A golf friend was in town and we kicked around a few course ideas prior to his arrival. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail was high on our list, but many of the courses were doing maintenance right around this time so we skipped over that idea. We decided on a trip to New York to play the well known Black Course at Bethpage State Park. We did a little reading about what to expect and decided not to bother trying to make a tee time since we live out of state. It seemed like a hassle, plus sleeping in the car would make for a good story, so we threw caution to the wind and decided to take our chances for one of the early morning times last week. I took off Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday so the plan was to leave Charlottesville after work on Tuesday and roll into the parking lot at Bethpage after midnight in hopes of playing Wednesday. If that didn’t work out then we were going to do some sightseeing on Wednesday and get the first spot for Thursday.
The first hour of tee times each day (six foursomes) are walk-up times. I was able to do some reading about the course on the trip since I wasn’t driving and got worried that we wouldn’t be getting one of those, at least for Wednesday. Everything I found indicated that we would have to be there the evening before we wanted to play. I called the information line and got a little more excited when the representative advised that most folks show up between midnight and 3am. After 6 hours in the car, $37 in tolls, and a bumpy ride on the New York roads we rolled into the golf course parking lot about 2am. It might have been the dark or the fact that we were pooped, but we couldn’t find any signs indicating where we should park after driving around the lot for 10 minutes. The good news was that there weren’t any cars where we were, but we weren’t sure if we were at the right spot. I called the information line again and surprisingly the same guy answered the phone. He instructed us to a part of the parking lot that we didn’t see and we got the first spot! I am not someone that gets excited too easily, but I was beaming that we were going to have the first tee time of the day.
I caught a couple hours of light sleep but I was too excited to get any quality sleep. Plus, other golfers started to arrive at the course and next car in line got there about 3:30am. I saw a truck parking near our car around 4:30am and it turned out to be one of the staff who told us to go check in at the proshop. This part of the process was a little disorganized in my opinion as we felt rushed to get over to the proshop to pay when it was still dark. It might just have been the impatient nature of the NYC area though, I’m not sure. We checked in, got the 6:33am tee time, and headed over to Starbucks to get some breakfast. The nice thing is that someone can leave the property after paying so we opted for a warm breakfast and got back in time to hit some range balls so it all worked out perfectly. I will add that besides the guy manning the information line (who deserves a bonus!), I wasn’t impressed with staff and the starter was one of the rudest starters that I’ve ever come across. His replies were curt and he rapped on the glass of the starter shack to get our attention instead of calling out for the 6:33 group. I was expecting the staff to be more welcoming and friendly since the course gets so much play from tourists.
As far as the course goes, it shouldn’t need any introduction as even the casual golf fan should have heard about it over the years. The course has hosted two U.S. Open’s (2002 & 2009) and was the site of the first event on the 2012 PGA Tour playoff schedule. There is a PGA Championship and Ryder Cup scheduled in coming years too so, on paper, it is the most impressive course that I’ve played. It was special to walk and swing from spots where the greats of the game have been. It cost $130 to play on a weekday morning which I’d say is reasonable considering the big events that have taken place here and that Long Island is arguably the most expensive part of the country.
The Black course is also ranked as one of the toughest courses in America and there is a sign near the 1st tee that warns someone about the difficulty. The course plays as a par 71 (only 3 par 5’s) with a whooping 74.0 rating and a 145 slope from the White tees at 6684 yards (where we played). Needless to say, I was nervous teeing off on the 1st hole. Our group set a five hour pace (walking only) so it was plenty of course for us. If I was a local and got paired up with some sticks then I wouldn’t mind giving the Blues a try just for the fun of it sometime.
The 1st hole gives an idea of what to expect for the rest of the round with narrow fairways that play at angles from the tee. I’ve played some tough driving courses over the years, but the Black course has to be one of the toughest. Most courses that I play have fairways that pinch at certain points so some strategy off of the tee will allow me to play to a wider part of the fairway. So, if there are bunkers or a narrow part of the fairway at 250 yards where I normally would hit driver, I can hit 3 wood or hybrid to lay it back and sometimes double the width of the fairway. That is not the case here and most holes need the same accuracy with a hybrid off of tee as with a driver. I picked up on this midway through my round and decided that I would favor the driver hoping to be as close to the green as possible in case I missed the fairway. Many of the holes dogleg too so sometimes I was playing across the dogleg and that narrowed the fairway even more. All the angles off of the tee with carries over the edges of bunkers and rough had me off balance from the tee.
