Bethpage--The Black Course

I have been to Bethpage numerous times as both a spectator and player. I have played the black course three times and the red course once. In 2009, I went to watch the US Open won by Lucas Glover. Due to weather, that tournament ended on a Monday, and I went to watch that final day. It is always fun to play courses where you have seen pros play because you get to recreate some of the famous shots you have seen on television. Imagine all of the shots you would be tempted to relive at Augusta--Tiger's chip on 16, Jack's putt on 15, Phil's putt on 18, Phil's shot through the trees on 13, Bubba's shot from the pine needles on 10, Larry Mize's chip on 11, and Spieth's chunked water ball on 12 (wouldn't want to relive it, but see if I could do it any better). Bethpage surely does not have this storied history, but it may soon as it is starting to rack up an impressive list of events--the 2002 US Open, the 2009 US Open, multiple Barclays championships, the 2019 PGA Championship, and the 2024 Ryder Cup.

Bethpage Black is notoriously hard. That is why it may not produce dramatic memories from professional events. There is not going to be a birdie barrage where someone goes out and steals a tournament. For the average golfer, I suggest that you do not play it from the tips. The first time I played there with my brother we reasoned that we wanted to get the full experience so we should play from the back tees--7468 yards. This was a mistake. It did not make the course unreasonably hard. Instead, it just took all the great elements of its design out of play. Our goal was to basically hit every par four in three and every par five in four and make bogey on every hole. And, honestly, it was not that difficult to do. All of the obstacles on your drive meant for the pros playing from the back tees were out of our reach. Then, instead of going for the green and bringing into play all the hazards, we wound up 40 yards short of the green and just pitched up. Overall, playing from the tips with this strategy made shooting in the low 90s quite achievable--which is not bad for the hardest course on the PGA Tour. We left thinking the course was quite boring (and exhausted given you can only walk the Black).

However, the next time we played from the correct tees--6684 yards--and the course was infinitely more interesting. Now it played like a normal golf course, but all of the interesting parts of the design were realized. We were effectively playing the same golf course the pros play from the tips, so we were playing the course as it was designed to be played.

One of the lasting impressions from the Black Course is that it is a sprawling course. It is rare that you have parallel fairways or views of other holes. There certainly are a handful of occasions where that happens, but, for the most part, each hole feels secluded from the rest of the course. Another notable part of the course, which I always find fun and challenging, are the number of doglegs. These always require strategic choices and the potential for altering your ball flight. The course is beautiful because of its golden fescue, thick forests, and heavy bunkering. Overall, it certainly deserves its lofty ranking among the top courses in the country--it is beautiful, challenging, and requires strategic thinking. All the elements of a great golf course.

The pictures below come from two different playings of Bethpage--one in the summer of 2016 and the other in the fall of 2016 when the foliage was on full display. In the summer round, I played with my father, brother, and uncle--who lives on Long Island and is the resident expert on how to get tee times at Bethpage. Though, I know how to do it too, so if you ever need advice, feel free to reach out.

***On all of my reviews, you can now click on the first image to see a slideshow of all images on the page.

The notorious sign behind the first tee. The difficulty of your first tee shot is not aided by the fact that everyone on the putting green and around the clubhouse can see it.

The first--a 429 yard downhill par four--is among the least interesting on the course, but it is not terribly difficult and is a good ease into the round. The main trouble comes from the patch of trees on the right. Since it is a dogleg right, if you are not on the correct part of the fairway, these trees will block you. However, if you hit your ball wildly right, it will wind up in the fairway of a hole on one of the other courses at Bethpage and actually give you a good look at the green. So, ideally hit it left side of the fairway. If not that, then 30 yards right.

First tee. We played a month before the Barclays was set to happen and they were already starting to prepare, as you can see on the left

First green with its gnarly bunkers.

The second hole is among my favorite on the course--a 354 yard sharp dogleg left. The hole really demands you to be precise with your club selection and line. If you hit your tee shot too far and too straight, you will run through the fairway into the trees. So, you either have to cut the corner with a driver or lay back with a fairway wood. The approach is a largely blind shot to an elevated green.

View from the fairway on two. If you hit your drive too far and in the wrong direction, then you will wind up on the hill in the trees located on the right side of this picture. The green is straight ahead, so you know the direction to hit it, but it is quite difficult to gauge distance.

