After seeing Phil Mickelson birdie three of his first four holes in the first round of the 2002 U.S. Open, course superintendent Craig Currier started to get nervous. He radioed his boss, Dave Catalano, director of Bethpage State Park, home to five courses including the Black, which was hosting the national championship for the first time.
“Big Dog, we’re in big trouble,” said Currier, who had led a Herculean effort to prepare the course for its star turn as the first municipal layout to host the Open. As indicated in the warning on the 1st tee, the Black course had a reputation for difficulty that bordered on the mythical. Yet here was Mickelson, starting fast on the back nine, threatening to shatter that myth.
Seven years later, on the eve of the Open’s return to Bethpage, it’s a well-known piece of golf history that the Black ultimately repelled all comers. The layout’s prodigious length, difficult setup punctuated by thick rough (made even sterner by foul weather), and slippery though not overly sloped greens that were running at close to 15 feet on the Stimpmeter by Sunday yielded only one score in red numbers: Tiger Woods’ 3-under 277.
When the Open returns this June, look for a Black course that is less sinister. Lessons from the ’02 Open, combined with a shifting—some might say enlightened—notion of how a U.S. Open course should play, has significantly influenced the setup for this year.
Working with Currier and Mike Davis, the U.S. Golf Association’s senior director of rules and competition, Rees Jones made a number of course changes designed to add interest and flexibility as well as a little more muscle. Together they have written the latest chapter in the evolving history of one of the greatest public golf courses in the world.
Located about 35 miles east of Manhattan, Bethpage Black was laid out by A.W. Tillinghast on wooded, hilly land that had previously been a private estate. It opened in 1936, the third of three layouts (after the Red and the Blue) that the Golden Age architect designed as part of a New Deal project spearheaded by Robert Moses. From the park’s earliest days, the courses were celebrated as a country club for the masses. “Where Millions Play” declared a headline in the Brooklyn Eagle in May 1935.
Over the decades, heavy volume and the lack of an adequate maintenance budget left Bethpage’s courses in a disheveled state. Prior to Jones’ initial restoration, begun in 1997 in preparation for the 2002 Open, the Black’s intimidating character was due not only to its monumental scale but also from how overgrown it had become.
I learned this all too well as a collegiate golfer competing on the Black in the early 1990s. A solid round could go heartbreakingly awry at almost every turn, whether in a huge untended bunker or amid the impenetrable brush and tall grass that lined most of the holes.
One year, the sand in the massive bunkers was so unkempt that the committee allowed players to lift, smooth and place balls in the hazards. Otherwise, we might never have been able to get out of the sand.
“Back then,” says Catalano, who began working at Bethpage in 1967, “if you hit in the rough you could be next to a young tree, a giant weed or God knows what else.”
Jones’ first renovation cleaned up all that. He reshaped all but one bunker on the course—the large sandy waste area off the tee on the par-5 7th (converted to a par 4 for the Open)—and moved the greenside hazards closer to the putting surfaces. He also restored the bunkers’ trademark Tillinghast noses and fingers, particularly on the massive cross bunker at the uphill 517-yard par-5 4th (above), the strategically finest and most artful hole on the course.
The second time around, Jones’ biggest changes are five new tees, on the now 232-yard 3rd, 478-yard 5th, 460-yard 9th, 605-yard 13th and the 525-yard par-4 7th. (In a first for the U.S. Open, Bethpage will have a par 4 that is longer than a par 5, the 4th.) Overall, the par-70 Open course stretches 7,426 yards, 212 yards longer than in 2002. In addition, Jones added fairway bunkers along the left side of the landing area of the 13th hole to add difficulty to the drive.
Although the Black is longer, the course should be more playable this time around, thanks to a more flexible setup designed to foster more of the kind of risk-reward play that was in evidence last year at Torrey Pines in San Diego.
To that end, the USGA has widened fairways and expanded chipping areas, most significantly behind the green of the 517-yard 4th, which will entice players to go for the green in two instead of laying up.
Another significant difference will be in the maintenance of the rough. Following the practice of recent Opens, it will be mown in a more graduated fashion, so the penalty for missing a fairway by two yards will be much less than it will be for missing it by five or more.
Currier has also tried, by reducing fertilizer and overseeding, to make the rough wispier than has been traditional at Bethpage. The goal is to prompt players to reach for a long iron or utility club for their second shots rather than pitching back into the fairway. “It makes for more exciting golf than when you’re just wedging out all the time and flipping sand wedges into the green from 100 yards,” says Currier.
Finally, just as at Torrey, Davis plans to use multiple tee boxes on some holes during the championship’s four rounds to add interest and suspense. Although there are no true driveable par 4s at Bethpage, the USGA will try to entice players to hit drivers on the 408-yard 6th, where the fairway has been extended from the landing area all the way down the hill to the green. In 2002 the slope was maintained as rough, forcing players to lay up.
In addition, Jones says that he has talked with the USGA about building a new forward tee on the downhill 490-yard par-4 16th. The new tee would make the green, one of the least protected on the course, reachable with a well-played drive.
Back in the day, the notion of the Black having a driveable par 4—on its closing stretch, no less—would have been unthinkable. How times, and the game, can change.