Bethpage Black – Farmingdale, New York Guru's Rating: 9.7
Non-Resident Weekend Rate (no carts): $150
Playing Bethpage Black is a full body experience. Your legs are pushed to exhaustion. Your back is strained. Your mind becomes disoriented. Your eyes continuously deceive you. Just about the only part of your existence that isn’t in severe disarray after a round in the torture chamber known as “The Black” is your golfing soul. Your golfing soul has never been more alive.
I probably can’t reveal any new facts about Bethpage State Park’s renowned Black course that haven’t already been documented, but the course remains – as Robert Moses famously proclaimed it – “The People’s Country Club.” With a powerhouse combination of history, beauty, conditioning, unforgettable layout, and accessibility to all, The Black is the highest quality public golf available in the Tri-State area.
Until this past August, I had never set foot in Farmingdale. I watched both the 2002 and 2009 US Opens on TV and was enchanted by the scene. Loud, New York crowds. A course with an edge. Legendary routing. I had heard the stories of people sleeping in their cars to get tee-times; of quirky rules (no carts?!? ). This was a place regarded as a golf Mecca. But I didn’t “get it” until I walked the course during the 2012 Barclays.
I found myself marveling at the vast bunkers, with sand so white it looked like it was shuttled in from The Hamptons. From tee boxes that felt as high as the clouds, I looked out at perfect greens, fairways, and natural beauty, blindingly colorful to the point that I could have sworn I was gazing at a painting. I chuckled to myself at the gargantuan length of the holes, the depth of the rough, the utter beast-ness (if that’s a word) of the layout. As I watched from up close as Tiger, Phil, and Rory shook their heads as their seemingly perfect looking shots got plugged, buried, and stuck, one thought kept popping into my head: I can play this course myself. ANYONE can play this course. It’s PUBLIC. And just $75 on a weekend for New York State residents!
A couple of weeks later when the stands had been collapsed and the scoreboards were carted away, I stood on the first tee myself, taking in the vista of the opening 429-yard par-4 that we all know so well from tournaments and magazines. To say I’ve never been that nervous for a tee-shot would be putting it lightly. For starters, we went off at the exact minute our tee-time came up (how many public courses are that serious on a weekend?). We also had a gallery: golfers and random locals mulling around. But above all, I was giddy for my virgin expedition on The Black. Somehow, despite anxiety and wobbly legs, I striped a drive to the perfect spot at the corner of the dog-leg, leaving just a wedge to the tiny, well-guarded first green. My walk down the fairway was one of a champion, but Bethpage quickly knocked me down to size and showed who was boss: my approach found the right bunker and I walked away with a bogey.
For the next six hours (how long a round at The Black often lasts on a weekend), I played the most difficult course of my life. If you’ve only seen Bethpage Black on television, allow me to explain what – in my opinion – makes it so absurdly difficult (and justifies an eye-popping 74 rating/145 slope from the middle tees).
1. The Length. Measuring 6684 from the middle tees (7366 from the back), most of The Black’s par-4’s play like Par-5’s. Bomb a drive, and you’ve still likely got 170-200 yards to the green. You have very little room for error on your approach – and to be faced with this challenge from such a long distance is just cruel.
2. Elevated, Protected Greens. The Black is anything but flat. You’re constantly aiming at greens that appear to be perched on mountains. It’s the SUBTLE raises, however, that prove to be most difficult. For example, the 10th-hole, a 434 yard par-4 (502 from the tips), looks straight-forward. But the green is elevated JUST enough that you need to CARRY your approach to the green. If you don’t, you’re buried in the rough or plugged in one of two DEEP green-side bunkers. Rolling an approach up to the green on any of The Black’s holes just doesn’t happen. You had better have a club in your hand that you can carry to the green.