The third is a mildly challenging par three. Given it is only 158 yards, you should be able to hit the green and avoid all the trouble. If you don't, then you will have to deal with deep bunkers or your ball may roll down the steep hills surrounding the green. It is a hole you should par, but if you mishit the shot, it is one where you could easily make a big number.

Third tee.

The fourth is among the best holes on the course--a 461 yard par five. Your tee shot has to either by hit really well to fly the fairway bunkers on the left side, or aimed well down the right. Your second then has to clear another set of bunkers to reach the layup zone. From there, another patch of bunkers obscures the green. Overall, if you just hit every shot well, it is not difficult. Your drive probably needs to fly 230 to clear the bunkers on the left, then a normal fairway wood will easily clear the next set of bunkers, and then you are left with a wedge to a green. But, the hole is just so visually intimidating, all of those routine shots become much more difficult.

Fourth tee. The bunkers that you can clearly see in the distance are the ones you have to clear on your second. If you look closely you can see bunkers nearer to the tee on the left of the fairway--those are the ones you have to worry about off the tee.

Second shot on four.

If you clear those bunkers in the above picture, you leave yourself in this nice landing zone to go for the green. The green is just over the last bunker in this picture. Again, it should not be difficult to hit a wedge to this green, but given the bunkers and the blind nature of the shot, it just is not as easy as it sounds.

The fifth hole is so hard--a 424 yard par four where the drive has to carry a lot of junk and the green is atop a hill well protected by bunkers. I also think the fifth is among the most scenic at Bethpage with the golden fescue your tee shot has to carry and the woods lining the fairway.

Me on the fifth tee.

Approach on five.

The sixth is a fun hole--a 386 yard par four with a blind tee shot. The tee shot is difficult because, to hit a driver, you have to land it in an exceptionally narrow stretch of fairway. And the key is not accuracy, but rather distance. Too long or short winds up in the bunker. The second shot then goes downhill to a green protected on all sides by bunkers. With a good drive, this becomes one of the easiest holes on the course given you are left with a short iron approach.

Sixth tee shot.

Approach to green on six. This picture does not give you the best sense of the hole because it does not show the precipitous drop off that occurs once you get past the bunker on the right.

The seventh--a 502 yard par five is a fantastic hole. It is a dogleg right with an enormous bunker/waste area that you have to carry from the tee. Obviously, the more aggressive you are the easier the hole becomes (potentially reachable in two). But, if you are aggressive and miss, you can certainly wind up in the waste area or in the trees. As you can see below, my uncle found himself an ugly fried egg in the waste area.

Seventh tee.

This hole can quickly become a disaster.

Approach to seventh green.

The eighth is a 191 yard downhill par three. Generally, I do not love the par threes at Bethpage. Most of them are just long and hard, rather than fun. I have no problem with par fours and fives being difficult, but I like par threes to be the fun, memorable holes on a course. And, mind you, being fun does not mean it has to be easy. The sixteenth at Cypress is among the most fun holes, but is also one of the hardest holes I have ever played. The same is true with short par threes, like the seventh at Pebble where a small green, wind, and a change of elevation makes gauging distance very difficult. What I do like about the eighth at Bethpage is the steep face directly in front of the green that rolls down into the pond. Land anywhere short of the green on that face and it is a water ball.

Video of my brother teeing off on eight.

Uncle's ball found the face and then rolled into the pond. As you can see, my brother is quite helpful.

The ninth--a 385 yard par four-- is another fun hole where you can get aggressive and try to fly the bunker on the left, or play it safe by going out to the right, but elongating the hole. This, to me, is the defining feature of Bethpage-- not necessarily requiring perfection off the tee if you want to play it safe, but tempting you to be as aggressive as possible.

Uncle teeing off on the ninth.

Approach to nine.

I find the tenth to be among the hardest holes even though it is only ranked as the ninth hardest. At 434 yards, it is a long par four, but the length is particularly noticeable here because the green is elevated and separated from the fairway by rough and bunkers. In other words, unless you fly it onto the green, you are not getting there. So, even with a 250 yard drive, you will be left with a 180 yard shot with little room for error.

Tenth tee.

Tenth green.

The eleventh--a 421 yard par four-- is a tough hole because it is a blind tee shot with hidden bunkers waiting to grab your tee shot. And, again, the green is well protected by bunkers and leaves little room for error on your approach.

