Bethpage Black tests the best
The Black course at Bethpage (N.Y.) State Park on Long Island is unlike any venue ever utilized for the U.S. Open, mainly because anyone can play it if he or she has $50 to $60 for a New York resident, or $100 or $120 for a non-resident.
Bethpage Black is hilly and unforgiving. But when it’s flowing with 40,000 people, many of whom have played the course—some after sleeping in their cars all night in the parking lot—and have opinions on how to play it, it’s downright fun to be walking around.
“They (give advice) during the tournament,” Tiger Woods said. “It doesn’t just happen during the practice rounds. They yell out during the tournament as well.”
The enthusiasm and electricity didn’t bother Woods during the 2002 championship, the first ever on a truly public daily-fee course. He tamed the conditions to win his second of three U.S. Open titles by 3 strokes over Phil Mickelson.
The U.S. Golf Association brings the Open back to Bethpage Black, designed by the legendary A.W. Tillinghast and built in 1936, this week and has added some teeth by adding more than 200 yards, increasing the length to 7,426 yards at par 70.
Still, players are looking forward to an improved setup under Mike Davis, in his fourth year as USGA senior director of rules and competitions.
Jim Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open champion, said the setup the first time at Bethpage “probably presented the most problems for me” because of length and the wet weather during the first two days. He ended up missing the cut.
Edgerton native Steve Stricker, who will tee off Thursday at 6:44 a.m., finished 16th in the 2002 Open at Bethpage Black with a score of
Based on Davis’ work the last three years in setting up Winged Foot, Oakmont and Torrey Pines, Furyk believes the playability of the course will improve.
“I think he’s done a wonderful job,” he said. “I think the positive note I’m taking is going to Bethpage with an open mind because it’s going to be different than it was the last time. I’m expecting Bethpage will be set up differently and, hopefully, a little more suited for my game.”
The USGA took a lot of heat in 2002 at the 10th hole, a long par-4 that included a 280-yard drive from the tee to reach the fairway, a carry that some players could not negotiate. This year, the carry has been reduced by 35 yards.
Another improvement is graduated rough. A 20-foot swath of about a 2½-inch first cut will be just off the fairway, making it easier for those who hit slightly wayward tee shots to get their approaches on the green. But the rough grows to between four and six inches outside that 20-foot zone.
Davis defended the lengthened course.
“We are essentially playing pretty much the same game in 2009 that we were playing in 2002,” he said. “But the reason we did that is we think that, in a few cases, it actually adds to a hole and it gives us more flexibility that we can maybe use a back tee some days and an up tee some days.”
Bethpage Black will introduce the new leader in the longest par-4 in an Open derby, the 525-yard seventh hole, which is actually longer than its par-5 fourth hole, a 517-yarder.
“It goes back to what the definition of par is, how many strokes it takes expert players to get to the green plus two putts,” Davis said. “We don’t think many of the players will end up on the fourth green in two shots.”
Davis also said more “risk-reward” options will be available to players, and that fairways in the landing areas for tee shots will be varied to encourage more aggressive play. The relatively flat greens will be the usual Open speed—lightning fast.
Regardless of the course length and degree of difficulty, the Bethpage Black experience will be completed by fans who loudly get behind their favorite and create one of the most football-like atmospheres in golf.
Woods, who was raised on a par-3 public course in Long Beach, Calif., received plenty of encouragement in 2002. But his crowds were relatively quiet compared to the support they gave Mickelson, who was accorded rock-star treatment all weekend.
The cheers for Mickelson will grow exponentially this week. His wife, Amy, was diagnosed last month with breast cancer. Besides, he has four runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open—three of them at New York courses—without a win.
Conversely, the fans are not reluctant to get on someone’s case, like in 2002 when they counted the number of times Sergio Garcia regripped the club. Garcia reacted to the catcalls at one point with an obscene gesture.
Furyk not only had problems with his game that year, but also with the crowd.
“A few people let me know about it,” he told Golf World magazine. “They told me I (stank)—and I did.”
Woods, the only player to break par for 72 holes seven years ago, appears to be impossible to pick against this week going for major championship No. 15, coming off an impressive win at the Memorial.
With Woods and Mickelson and the world’s top players competing on a storied course, combined with the crowd and the surroundings, it figures to be a memorable week.