3. The Sand And The Rough. Get stuck in either one and you simply need to take your medicine. Unless, of course, you have the ability to hit small, elevated greens with bunkers all around them from 180-yards out from thick rough. If that’s something you are comfortable with, you’re probably on the PGA Tour, so hey – congrats on that! For every green I missed, my reward was a “fried egg” lie in the (unusually) heavy sand. I needed a shovel to dig out my ball, not a golf club. Those bunkers seem to stretch hundreds of yards around the greens, making the greens virtual islands. What I learned (by the back nine), is that if you miss a fairway on a long par-4, play it like a par-5. Hack out of the rough, leave yourself an easy wedge to the green. If you make a four, great…if not, be happy with a five. But whatever you do, if you’re stuck in the rough, don’t try to be a hero and reach these crazy greens in two.
Bethpage Black is hard…really, really hard. Too hard, some argue, to be enjoyable for the average golfer. And it’s a grueling trek: from start-to-finish, the course is eight miles of (required) walking, up-and-down hills, through thick terrain. So unless you’re a glutton for punishment, it’s not a spot for your weekly Saturday four-ball; it’s more of a monthly (or seasonal) experience and that’s the only reason why I can’t give it a perfect 10/10 score. That said, the Black is worthy of my highest score to date (9.7) because it is far and away the best this area has to offer. We’ve just talked about the course itself – which always seems to be “Major Ready” condition-wise – but take a stroll through the memorabilia-laden clubhouse, or the unparalleled, well-stocked and elaborate Pro Shop – and you’ll believe you’re in Public Golf Heaven. Ultimately, that’s the best part about Bethpage: it’s a course that we all can take out for a spin.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the ferocious debate that exists about who actually designed The Black. Until about 2009, it was commonly accepted that the legendary architecht A.W. Tillinghast was the brainchild, adding to his roster of magnificent and challenging layouts. Recently, however, there have been revelations that Tillinghast may have simply been a “consultant” on the project (which was part of Robert Moses’ public works initiative in the 1920s, creating the country’s largest state park) – and that the actual creator of the routing was Moses’ employee Joseph Burbeck, who later became the course superintendent. It’s a fascinating question and one that I don’t believe has a clear cut answer.
Most Memorable Hole: Can’t possibly name just one. Or just two. My three favorites: #4, #8, and #15. The fourth is a 461-yard par-5 which resembles a staircase: three steps ascending to an elevated green. After your tee shot (which has to avoid a diagonal bunker on the left), you must loft a layup over a bulky set of traps that adorn the second “step” on the mountain. Of course, you can go for the green in two, but it’s all-carry (due to green-side bunkers and rough) uphill.
Water comes into play just once at The Black: on #8, a gorgeous 191-yard downhill par-3. A large oak tree’s branches jut out across the right side of the green and the landing area has been shaved off recently, leading to more splashes on short tee-shots.
The fifteenth hole is a monster: a 430-yard par-4 that plays about 530 yards. The course’s number one handicap, a narrow fairway on 15 is flanked by thick rough. The green’s location takes elevation to another level. It’s a brutish approach. If you stand at the base of the area leading up to the green, you are essentially looking 90 degrees upward.
Most Challenging Hole: Um….all of them? If I had to pick one though, it would be the 480-yard par-5 13th. You have to play this hole perfectly for a chance at par. It’s extremely long, extremely tight, and extremely treacherous, with bunkers all over the map. Miss right and you’re in the woods; miss left and you’re in a horrific trap. The green (once you get up there, which feels like an eternity) slopes sharply from back to front and is as slick as they come. And then of course there’s the trademark rough surrounding the green. Just brutal.
Guru’s Tip: How does one get on The Black? The sleeping-in-car images seem to have perpetuated the idea that securing a tee-time is impossible. It used to be, but that couldn’t be further from the truth these days. While The Black remains a tough ticket because of its popularity, New York State’s automated tee time phone system rewards persistence. Keep calling – people do cancel and times open up at the last minute. If you’re willing to take a chance, there is a good shot you can get a decent time as a single (or two-some) by just walking up. A pain in the you-know-what: yes. But you have to really want it anyway to play The Black.
Just about everyone has an opinion or a story about Bethpage Black, so please share yours below!