There were plenty of other challenges besides trying to hit the fairways. If the ball ended up in the rough then most likely it was going to be a thick lie. I hit some nice drives so I didn’t play from the rough as much as I expected, but I didn’t feel comfortable trying to hit more than 7 iron in fear that I would top it. With a short iron I could still hold the green from the rough, but on some of the longer holes all I could do was pitch it back to the fairway. I missed the fairway once trying to get it back in play and just had to hack it out again. Off the rough line was some fescue and since it is still early in the season, it hadn’t grown in yet. So it wasn’t much trouble to find the ball and getting it back in play. Throw in plenty of semi-blind shots and a sea of deep bunkers on many holes and there is plenty of trouble to keep just about anyone busy. The interesting thing about the difficulty is that there isn’t a lot of “lost ball” trouble. There aren’t any forced carries over ravines and water is only in play on one hole. Because of this it allows for recovery on occasion and one bad shot shouldn’t put an “other” on the scorecard.
On the plus side I felt like I could always make a couple birdies if I got it in play off of the tee. I didn’t find the distance overwhelming because cutting the corners on some of the doglegs left mid and short irons into relatively flat greens. I was amazed that the greens, especially on the front nine, were so flat. There were some subtle breaks, but no massive ridges on most of them. The greens were mixed in size and the biggest challenge for me were the blind shots into them and the deep greenside bunkers. I noticed a few chipping areas around them too but didn’t play from any.
The course was in great shape considering the amount of play that it gets. When we were walking off of the 18th green around 11:30am the 1st tee was buzzing. There were golfers lined up and ready to go so it looked like every time would be filled that day. Because it gets a lot of play I wasn’t surprised that there plenty of divots in the fairways. Other than the divots, the fairways were cut down and the ball sat up which allowed me to put some spin on the short irons. The greens rolled great and were a speed that most golfers should be able to handle. It didn’t play like one of those courses where a putt hit a few feet past the hole would continue to trickle and turn into a 10 or 15 footer. A good putt was rewarded and a poor putt ended up with an average result. The greens didn’t have as many ball marks in comparison to the fairway divots. This was probably due to the fact that the rough was juicy and I could see the casual golfer struggling to hit the green if not in the fairway. I know I struggled from the rough as a 5 handicap so it would be tough for someone who doesn’t play much. That said the greens were receptive and there were some pretty green complexes which were framed by bunkers. The course played soft so it helped to keep tee shots from running through the fairway. I didn’t expect Long Island to be scenic, but the course was easier on the eye than I thought. I didn’t get a chance to play the other courses, but since Bethpage is easy to get to from NYC, I could see myself getting back here in the next few years. It was gloomy and cool until towards the end the round and my camera doesn’t do the best job in dark conditions so the pictures aren’t the best.
#1 (429 yard par 4):
This isn’t the most intimidating opening hole that I’ve played but it does require an accurate tee shot because of the narrow fairway. The fairway doglegs closer to the green than the tee so only the bigger hitters will be able to cut the corner. I missed it a little right and had to pitch out from behind the trees.
#2 (354 yard par 4):
This is another dogleg and the ideal tee shot is going to hug the left side or move from right to left. The 2nd shot is uphill to a blind green that was larger, and flatter, than I expected.
#3 (158 yard par 3):
I’d say this is a birdie hole if the pin is on the right half of the green. It looked like a monster green so I went right at the flag. I hit a good shot and had a birdie putt, but found that the green angles from front right to back left. That makes it important to control the distance, especially since anything over the back of the green falls off.
#4 (461 yard par 5):
I think that this is the best hole on the course. It is only 461 yards so it is probably going to end up as one of the easier holes, but I struggled to make a par. There are bunkers down the left which come into play off of the tee and then some cross bunkers which are short of the blind layup area. I hit a poor tee shot and couldn’t make it over the cross bunkers. So I was forced to lay it up short of them hoping to get it near the green from 185 to 200 yards on my 3rd. I missed the fairway and had to lay up again because of the thick rough and got up and down from 80 yards to make a par. Even if I hit a great tee shot I don’t think I would try to put it on the surface in two shots because there is a deep bunker short of the green. I think the best play is out to the right which opens up a chip into the green.
#5 (423 yard par 4):
This is a tough hole and one where I would take a bogey without playing it. The line off of the tee is tough to pick because the fairway angles to the right. The green is elevated and it is all carry onto the surface so I don’t see a way to have a birdie putt if the fairway is missed, at least for most folks.
