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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

Bethpage Black: From Asphalt Bunkers to the U. S. Open

My favorite golf tournament each year has always been the U. S. Open. For me growing up as a budding golf course architect, the U. S. Open was always played on the classic golden age venues I fell in love with, especially growing up in the suburbs of New York City. Despite the narrow fairways and the high rough which rendered most golf course features irrelevant during the hottest week in June, the lay of the land always stood out to me and is a big part of why the routing of a golf course is always my most intriguing feature of golf course design.

The first U. S. Open I was lucky enough to attend was when Fuzzy Zoeller beat Greg Norman in a playoff on the West Course of Winged Foot Golf Club in 1984. My family lived just a few blocks from the course until I was seven years old, but by the time this Open rolled around we had moved to nearby Rye and my Mother was stuck in the same traffic heading up Mamaroneck Road that almost caused Tom Watson to miss his tee-time one day that week. Greg Norman’s back nine short game mastery that Sunday will forever be etched in my memory, more so than the flag waving by both he and Fuzzy.

Since that Open, I have been fortunate enough to take in at least a day at numerous Opens and have fond memories of them all. But Thursday’s round at Bethpage Black in the 2002 U. S. Open was extra special for me because my favorite golf tournament was being played on my favorite golf course and I was there to witness it. Like many New Yorkers past and present, there was a certain sense of pride that our golf course was all grown up and was going out into the world. Bethpage Black had come a long way from when I played the course in the mid-eighties. I had mixed feelings as well because suddenly our little secret would be out.

It has been well-documented how the State of New York put millions of dollars into renovating the Black Course under the direction of Rees Jones and if you are not a resident of the state, how it is virtually impossible to gain a tee time there without a lot of cash. We’ve also been inundated with stories of reporters and others’ escapades sleeping in their cars at 2:00 AM hoping to position themselves for a tee time at daybreak. Well here’s mine…

When people ask me what my favorite golf course is, I unhesitatingly respond, “Bethpage Black” and then I describe the anomaly of the Bethpage experience. See, Bethpage Black is such a great piece of ground that a future golf architect would describe the following as a great experience of life while others may consider the sport of fingernail removal by pliers as more palatable. Bethpage Black is the only place one would consider getting up at 5:00 in the morning to drive three hours in Westchester and Long Island bumper to bumper traffic only to arrive at a place where you have to entertain yourself for another four hours as you await the prospect of traversing a golf course that greets you on the first tee with a sign stating,


The Black Course Is An

Extremely Difficult Golf Course

Which We Recommend Only

For Highly Skilled Golfers

Once you’re tee time is called, you proceed to play a six-hour round, lose eight balls, finish the last four holes in a makeshift seven-some just to finish before dark, and shoot ten over your average. But you loved every minute of it. The great golden-age golf architect George Thomas once said, “The first time I visited a Municipal course, I was astounded by the fury of the battle”. The odyssey of a round at Bethpage Black is your visual.

So what makes the Black course so special? As I mentioned earlier, for me it is the routing on a great piece of rolling Long Island meadow and woods. Playing from high point to high point and along vast ridges, the flow and rhythm of the golf course is unparalleled. Short interspersed with long, up and down, and doglegs left and right, the golf course’s variety makes it memorable.

My favorite of the eighteen is the fourth hole and my first time stepping on the tee is one of my most memorable moments as a golf architect. Whereas the first few holes are good, they are for the most part confined regarding views. Both two and three are completely wooded. None of these opening holes truly gives the golfer any inkling of the vast, rolling property. A great landscape architecture trick of concealing the big picture until the very last moment can describe the experience as one putts out on the third green. That green sits on a plateau about fifty feet up in the air, surrounded by trees. Turning to the left, the golfer walks downhill through a small opening in the woods and steps onto the fourth tee. At that moment, a breathtaking view of rolling fairway slightly rising and turning around a corner to the left dramatically takes you from a confined space to one of vast openness. The bunkers are cut into respective hillsides as the fairway slowly rises. Then you’ve got to play golf.

From then on, every hole plays over a hazard which challenges you to cut a corner to gain an advantage. Few bunkers are placed as penalty. All are nestled into the existing landscape as if they were part and parcel of God’s creation. My fascination with the course came when the bunkering was less than impressive. Trees grew out of edges, an occasional piece of asphalt may slowly bubble to the surface, and there was little grass framing the hazards. Rees Jones did a masterful job in sculpting incredibly artistic cape and bay stylings into the landscape, creating a hazardous palette that is as breathtaking as the ground it sits on.

This coming week will be one of the most anticipated weeks of golf in my life as my favorite tournament is contested on my favorite golf course. Enjoy. Tiger by three…

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