The Black Course at Bethpage turned the big 8-0 today, joining its sibling courses and fellow octogenarians Green, Red and Blue. The youngster of the group -- the Yellow Course -- still has two-plus decades to go.
Bethpage Black opened for play on May 31, 1936, marking the completion of an ambitious golf-course construction project at the newly formed Bethpage State Park that provided construction jobs for hundreds of workers during the Depression era.
"People's Country Club At Bethpage Park Now Has Four Golf Courses," read a headline in the May 31 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The article began, "America's largest and most complete golf grounds are located at Bethpage State Park, nestling in a rolling wooded tract north of Farmingdale and bordering the village of Central Park."
Today the Black Course is known for its presence in the U.S. Open and Barclays rotation, its Warning sign, its dominance in public-course rankings and as a sleep-in-the-car, bucket-list type of attraction among serious golfers. When it was completed 80 years ago, it was the finishing touch on a new golf facility built at a time when more and more courses and clubs were closed or abandoned, choked out by the financial strife of the 1930s.
Black's big, shining moment took place 14 years ago when it hosted the 2002 U.S. Open. Most people know the story that was recounted often in the lead up to and during that tournament -- how A.W. Tillinghast's course was an unpolished gem that had fallen into disrepair, waiting to gleam once again; how its loyal public players knew of the Black's greatness all along, and now the pros and the rest of the golf world would find out for themselves. The rambunctious crowds that week in June 2002 only enhanced the story.
John Feinstein detailed the Black's backstory in his 2003 book, Open: Inside the Ropes at Bethpage Black. Feinstein told how in 1994, USGA executive director David Fay walked the course one evening to either confirm or abandon his wild thoughts of the Black as a viable championship venue. Years of neglect and diverted revenue had taken its toll, but the bones of the course were still intact. Fay stood on the green at the par-3 third and made his way toward the fourth tee, with its famous glacier bunker in the distance. "That's when I knew," Fay said. "Right there, it hit me."
Even before it opened, many knew of the Black's greatness. Benjamin Van Schaick of the Long Island State Park Commission accurately predicted the appeal of the new 72-hole facility. "When the entire plan of these four courses is completed entirely," he wrote in Golf Illustrated in April 1934, "it is quite probable that the Bethpage collection of seventy-two holes will take rank among the great Meccas of the golfing world."
According to Bethpage historian and author Phil Young, the Black Course fell on hard times only a few years after it opened thanks to the onset of World War II. Both the Black and Blue courses closed during the war and grew ragged, eventually needing rehab in order to open for the 1945 season.
Pace of play is thought of as a modern issue, but it didn't take long for complaints to roll in about slow rounds. "It's a tribute to the publinxers' spirit, the way they keep coming out -- rain or shine -- to grapple with the mob for a share of fun and exercise," wrote Newsday's Bill Searby. "Even during the week," at Bethpage and other Nassau courses, "the fairway traffic is clogged and tiresome." Searby concluded, "Unless local government or some private investor bankrolls new layouts ... Long Island's duffers are doomed to a life of snail's-pace, wearisome golf."
The article was written in August 1951.
Decades later, slow play and conditioning remained a hot topic. "Hackers Create Problems on the Bethpage Black," read a Newsday headline in July 1982. "Why couldn't golfers be asked to qualify to play the Black by submitting 10 attested scorecards under 100?" wrote Jim Smith, quoting a high-handicapper concerned about the course's pace of play and its ragged conditions. As for course maintenance, "We water by hand. It would take $2 million for an automatic irrigation system," said park superintendent Eric Siebert at the time. "People are playing other courses with new types of grasses, new chemicals, maybe more modernized than we are. We just don't have the funds to do more."
When the funds did arrive prior to the '02 Open, it allowed not only for the rehabilitation and rebirth of Bethpage Black, but the same for other courses in the state park system, most notably Montauk Downs. Rees Jones restored his father's Montauk course after his work at Bethpage and turned that layout into one of the most highly regarded municipal courses as well.
So tip your cap today to Bethpage Black, smile for a pic with the Warning sign, and be thankful you don't have to turn in scorecards at the window to nab a tee time.
[PICTURED ABOVE RIGHT: Approach to the fourth green. MIDDLE RIGHT: Tiger Woods teeing off toward the glacier bunker during the 2002 U.S. Open (Copyright USGA/John Mummert). BOTTOM LEFT: The Black's eighth green in the 1950s (Courtesy Tillinghast Association). BOTTOM RIGHT: The famous Warning sign at the first tee.]