FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — How much fun would this year’s PGA Championship be if they made the world’s best players line up at 4:45 AM in the parking lot to get a tee time?
That’s the hour I had to get there last month, sitting in my car in a numbered spot (I was No. 29), waiting for the marshal to start handing out bakery tickets at 5 AM that then got me in to the check-in room. State employee Mike Azzue has been working as the parking lot gatekeeper for 15 years and often sees 100-plus cars lined up. On this mid-April morning there were only half that total – partly because tee times on the famed Bethpage Black Course, home of the PGA in a month, didn’t start until 9 AM. They were limiting play in the run up to the championship. Plus it was cold and the ground was wet from an unusually rainy spring.
Some people park out all night waiting for a tee time. No wonder the course seems like an ordeal. By the time you get to the first tee you’re confronted by notice of the challenges that lay ahead. “WARNING – The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers.”
Welcome to public golf at its grandest. The Black Course is the crown jewel of a five-course facility owned and operated by the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. That’s a government entity, which makes Bethpage State Park a municipal layout. All 1,400 acres of it – 2.2 square miles of prime real estate straddling the border of Nassau and Suffolk Counties, 35 miles due east of Times Square.
Bethpage Black owes its epic scale and character to the glacial action of Ice Age shaping and deposition, ending 14,000 years ago. The broad, dramatic slopes proved perfectly adaptable to golf on a massive scale, which is exactly what course architect A.W. Tillinghast reveled in.
The result, opened in 1936 and admired and feared ever since by public golfers, is a demanding eight-mile walk from first tee to 18th green. For the PGA Championship, May 15-18, the course clocks in at 7,459 yards, par 70. For reference to everyday play, those show on the scorecard as a par 71 with a 77.5 rating and a 155 slope. When it comes to accommodating normal play, the Black Course only makes modest concessions; the forward tees are 6,220 yards, with a 71.4 rating/144 slope for men and 77.8/150 for women. Thus the warning sign.
During the 1970s and 1980s upkeep on the site did not keep pace with the quality of the design, but all that changed in the late 1990s when the U.S. Golf Association determined to rehabilitate the place and hold U.S. Opens there in 2002 and 2009, with the help of designer Rees Jones. The routing of the tees-fairways-greens have remained unchanged, though Jones reshaped all the bunkers from Tillinghast’s original wild shaping to more modern, steep-faced cookie-cutter molding whose formalism is at odds with the site’s native crumply look.
Director of grounds Andy Wilson and crew have the place looking great. Any concerns that the course would not green up and grow out given the earlier spring date compared to recent PGA Championship’s have been allayed. The Poa annua/ryegrass fairways are thick and lush and the Poa/bentgrass greens are in fine form. The roughs will also be thick thanks to the combination of bluegrass, Poa, tall fescue and rye. Of course the most dramatic aesthetic element is the far rough that frames the hole corridors - native fescues combined with Big and Little bluestem.
Tillinghast designed wide fairways. They have been reduced in the restoration to pencil-thin landing areas, 24-26 yards wide. It makes for an awkward look, with those Barbie-doll-waist fairways completely out of scale when sitting amidst the wide corridors and the far-flung array of fairway bunkering. It’s the fate of too many East Coast layouts that they’ve been jury-rigged so forcefully – in a way that reduces most of the fairway bunkering from strategic vitality to overcooked ornamentation.
Nowhere with more irrelevance than at the 411-yard 18th hole, where an endless array of rococo bunkering just reinforces a simple message – the need to hit it straight. For all the length of the place many of today’s leading players will hit half a dozen irons and fairway metals off the tees here.
The occasional diagonal interlude of sand is a thrill to negotiate. The best example comes at the 478-yard, par-4 fifth hole, where a hundred yard long fairway bunker on the right edges into the already-narrow landing area to make it imperative you hit your tee shot at the precise left-to-right angle. Otherwise the drive will find deep sand on the right or gnarly rough on the left.
The greens, it must be said, are fairly tame. They are not, as often claimed, flat. Rather, they sit unidimensional along a basic continuous cross slope. In some cases if they were rolling any faster they wouldn’t offer any usable hole locations because the ball would not stop. Case in point, the two-tier green at the uphill par-4 15th hole, 484 yards to a putting surface sitting 40 feet above the fairway. It’s the No. 1 handicap hole for good reason, and even with the green having been rebuilt after the 2009 U.S. Open it feels like it’s about to slide off the hill it sits on.
Despite these structural limits, the Black Course offers powerful golf. For the PGA Championship, the par 4s are indeed substantive, averaging 460.5 yards. For everyday players these holes from upward tees are still all you can handle. And there’s something about the view from the tee of the par-5 4th hole, a 511-yard chicane, that makes you marvel the artistry of the classic-era designers. Too bad the shriveled fairway doesn’t properly engage the bunkering.
These judgments aside, Bethpage Black is still one impressive piece of golf ground. And the other four courses there, all part of Bethpage State Park, are each engaging in their own right. There’s a reason the place collectively is home to 225,000 rounds a year. Not everyone in the parking lot is there to play the Black Course.
Nor do you have to dance that parking lot choreography in order to get a tee time. Once the dust from the PGA Championship settles, the park will rely upon a mix of in-person and advanced online access with residents able to book 7 days in advance and non-residents 5 days ahead of time). Green fees are $65 weekday/$75 weekend for New York State residents; $130/$150 for non-residents. There are no carts allowed; you can walk and carry, take a pull cart or book a caddie in advance.
Before trying it yourself, watch for how the pros handle the course during the PGA Championship. Once you’re out there on the Black Course, you’ll be reminded, once again, of the gap between those players and the rest of us. There’s a logic to the warning sign.