Walt's voice was hesitant, maybe a touch apprehensive, as if I
had invited him to, say, swim the English Channel. "The Black
Course?'' he asked. "Why not the Red Course? Or the Blue? I'm
not a very good golfer.''
Walt Bingham, a special contributor to Sports Illustrated and
the magazine's former golf editor, had first played the
merciless Black Course at Bethpage (N.Y.) State Park in the late
'50s. So when word leaked out that the United States Golf
Association was weighing the possibility of holding the U.S.
Open at Bethpage in the year 2002, I thought he might like to
join me and two other staffers and give it another look.
"I swore I'd never play that course again,'' Walt said, the
memories coming back. "It's a monster. They used to post the
waiting times at all of Bethpage's five courses. The Red might
have had a 45- minute wait. Green: 30 minutes. Yellow: one hour.
The Black Course: zero minutes. No one wanted to play it. A
couple of times we figured, What the heck -- how tough can it
be? Five holes later we'd be covered in sweat and ready to give
up the game.''
That certainly sounded like a place suitable for the U.S. Open.
With one big difference. The Black Course at Bethpage, unlike
the storied courses that traditionally host the Open --
Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Merion, or this year's site, Shinnecock
Hills, which is just 55 miles east of Bethpage -- is a public
course. Walt agreed to the outing, and I called Bethpage State
Park to find out how long our foursome could expect to wait for
a tee time if we showed up at 6 a.m. on a Thursday morning in
May. "If it's a nice day?'' the woman said. "Two to three hours.
Sometimes people sleep in their cars.''
On a recent Saturday in May, I was told, the wait had reached
four to five hours. With the advent of the golf boom, the days
when there was no wait at the Black Course are long gone. But
the appeal of teeing it up on a potential U.S. Open course where
golfers routinely spend nights in the parking lot to snag a tee
time at first light was irresistible.
My next call was to David Fay, executive director of the USGA,
to see if the rumors about the Open's possibly going to Bethpage
had merit. He confirmed that he had taken three foursomes to the
Black Course in early May to check out the suitability of the
venue, which he'd last played as a high school student 27 years
ago. "We do a lot and say a lot about the importance of building
more public golf courses,'' said Fay. "But holding the Open at a
true public facility is something we've never done. Over half
our member clubs are public in orientation. Pebble Beach and
Pinehurst are the only two public courses we play our national
championship on, but they're really resort courses. The whole
idea is still in its infancy, but it's a dream of mine to hold
the National Open at a place like Bethpage, which is the
quintessential public facility.''
Quintessential is the word. An hour's drive from Manhattan,
Bethpage State Park, which is the largest public golf complex in
the country, hosted 296,000 rounds of golf in 1994. Forty-six
thousand of them were on the Black Course, which is open from
April till early December. A new reservation system lets golfers
book tee times up to seven days in advance, but walk-ons are
welcome from 5 to 7 a.m. on a first come, first served basis.
Greens fees on the Black Course are $20 on weekdays, $25 on
weekends, with half price on weekdays for seniors.
Fay told me that four of the five courses at Bethpage were built
as a Depression-era WPA project. Some 2,400 people had been put
to work building them, and, additionally, 800 caddies were
employed when the complex opened in 1936. Everything had been
built on a grand scale. The courses were spread out over 1,100
acres of rolling woodlands. Bethpage's central clubhouse was the
largest building in Long Island's Nassau County when it was
completed, and its huge, high-ceilinged cafeteria was, according
to Fay, one of the great places in golf to have a cup of coffee
while awaiting your tee time. Fortunately, on the day we'd
chosen to play, the forecast was for thunderstorms. The parking
lot had only a dozen cars in it when Walt and I drove in at 5:25
a.m., and when we paid our money at the ticket booth, we were
given a starting time of 6:27. That made us the fourth group
off. A thick fog completely shrouded the Black Course's 1st
hole, a 430-yard, dogleg right from an elevated tee, but once
the mist burned off, it promised to be a fine spring day.
We rented pull carts for $1.50. One of the many fine things
about the Black Course, which was designed by the renowned golf
architect A.W. Tillinghast, is that motorized carts are
forbidden there. It is strictly a walking course. There are only
two sets of tees -- regular and championship -- and from the
back tees the Black Monster measures 7,065 yards and plays to
par 71. The slope rating from the championship tees, which I had
convinced our foursome we should play from, is 144. One of the
par-4s, the 12th, measures 480 yards. The 16th is 466 yards, and
there are four other par-4s of 430 yards or more, often uphill
to elevated greens. The par-5 7th is 585 yards and requires a
200-yard tee shot over a bunker the size of Rhode Island to
reach the fairway. We were going to be in for a punishing day.
The starter, 72-year-old Barney Adamo, had been one of
Bethpage's original 800 caddies when the Black Course opened. He
didn't figure it had changed very much over the years, despite
the increase in golfing traffic. It's the same old grumbling
bear it has always been.
"Everyone thinks they're John Daly,'' he said as a golfer on the
1st tee waited for the group ahead to turn the corner of the
dogleg. When the man grounded his drive into the thick rough,
Adamo nodded knowingly.
