by Phil Carlucci
"Not many people realize that Tillie did design a driveable par-4 for Bethpage, but not for the Black Course. He put it on the original Blue Course." -- Phil Young, golf historian and author
When Bethpage Black hosted the U.S. Open in 2002 and 2009, many golfers who hadn't already known of famed course architect A.W. Tillinghast -- "Tillie," for short -- found it difficult to escape the written or televised references to the man's work at Bethpage State Park. In the 1930s, with the formerly private Lenox Hills Country Club now the new park's beautiful public Green Course, Tillinghast transformed Bethpage into a golfer's paradise by designing the Red Course, the Blue Course and, though debate exists about the extent of his participation, the Black Course.
Today, rounds go by on the Alfred Tull-designed Yellow Course with very few players understanding its history. Several holes, most notably the 10th through 14th, are pieces of the original Blue Course, and one of them is "the only named golf hole at Bethpage," according to Phil Young, local golf historian and author of Golf for the People: Bethpage and the Black.
Yellow #12 is one of Tillinghast's "Reef" holes, a risk/reward design he typically used for long par-3s ("one-shot holes," as he wrote in a 1926 edition of The American Golfer). The key feature is a diagonal ridge or hazard protecting the green from aggressive tee shots, with a safe haven short of the reef for more careful players. Bethpage's version -- once the original Blue's fifth hole -- is possibly the only Reef par-4 Tillinghast ever created.
ABOVE RIGHT: A wide view of the hole. The bunker left and mounding right pinch the fairway into a narrow opening around 190-200 yards from the tee. LEFT: Pull or hook a drive and you might find the left-side bunker, the only hazard remaining on Tillie's Reef. Use the spruce in the distance as a guide to the green. BELOW RIGHT: The right side of the opening is bordered by mounds.
What exists today near the southern edge of the park is merely a stripped-down edition of a design eroded by time and circumstances. It is a short 312-yard par-4, and to many a safe haven all its own before the supremely difficult par-4 13th just ahead. There is a bunker left and a bailout area right that reaches around a line of mounded rough like a raised arm. But what's a bailout area without any danger?
Tillinghast designed the Reef with his family's maritime history in mind, according to Young. "Picture a reef," Young says, "as a treacherous, rocky formation protecting the approach to a harbor, and typically there's only one safe way to get through it. This is what Tillinghast envisioned when he created the hole." The original design at Bethpage shows large bunkers both left and right of the main fairway, and a sharp downslope on the far side of the reef's left. Rough-covered mounds hindered shots to the right. There was even an irrigation pond short of the bunker on the left that "adds a mental hazard to the drive," as written in a 1935 edition of the Farmingdale Post. "The long player must carry mounds 190 yards from the tee."
All of these features combined to protect a narrow opening in the central fairway. Unlike Tillinghast's other reefs, this one did not completely bisect the hole. Players could get through the opening without going over the reef, but there were sandy, sloped, blind, buried and even wet prices to pay for inaccuracy.
This chapter in the hole's history, however, is very brief. Some of the original features were likely lost during World War II, Young says, when the Black and Blue courses were completely shut down and left to nature. "Both had to be rebuilt in order to open for play in the fall of 1945," Young says. A 1953 aerial shows no evidence of an irrigation pond. Later in the '50s, work began on a new fifth course -- the Yellow -- which would incorporate some holes from Tillinghast's Blue layout. Reef features were likely smoothed down and filled in during this time as Blue #5 took on a new, tamer identity as Yellow #12.
ABOVE LEFT: The view from the bailout area is obscured by mounds, and a short-side trap is completely out of sight. RIGHT: You'll be fighting this trap with a blindfold on if you go for the green from the bailout area. BELOW LEFT: Looking back at what was once a more treacherous Tillinghast Reef complex.
Nearly all players today stroll up to the 12th tee with a driver or fairway wood in hand, never stopping to consider any safer options. The teeing area and green site have remained the same, and like in the original design, the fairway opening is still 190 to 200 yards away, a distance that many can now cover even with a mishit. Unless a shot plops into the left bunker, the penalty for inaccuracy is not often severe. Barring some overpowering sand phobia, there's no reason not to direct tee shots straight out toward the flag. The reward for a well-executed shot is a 100-yard approach, or less, to a wide-open green.
If you miss right, your ball will probably settle into a comfortable spot in the bailout fairway, which now exists as a carpeted collection area for right-handed slices. That's not to imply, of course, that the hole is a total pushover, or that it will offer up similar cushy benefits on the second shot. From here, it is a mostly blind approach with a beefy short-side bunker creating a terrible angle to the pin. In other words, it's exactly the type of shot Tillinghast wanted the safer player to encounter in his par-4 Reef design.
Will the original features and daring line of play ever be restored on Yellow #12? Though it would please plenty of golf course historians and architects, a restoration of the true risk/reward features of the hole will probably not take place in the near future.
In the meantime, smart players will cash in on the high-reward/low-risk design that exists today. The brutal 13th just ahead is not nearly as generous.
Phil Young is an A.W. Tillinghast historian and the author of several local golf books, including "Golf for the People: Bethpage and the Black" and "Golf's Finest Hour: The Open at Bethpage Black." Read more about Young and his work at Golden Age Research. You can also hear Phil's radio interviews with Anthony Scorcia at the Scorcia On Par website. Scorcia On Par is a weekly radio show broadcast throughout the playing season on WGBB 1240 AM. Also be sure to visit and support the Long Island Studies Institute at Hofstra University, where archives of Long Island's local and regional newspapers are available for research.
For more on the Yellow Course, check out the course flyover.