The Black Course at Bethpage State Park needs no introduction. Home of the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Open Championships, Bethpage Black is the crown jewel of public golf on Long Island and one of the most feared and revered courses -- public or private -- in the country.
The origins of the course date back to the Depression, but it was in the summer of 2002 that Bethpage Black achieved rock-star status, when the world's best players teed off behind the park's elegant clubhouse and struggled to stay anywhere near even par. Suddenly every golfer and fan knew about the "Warning" sign, the overnight stays in the parking lot, the shockingly low fees for a world-class course and the vocal, golf-crazed New York fan base.
Of course, there will be no gallery singing "Happy Birthday" to you as you stroll up the fairways, though the trailing group might serenade you with other two-word phrases if you're repeatedly bogged down in the rough. When the pros are gone, Long Islanders and visiting golfers are left with a 7,468-yard brute that puts every shot and skill to the test. From the middle tees, it's just short of 6,700 yards, nearly as long or longer than many full-length courses on the Island.
Opened in 1936 as part of the Depression Era public-works project that built Bethpage State Park, the Black Course arrived on the scene after the Lenox Hills Country Club became the Green Course and one year after A.W. Tillinghast's Blue and Red Courses debuted. Though there is a debate over who deserves credit (and how much) for the design -- Tillinghast or park superintendent Joseph Burbeck -- the subtle angles and protective cross bunkers present in the layout are characteristics of many celebrated Tillinghast courses. The course conditions today are largely a product of a major restoration led by Rees Jones in preparation for the '02 Open.
Like a trail luring golfers to find what's hidden behind Round Swamp Road, the opening hole at the Black runs downhill and away from the clubhouse. By many, it's noted more for the warning sign behind the tee than the quality of the hole itself. This is a mistake, as the elevated tee makes #1 appear much shorter than its 429 yards. Once down on the fairway -- in Bethpage's lower valley -- players will find that tee shots kept too far to the right, especially in the rough, will likely be blocked by a small collection of trees. Drives to the left will leave a clear shot at the small, bunkered green, but a longer one that requires an accurate middle or long iron.
The second also leads players into the park, this time a densely wooded path with a destination that's out of sight. All that's visible from the tee is part of a fairway that curves left in a narrow tree-lined corridor. Instincts say aim for the far side of the short grass, but this is often the worst place to be, as it brings overhanging trees and an enormous trap into play. The green is well protected atop a hill. The par-3 third requires a highly lofted iron shot that will fly over a sunken waste area and bunkers, then stick onto a shallow, elevated green that falls off in three directions.
Anyone who has played any of the Bethpage courses knows that a peak-to-peak one-shotter like #3 with a gully in between is not all that uncommon in the park. What is uncommon, however, is a view like the one that appears in the distance through a narrow clearing as you stick the pin back into #3 green. According to John Feinstein in his book, "Open: Inside the Ropes at Bethpage Black," this view alone may be responsible for the Black Course's entrance into the U.S. Open rotation.
Eight years before the 2002 U.S. Open, David Fay, then the USGA's executive director, took a spontaneous evening stroll around the course to either confirm or abandon his wild thoughts of the Black as a viable championship venue. Over time, the Black had fallen into disrepair. Years of neglect and diverted revenue had eaten away at the bunkers, hardened the teeboxes and chewed up the greens. But the bones of the course were still intact; the Black just needed a makeover. This became clear to Fay as he turned away from the third green and approached the fourth tee. "That's when I knew," Fay said. "Right there, it hit me." 
The famous glacier bunker on #4 welcomes you with its sly, toothy grin to the meat of the Black Course. It dominates the view from the tee; from the fairway, it obliterates the view. A slightly more subtle cross bunker awaits at #5, but it shouldn't be taken lightly. It protects an angled fairway and is one example of the course's expert design. Players must choose between challenging the far end of the bunker to reach prime fairway position on the right, or aim safely away from the sand to the left but risk cutting themselves off from a clear shot at the green. Tucked long and left and elevated between three bunkers, the green is nearly unreachable from the left side of the fairway with anything but a perfect high draw. A similar cross bunker awaits at #7, a 502-yard par-5 (553 from the back). One of the most picturesque holes on the course is #8, a downhill par-3 that's guarded by sand on the left, an overhanging tree on the right and the Black's only water hazard in front.
In 2002, the 10th hole caused quite a stir with its forced 250-yard carry over tall fescue. Along with the famous "Warning" sign, the very idea of merciless fescue swallowing the drives of mere mortals helped recreate the Black's mystique. Today, the 10th tee shot is much more forgiving, and unless you start the back nine actively thinking back to the 2002 Open, you probably won't notice anything out of the ordinary about this 434-yard par-4 (502 from the tips). One unique feature is the 50-yard stretch of thick rough that separates the fairway from the green. The par-4 11th has no tolerance for misfired drives. Its fairway is bordered by eight large, irregular bunkers, and it's not hard to get caught up in either the sand or rough. Like #4's glacier bunker but not quite as prodigious, a V-shaped trap grabs your attention on the par-4 12th tee and juts into the side of the fairway, only this time drives must clear the sand (up to a 260-yard clout depending on the tees) in order to gain favorable position on the hole.
