Proper Golf

Friday, January 21, 2011

Review: Bethpage Black

Bethpage State Park
The Black Course, 1936
Architect: A.W. Tillinghast (Renovation Rees Jones 2002)
Farmingdale, NY

Hired by The Long Island Parks Commission to design one of the largest public golf facilities anywhere, A.W. Tillinghast had the job of designing at least three different 18 hole golf courses, and renovating another. The four, now five golf courses increase in difficulty according to a color code. Spread out over a large sandy property located near central Long Island, The Black Course was designed to be the most difficult of bunch, and it certainly is. Anyone who has played The Black can tell you, it not only beats you up on the scorecard, but is one of the hardest walks one will ever take on a golf course. (Yes- Its Walking Only!)

Aerial View of the Black Course, note the road
splitting the course into two distinct sections

Although there is always debate about how much of the design and construction A.W. Tillinghast was actually responsible for. At least partial credit is given to Joseph Burbeck. Either way, one cant really explain the beast that is The Black Course without first talking about the routing. The course is clearly divided into two pieces, not the traditional front/back or in/out, but rather a steep section of property where the clubhouse, opening hole #1 and closing stretch of of #15-18 are located. The remaining holes, where the real meat of the course lie, stretch out through forest and tall grass meadows, all the way to a small pond, before turning back towards the road.

As noted by the famous sign posted on the first tee, The Black Course is an extremely difficult course. One of the most demanding courses in the world, The Black Course is famous for its length, forced carries off the tee and elevated, well guarded green sites. The only thing that keeps this public beast playable is one of the most gently contoured sets of greens Tillinghast ever designed. Compared to the likes of Winged Foot, Fenway, Quaker Ridge or Baltusrol, The Black Course has relatively flat greens. Unfortunately Bethpage Black gets a bad rap for always having super narrow fairways, and ankle high rough, while mostly a product of recent US Opens and other State events, The Black Course could be improved for everyday enjoyment by widening of some fairways back to their intended widths, to allow for greater latitude on tee shots and angles around various hazards that await golfers on nearly every hole.

A classic Tillinghast template hole #4 is one
of the most interesting par-5's in the world

The opening stretch of holes #'s 1-3 appear rather benign, but not do not be surprised if you get drawn into the trees, trying to cut the corners of the doglegs at #1 or #2 in search of an early birdie. With the infamous double dogleg #4 and one of the most impressive diagonal hazards anywhere waiting for you at #5, having to play a long iron into the par-3 third is not easy either. Any ball tailing away from the right side of #3 runs the risk of winding up with one of the hardest up and downs on the course, catching the hillside into the woods below.

Holes #4 and #5 capture the true spirit of Bethpage Black. The long par-5 #4 gets all the pictures, and rightfully so. With tall gold grass bordering some of the most impressive bunkering the great depression produced, if you don't get excited to play this double dogleg and take on the Glacier Bunker, I suggest you find another game. The hole is actually easier than it looks, but golfers are so excited and often deceived, they to try to take on the long carries and get caught up in the massive bunkers. What is often missed in discussion of this hole is the contouring of the fairway inside 100 yards and how it truly is sculpted to reward a golfer who accurately lays up their 2nd shot on the right. This is the single most important design theory implored by Tillinghast, and what much of modern design is missing today.

Diagram stylized to resemble Tilly's sketches

On the 5th hole Tillinghast immediately follows with more heart pumping risk/reward forced carries. First on the tee, the golfer is forced to take on at least part of the Sahara complex, Tilly's take on a classic architectural feature. Set diagonally to the landing zone, a player who is willing to take on a longer carry up the right side of the bunker, the easier angle for the approach becomes. For at least the third time in five holes, the green must be approached through the air; elevated on a hillside and surrounded by rough grass, Dr. MacKenzie would not be able to play this hole entirely with his putter.

The surface of the green cannot be seen from the
fairway on #5, adding to its difficulty.

