing the ball where I wanted to...

Bethpage State Park's Black Course is a place that every avid golfer should endeavor to play.  The experience is unique.  The course is one of the best in the world.  It's a gorgeous piece of property.  It's on an island that is known for its ridiculous number of world-class golf courses.  It is without a doubt the most accessible and least expensive of said golf courses.

Bethpage Black has a sign on the first tee that warns the golfer's who attempt to play it.  The sign reads "WARNING: The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers." 

Obviously everyone who plays the Black are golfers.  I'm sure that everyone who plays the Black are highly skilled, as well.  Just probably not at golf.  I know my skill level was bashed down a bit by Tillinghast's beast.  On the day I played Bethpage, though, I found that I became highly skilled at a few other things. 

Among them were: being patient at the first tee, biting off more than I can chew on cross bunkers, combating 30-40 mph wind gusts, enjoying a beer or two on the course, plugging golf balls in greenside bunkers, walking straight uphill much of the day (bag on back), and enjoying thouroughly the company of my cousin and two other friendly lads on an Autumn morning in New York, on one of the finest courses that one of America's finest architects ever built. 

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