I was first introduced to the Blue Course at Bethpage State Park as a high-schooler with 18-hole golf experience that could only be described as scant. At the time of my Blue debut, golf to me was a game played over nine flat holes where balls could roll from tee to green and "hazards" consisted of fences, goose droppings and maybe a parking lot. So it was a whole new ballgame for me the first time I had to descend a teebox perched 50 feet in the air on the Blue Course. Then descend another one. And another one. Later Bethpage Blue would host my first and last round as a member of a competitive golf team, a trainwreck of a performance that would make Jean Van De Velde look away in fright.
Bethpage Blue will never be mistaken for the Black, and it fails to challenge the Red Course from start to finish, but it does feature what many consider one of the toughest front nines on Long Island. A.W. Tillinghast designed the original Blue which, along with his Red Course, opened for play in 1935, one year ahead of his famed Black. Over some of the park's hilliest terrain, the Blue calls for a series of blind shots to hidden landing areas and elevated greens. The grueling front gives way at the turn to a much flatter, shorter, and frankly much easier back nine. The Blue is 6,638 yards from the tips and 6,406 from the middle tees, though it feels longer as you battle its rolling nature. Both nines return to the clubhouse area, making the Blue popular for nine-hole rounds.
Today's Blue is not the same as the original Tillinghast layout, despite the "Est. 1935" on the scorecard. The course was redesigned in 1958 by architect Alfred Tull to make way for the Yellow Course -- some of its holes were absorbed into the Yellow, others lost some of their original nuances to history. This would likely explain the stylistic inconsistencies between the two nines. Blue's opener plays straight out on flat ground. The small valley at the end of the fairway on this 397-yard par-4 helps stretch the legs for the bigger gullies on the remainder of the front nine, beginning from the elevated tee on #2. There is no view of the green on the 441-yard second, just the sight of a fairway that drifts slightly to the right. Looking out from the tee on the 479-yard par-5 fourth reveals another fairway that curls right around a line of trees, only this time the bend is more pronounced as the fairway disappears from view (pictured). A strong, fading tee shot here will set up a great opportunity to get home in two. The 298-yard fifth is the shortest par-4 on the course and likely the easiest, as long as the fairway bunker around 200 yards from the tee is avoided. The uphill approach to a flat green must clear a 40-yard stretch of rough that fronts the surface and dissuades attempts at run-ups (and driving the green). A bad score here is no way to step up to the wicked #6.
The Blue's sixth hole is in a class by itself. It is a brutal down-then-uphill par-4 that doesn't relent, even on conservative players -- a misplaced fairway wood off the tee can find itself in equally dismal shape as a wayward driver. Spray shooters should set the bar at double bogey. The fairway juts to the left and climbs more than 200 yards, but it's the perilous navigation of the turn that determines the difficulty of the approach.
Like the 180-yard third, the 175-yard seventh is a peak-to-peak par-3 with another gully separating the elevated tee from the elevated green. The ideal route on #8, a 545-yard par-5, is to execute the first two shots so that the hole plays just like the preceding par-3. The fairway careens down a slope inside 150 yards, so a layup short of the gully will set up a level third shot into the green from short-iron distance. However, without course knowledge, it's hard to tell where to land the second shot without skipping down the slope, thus setting up a dicey pitch from deep below the green. The predicament is similar on the 348-yard ninth.
During play on the par-4 tenth, you might wonder whether or not you mistakenly wandered onto a different course. The 362-yarder is flat with room to miss on the right side. Normalcy returns at the 463-yard 12th. This sharp dogleg par-5 makes a hard left turn, and like #8, its green sits perched on the far side of another deep gully. An exciting second shot over the drop can only be attained with a blast of a draw off the tee, otherwise a layup around 150 yards out is the play. Miss the green short on the left side and watch the ball trickle down into some choppy rough.
From there, the rolling terrain gives way to more level ground. Players with a draw will love the 13th and 14th, both mid-length par-4s with generous fairways. Yardage on #15 is nearly identical to its 372-yard predecessor, but a sizable fairway trap and some of the course's more elaborate greenside bunkering step up the challenge and negate the hole's relative openness.
The Blue concludes with two throwbacks to the front nine. It's another par-3 from high point to high point at #17, though this one can be tricky depending on pin placement. A right-side pin coaxes shots toward a fat trap; a pin on the left hides behind a small pot bunker. The closing hole is an uninspiring clone of its next-door neighbor #9.
The greens on the Blue Course are moderately sized with soft undulations that don't quite match the exaggerated slopes of the fairways. Few of them feature any truly distinctive characteristics. The par-3 third has a false front that could send very short attempts down toward the upslope of the gully. A hump on the par-3 11th green slides putts away from a back-right pin.
Sand has a very limited role, especially on the front nine. It garners some attention briefly from holes 13 through 17, where the bunkering around the greens suddenly becomes more intrusive. The styling of the traps is altered during this stretch as well -- the generally round and symmetrical bunkers throughout most of the course give way to irregular traps on #15 and #16. The high-faced pot bunker on the 17th is pictured to the left. There is no water on the course.
The complex is wildly popular, and slow play is the norm. If you want to play 18 rounds in reasonable time, head east. Bethpage, no matter the course, is at least a five-hour commitment from first tee to 18th green. And if you have a reservation, tack on another hour for check-in.
HOLE(S) TO REMEMBER:
Blue #6 is a member of Newsday's Long Island Dream 18. It's no exaggeration to rank it alongside the most challenging par-4s at the entire Bethpage complex. The sixth is a 446-yarder with steep demands. Among those demands, the ability to smoke a hard draw or controlled hook off the tee with distance. Otherwise the second demand is the confidence to fire a long drive over 250 yards of woods, waste rough and a conveniently placed bunker to a blind section of fairway (part of this requirement will also include the possession of extra balls, just in case). Failing to meet either of those requirements leaves players naked on an uphill dogleg left with pitfalls on every shot.
The downhill tee shot is deceptive. Reachable even with a fairway metal is a wide bunker at the far end of the turn. Go too far and too straight and you can easily sail over the bunker, kick off a downslope and wind up on or near the fourth fairway. This is not the ideal route to the hole.
AREA(S) TO AVOID:
It takes a few rounds at Bethpage Blue to know exactly where to leave approach shots on the two gully par-5s, #8 and #12. Venturing down into the valley is unnecessary -- all it does is net either an uphill pitch from the bottom or an awkward shot from a downhill lie. Anyone striking their short and middle irons with precision is better off attacking the green from level ground with a clear view of the flag.
99 Quaker Meeting House Road, Farmingdale 11735
(516) 249-0707 (info and reservations)
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