The next stretch of the course guides us into and around the far corner of the property. While #6 which is one of the few holes on the course that normally doesn't require a driver off the tee, it has an island green, completely surrounded by two large multiple fingered bunkers. The par-5 #7, which is also a great three shot hole for the everyday golfer, has lost a lot of its strategic intent for the games best players, and plays as a par-4 in professional tournaments. A.W. Tillinghast did not believe in designing par-5's to be reached in two. Holes #8 and 9 have had some of the more dramatic changes on the course. The chipping area and false front on #8 and the bunker that takes away from the intended variety from a mound as a driving hazard, being replaced by Rees Jones and the USGA as a bunker in the corner of the dogleg.

Yet another forced carry at #10

The Black Course plays through the most open section of the property for holes #10-12. Back in the aesthetically pleasing golden tall grass often found on Long Island's great courses, and reminiscent of England's heathland courses. On the 11th tee, Tillinghast isn't afraid to use the native grass as a typical hazard, or to create visual uncertainty adding to the never ending string of demanding golf holes at Bethpage Black.

#12 is another example of the interesting risk/reward
problems awaiting golfers on the tees of The Black Course

Once you cross back over the road, playing through two more holes which have had some major changes by Rees Jones and the USGA, The Black Course shows its teeth again with a demanding finish. The final four holes play up and down the steepest section of the course, and after what is known to take 4 hours just to this point, #15 is the hardest hole on the golf course.

Bethpage Black #15, as hard as golf gets

#15 appears much easier than it actually is. First the angle of the drive is bound to suck you down the left side off the tee using a Pete Dye-esque angle. Tillinghast marches you up to the top of a hillside where the steepest green on the golf course is waiting. While it may not be the longest on the scorecard, #15 will often play as the longest par-4 on the course because of the severe uphill 2nd shot. Although I have not seen it for myself yet, #15 green apparently has undergone renovation to soften the green contour. An architectural tragedy, even today's tour players are unable to handle parts of The Black Course because of unplayable maintenance methods, which in turn cause architectural changes.

Behind Rory McIlroy, one of the games youngest and best
players, you can see the narrow terraced green of #17

After playing #16, another long par-4 back down the hill, you immediately turn around again for the long par-3 #17 set into the same hillside. #17 is the last real test The Black Course has to offer, as shown is the most recent US Open won by Lucas Glover in 2009. The narrow hour-glass shaped green is split into 2 tiers. If one fails to leave the ball bellow the hole on the front-to-back slope, or has to putt across from one tier to the other, big numbers can start to come into play. Phil Mickleson and David Duval were among a few world class players who saw their chances at a US Open title slip away at #17

The walk down the big hill from #18 to the fairway...

#18 is probably least interesting hole on the course. After hoofing your bag for roughly a 6 mile walk across the large state park in Farmingdale, most likely way over par, the smart thing to do would be to play short of the bunkers that pinch the fairway, and leave a full shot for the final approach to a well guarded, elevated green site. Obviously its the natural response by the amateur golfer like myself to pull out the driver and wail away one more time, leaving an awkward partial wedge shot and the chances of textbook par unlikely for the last hole at one of America's best public golf courses.

... only to be faced with this for your final approach. The walk
up to #18 green feels vertical after a typical 6 hour round.

Bethpage Black is flat out one of the best tests of golf in the world, however it doesn't lack problems. Obviously it has a bad reputation for long rounds, and has undergone some architecturally unfortunate modifications in order to host Major Championships, but The Black Course is surely a fabulous treat for locals, New York residents, and all who want a chance to play both classic architecture, championship venues, and all at a reasonable price.

The Black Course is not the best Tillinghast course, and it is not the best course on Long Island, but it clearly belongs in the discussion because of its collection of world class golf holes. Any course containing the holes#4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, and 15 surely has its place amongst the best in the world. The only reason if restored to its original design (non tournament setup) that it would not considered as a masterpiece would be because of the lack of green contour. I once posed the question to Tom Doak in the bar of the Bandon Dunes resort: "As a native New Yorker, which do you prefer? Long Island or Westchester? Winged Foot West or Bethpage Black? Mets or Yankees" He replied, "Long Island because of the sand. Winged Foot because of the greens. And the Yankees, although the Mets were the better choice at the time." Ironically, the lack of green contour is the only thing keeping the course fun and playable.

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