Eleventh tee shot.

Eleventh green.

The twelfth--a 432 yard par four--is another hole that allows you to take a safe approach, steer well clear of the fairway bunker, and have a long second shot, or to challenge the bunker and cut off a significant chunk of yardage. But, if you hit the bunker and are a mere mortal golfer, you will likely find yourself just hitting a wedge out to leave yourself a manageable third shot into the green.

Twelfth tee. The further left you go on this dogleg left hole, the shorter your second will be, but the more you have to challenge the bunker.

Approach to twelve.

The thirteenth is ranked as the third hardest hole on the course even though it is only a 480 yard par five. That is because every shot can lead to disaster due to the deep, well-placed bunks. However, if you hit a good drive, the hole should be more than manageable. Whenever there is a par five that you are not going for in two, it should not be hard if your drive hits the fairway. An ideal play on this hole is a 240 yard drive and then two 120 yard wedges. As long as you are not mishitting your short irons, there is no reason for this hole to be difficult.

Thirteenth tee.

Second shot on thirteen.

The thirteenth green is hidden by the mound of bunkering in the fairway.

Of all the par threes, the fourteenth is the only one I kind of like. It is 152 yards over a deep swale to a very wide green. Come up short and you are in a wildly deep bunker. Go long and there is a steep false "front" at the back of the green that leaves a delicate chip shot. Also, you may very well play it safe by going to the left side of the green, but that will (depending on the pin position) likely lead to a three putt.

Fourteenth tee.

The fifteenth is the hardest on the course, and I completely agree with that assessment. I have played this course three times and have only managed a bogey once (the others were sixes or sevens). At 430 yards, it is long. At 430 yards and uphill to a green surrounded by bunkers, it is impossibly long. I would estimate that this hole plays 460, and, obviously, depending on the wind it is possible that it gets stretched further than that. Even if you wanted to take a conservative approach and simply hit a drive and then lay up to leave a wedge into the green, that wedge shot will be no easy task given you will still be hitting up a steep hill, to a blind green, with massive bunkers staring you in the face.

Fifteenth tee.

Approach to fifteenth green.

The sixteenth is another long hole at 457 yards, though, thankfully, it is downhill (effectively the reverse topography of fifteen). The tee shot on 16 is quite inviting, as it is downhill to an wide fairway with no trouble other than normal rough. However, like so many holes, the green is completely guarded by bunkers so you will need a 200+ yard shot that can fly all the way to (and hold) the green.

Sixteenth tee.

Approach to sixteen.

For whatever reason, the seventeenth hole is the one I most associate with Bethpage. I am not sure why because I do not like the hole, and it does not conjure up any famous moments from tournament play. Perhaps it is because the hole is so visually intimidating that the vision simply stands out in my mind. As a running theme at Bethpage, it is a 195 yard approach shot to a green guarded by bunkers. Short or long and you are in the sand.

Seventeenth tee. This was the hole where the upcoming PGA tournament was most noticeable.

I think the eighteenth is a great closing hole--a 394 yard downhill (for the drive at least) par four. It certainly presents a scoring opportunity because if you hit your drive properly, you are left with a short iron. However, a bad drive is disaster with enormous fescue laden bunkers waiting to destroy any hopes you have coming to the last hole.

Eighteenth tee.

Approach to eighteen.

The more I have played Bethpage, the more I have come to love it. There is a ton of strategy involved, it is beautiful, and immensely challenging, but doable if you play it correctly. For example, when we played this summer my brother shot 80 (in what was likely the best round of golf I have ever seen him play). He would have broken 80, but the temperature that day was brutal, which brings me to my next point. Bethpage is one of the few (only?) golf courses that has ever taken a physical toll on me. I have never been exhausted because of walking a golf course. Not true at Bethpage. This was especially true the day we played this summer. By the time our group got to the 16th hole (after climbing the hill to the green on 15), we could all barely stand. So, whenever people say golf is just a game and not a sport--that is often true, but there are certainly some circumstances where it is indeed a sport.

I feel fortunate that Bethpage is among the courses I play most frequently. Living in Brooklyn, you would think it'd be difficult to be a golfer, but Bethpage makes it quite easy. I am a five minute walk from the Long Island Railroad station and can find myself at the Bethpage proshop in an hour and ten minutes. Not a high price to pay in order to play one of the best golf courses in the country.

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