Another photogenic par-3 greets you at #14, its green separated from the tee by an expanse of wispy grass and a huge right-side bunker. Between the '02 and '09 Opens, the green was enlarged, reshaped and afforded additional protection by a partially hidden but deceptively large left-side trap. Standing on the back-to-front surface, you can catch a glimpse of the closing holes across the road, including yet another gorgeous par-3. The 195-yard 17th is framed by a tall, shaggy hill that creates a memorable stadium-green effect. Five traps hug the wide, shallow green and cover all ground except deep left. From ground level, it's hard to tell where the sand ends and the putting surface begins -- a significant problem given the spine that bisects the green. For the best view of the pin, play the Red Course instead and watch the action from atop the hill on #4 green.
The par-4 15th is nearly as intimidating as #4 and considered by many to be the most demanding hole on the course, despite the wide-open appearance from the tee. Its green rests on a ledge 50 feet above the fairway, and the slope in between is carved by deep bunkers and covered with heavy rough. And even with a strong drive in the fairway from the middle tees, it will still take a fantastic shot with a long iron to reach and hold the mildly (once severely) contoured green. The 457-yard 16th (490 from the back) scoots back down the hill and invites drivers to bomb away. But leaving tee shots off to the right brings rough and fescue into play and also creates a poor angle into what's essentially a diagonal green protected on the short side by another enormous sand trap.
Finally, the Black offers a bit of a breather -- on #18. The downhill tee shot is threatened by clusters of puzzle-piece bunkers left and right of the landing area, but avoid those and the reward is a surprisingly tame approach to an elevated green. Don't let your guard down though -- there's plenty of sand still left around the sides to bury high hopes on the closing hole.
The restoration led by Rees Jones in advance of the 2002 Open took a great but neglected course and turned it into a universally renowned beauty that's almost too stunning for a local muni. Long Islanders and visiting players have been reaping the benefits ever since. The bunkers were repaired and reshaped and now stand out as the course's signature element. Flowing within the grand scale of the course (see #4), the traps are striking.
To many, the sheer size of the course is the Black's most memorable trait. You'll feel like you're a foot tall in some spots. Photos fail to capture the course's elevation and contouring. In a region of mostly flat, paved suburbia, Bethpage State Park as a whole clings to its hills and valleys. The physical rises and falls of the Black Course are startling. One needs only to drive down Round Swamp Road to observe the 15th green perched way up, almost suspended in the air. But only those marching up and down the Black's fairways will be able to take in firsthand the drop from the par-3 eighth tee to the green below.
The greens take a back seat to the rest of the Black's features. Many are round and on the small side with tilts that work against players approaching from the wrong angles. The more unique greens are on the par-3s -- #3 and #17 are wide, shallow and heavily bunkered ovals; #8 is deep with a false front; and the redesigned 14th green is triangular with a back-to-front tilt.
Of course, there are no carts on the Black Course. There is an old-time charm about the walking-only policy. Carting around this 18 would not only neutralize the impact of the rugged terrain but also blind players to the subtle design forces at work on almost every inch of the course.
HOLE(S) TO REMEMBER:
From a strategic standpoint, nearly all of the Black's 18 holes are ones to remember. You don't become top muni in America and #21 among Classic Courses by giving players care-free stretches to catch their breath. One hole that demonstrates many of the characteristics that make the Black so challenging is #5, a member of Golfing Magazine's 2009 Dream Golf Club. From the tee, you must decide between carrying the entire length of the angled cross bunker (about 280 from the back tees, 230 from the middle) to gain access to the fairway's right side, or play conservatively to the left side of the fairway (you have to carry the sand either way).
Of course, the decision isn't that simple. The safe play means settling for bogey, at best, unless you have a 200-yard power draw in your bag. Elevated and angled away from the fairway, the green is cut off from the left side by trees. A front slope of deep bunkers and evil rough is where under-clubbed approach shots go to die. But don't feel too bad about it -- even the most gorgeous drive over the sand nets a 180-yard uphill approach to a small green (with bunkers short and long).
AREA(S) TO AVOID:
If you just spent the night in your car waiting for a spot on the tee, you've probably spent a few hours envisioning and then dreaming about a dead-center drive blasted to the turn of the fairway to open the round. Chances are real life isn't going to follow that script. But you can still get the round off to a pleasant start by avoiding the right side of the fairway and certainly the right rough on #1. A cluster of trees inside the turn may appear harmless from the elevated tee, but down below, you'll find that approach shots are either hindered or blocked by the trees unless you've bombed a drive to the far side of the turn or kept it left. Anything in the right rough is a sure bogey or worse, barring a brilliant shot over, under or through the trees from a thick lie.
99 Quaker Meeting House Road, Farmingdale 11735
(516) 249-0707 (info and reservations)
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 John Feinstein, Open: Inside the Ropes at Bethpage Black, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003), p.12
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