#6 (386 yard par 4):
This is another tricky tee shot, but once that is handled it will be a short iron into smaller, but flat, green. This is the start of a stretch of holes where someone can make some birdies.
#7 (502 yard par 5):
This is a good birdie hole. It is a shorter par 5 and can be reachable if someone wants to challenge the right side to shorten the hole. I ended up on the left side of the fairway and then hit my 2nd shot into the neck of fairway about 40 yards short of the green. If I remember correctly, this is the hole where Tiger hit a huge cut on his 2nd shot after hitting it right off of the tee in a U.S. Open.
#8 (191 yard par 3):
This is the only hole with a water hazard on the course. The bank short of the green was shaved when I played so it could roll back into the water. There is a slope which divides the green into a front and back section, so it could be used as a backstop with the flag on the lower tier. There is also some slope right of the hole which might kick it on the green so it isn’t the most difficult hole to par with a solid tee shot.
#9 (385 yard par 4):
Most 385 yard par 4’s that dogleg have me thinking about hitting a 3 wood to get it in play. That normally leaves a mid iron into the green for me, but my GPS said that it was something like 220 yards to carry that fairway bunker and that was some fairway left of the bunker. I blasted a driver over the center tongue in the bunker and had just a sand wedge into the green. This is a hole where laying up might actually be harder than hitting a driver.
#10 (434 yard par 4):
The 10th kicks off the first of three tough par 4’s to start the back nine. It was into the wind when I played so the distance was the main challenge. I hit my 2nd shot short into some thick rough and had a tough chip as I couldn’t see where I needed to land it. There is a chipping area over the green which could come into play with a back pin.
#11 (421 yard par 4):
Our group struggled to figure out where to hit this tee shot. I just picked the line that looked right and took a swing. I was surprised to see that it is a narrower landing area than I expected. Sometimes there is a wide fairway on these type of semi blind tee shots, but not here. I had just a short into a front flag which was just over a false front so there is still work left after hitting the fairway.
#12 (432 yard par 4):
This one is similar to the 9th so my GPS helped out here. The bunkers can be carried and I even hit a 3 wood to keep it from running through the fairway if I missed right of my line. The green was receptive for a mid or long iron and the miss short is probably the best play if someone cannot get it onto the surface.
#13 (480 yard par 5):
This par 5 snakes it way up to the green as it goes a little right off of the tee and then a bit back left before straightening out. The key is to avoid the bunkers on the tee shot and on the layup. If that can be done it should be a decent birdie chance.
#14 (152 yard par 3):
I’d like to try this one again as I threw away a couple strokes by hooking it too much into the bunker left. Hitting this large green shouldn’t be a problem (unless you are me!) but trying to two putt is going to be tough. It is a birdie hole depending on where the flag is located because it is just a mid or short iron.
#15 (430 yard par 4):
This is one of the holes that I remember from the TV coverage. Like the 1st hole, the dogleg starts closer to the green so only the longer hitters can cut the corner. The drive needs to hug the left side for a shorter shot into the elevated green. Anything out of position off of the tee won’t give much of a chance to get to the green because it is all carry up the hill. To complicate things the green has a ridge in the middle which makes the short game shots tough.
#16 (457 yard par 4):
This par 4 plays from an elevated tee which takes some yards off. Once finding the fairway, the 2nd shot needs to be well thought out because the pin was tucked near the right greenside when I played. It is a well earned par if someone can manage one.
#17 (195 yard par 3):
This was the toughest hole on the course for me. The green is quite wide, but not deep (at least where that front right pin is) and surrounded by bunkers. I didn’t think that I could hit a normal long iron and hold the green so I tried to hit a high draw and made a mess of it. Somehow I walked away with a bogey, but if I play this hole again I am going to fire at the deeper left side of the green no matter where the pin is and try to end up with a long putt or chip for birdie. There is a lot of trouble and not too many places to bail out here.
#18 (394 yard par 4):
I went as far back as possible for the picture so it looks like it a long one. I teed off at the normal yardage and had only a sand wedge into the green since it was downwind. The fairway looks as wide as a parking aisle and I’d say that is true. The fairway bunkers left and right are pretty nasty, but with just a short iron there should be an ability to recover with a decent lie. The 2nd shot is uphill to a blind green so it was a bit of a guess for me on the distance.