Once the foursome ahead of us disappeared into the gradually
lifting fog, we never saw them again. Given the difficulty of
the course, the pace of play, which is monitored by a polite but
vigilant ranger, was impressively quick. Anyone is allowed to
play the Black Course, but when you buy your ticket, you are
discouraged from trying the course if you don't have a low
handicap. That policy helps keep things moving.
The course is an endlessly interesting challenge. The tees
provide one visual treat after another, usually involving vast
distances and copious amounts of sand. Water only comes into
play on one hole, the 8th, a 195-yard par-3. The rough, drenched
with dew, was U.S. Open-length the day we played, two inches
long in the first cut but more than five inches in the second
cut. On certain holes there were also stretches of uncut prairie
grass that came up to a golfer's waist. A wayward ball flying
into it was as good as lost.
"I wonder if I'll recognize the tree a photographer friend threw
his putter into,'' Walt said on his way to the 5th tee. "I had
to climb up to retrieve it.''
He never found that landmark, but Walt was a wonderful sport
throughout. A 27 handicapper who was shod in sneakers and
playing with rented clubs, his only par came on the par-3 3rd
hole, which I double-bogeyed. His best drives repeatedly landed
short of the fairway, in heavy rough or in some cavernous
bunker. "I can't hit it any better than that,'' he said after
belting a good drive that failed to reach the fairway on the
15th, an uphill par-4 that measures 438 yards and plays more
like 475. His drive had nestled on the side of a bunker, amid a
tangle of vines. The green, sloping high above us like a
sleeping elephant, was still 200 yards away. Walt swung at his
ball savagely, but it didn't budge. "I can't play it,'' he said,
moving forward six inches and peering down. "I can't even find
it. I hit it a foot.'' He finally found the ball, which he
declared unplayable. "I'm on my way to a Laurel and Hardy.''
"A Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. A 10. One worse than a hangman.
Two worse than a snowman.''
Walt in fact curled in a four-footer for a 9. For the round he
shot 111. I have a seven handicap and got up and down about
seven times to squeeze out an 81, which in 10 more tries I would
not expect to improve on. Our foursome played in four hours, 10
minutes, and never waited on a shot.
"It's obviously one of Tillinghast's best,'' golf course
architect Rees Jones told me later when I asked him to critique
the Black Course. Jones was with Fay at the USGA outing in May,
and his words of praise were a mouthful. Tillinghast, who
designed more than 50 courses in his career, is certainly one of
America's greatest golf architects, with five of his courses in
the top 27 of Golf Digest's 1995-96 list of America's 100
greatest golf courses. Tillinghast's gems include the East and
West courses at Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Quaker Ridge in
Scarsdale, N.Y., the San Francisco Golf Club and Somerset Hills
(N.J.). The Black Course was the last course Tillinghast built.
Afterward he retired to Beverly Hills and opened an antiques
shop. Golf Digest omits the Black Course from its Top 100 list,
but it is regularly mentioned in Golf magazine's rankings. And
former PGA champion and television analyst Dave Marr, who last
played Bethpage 35 years ago, puts the Black Course among his
alltime top 10.
"Neither Baltusrol nor Winged Foot is in as dramatic a setting
as the Black Course,'' says Jones. "I guarantee you, if they
hold a tournament there, it'll become a world-renowned course.
It needs some work up the middle. The tees have to be redone,
and the bunkers need new sand. Some of the fairways could use
some work. The greens have become smaller over the years and
need to be brought back to their original size. But it has all
the elements the USGA looks for -- the long par-4s, and green
contours that will enable the putting surfaces to get up to Open
speed. The bunkers are larger than anything I've seen
Tillinghast do. He used to walk Pine Valley a lot, which was the
hot course of his time, and he might have been influenced by
some of the Pine Valley bunkers. The Black Course is the most
bold of any of Tillinghast's courses I've seen. I'm sure he
intended it to hold major championships.''
The Black Course has twice held the New York State Open and
annually is host to the Ivy League golf championship. But it has
never been dressed up for a major. "It would be great for
golf,'' says Jones. "This is no longer a private country club
game. More golf is played on public facilities than private
Chances seem excellent that at long last the Black Course will
get its day in the sun. Fay has yet to present a formal proposal
to the USGA board, but he's guardedly optimistic that if a few
hurdles are cleared, it'll be well received. With its huge
acreage, Bethpage can easily handle the logistics required of a
U.S. Open site: the corporate tents, the practice range,
sufficient public parking and accessibility to golf fans. A
public road that runs through the middle of the course would
have to be shut down during the tournament. But there doesn't
seem to be any insurmountable problem.
New York State Parks and Recreation commissioner Bernadette
Castro is enthusiastically behind the idea. "It would be
tremendous for Long Island and for the golf course,'' she says.
"We'd never be able to sink a million dollars of public money
into the Black Course to bring it back to its original
condition. But if the USGA were to make that investment, we'd
maintain it. Once you host a U.S. Open, you have an obligation
to keep it looking like a U.S. Open course.''
Asked if the golfers who usually play at Bethpage would object
to the course being closed a few weeks for the Open, park
superintendent Jim Evans says, "The pride it would give our
golfers, knowing the USGA was so enthused about our golf course
they'd make that sort of investment in it, would be terrific.
They'd really go for it.''
Certainly, Walt is enthusiastic about the idea. "By all means,
bring on the Open," he said after our round. "I'd like to see
the Black Course pick on someone its own size."