The Bethpage Black Experience


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A promise to all of my loyal blog readers out there: whenever I add a top 10 course to my esteemed course list, you're going to hear about it.

Ever since the conglomerate bank I work for was bought out by a mega-conglomerate bank in New York (my third 'merger' in 10 years) four years ago, I've been going out to New York for work on a fairly consistent basis. However, my knowledge and breadth of the Big Apple was limited to a very small area: LaGuardia Airport to Midtown Manhattan and a 15x4 block area covering Midtown to Times Square up to the southern edge of Central Park. I've been on the subways twice in my life. To this simple Midwesterner, New York is simply too massive and intimidating to experience fully, even relative to Chicago.

Probably thirty of forty trips to New York, and with all of the hustle and bustle of the big city it never even crossed my mind that golf was a possibility. Now I knew all about Bethpage Black, site of Tiger's 2002 US Open victory (and soon-to-be 2009 US Open victory) and the infamous ultra-private clubs on Long Island (Shinnecock, National Golf Links, Sebonack, etc). But I really had no idea where those courses were in relationship to my comfort zone. Once I google mapped the aerials of these famous courses (probably one of the best uses of google maps that I can think of), I realized that Bethpage Black really wasn't that far away. In fact, it is less than 30 miles from LaGuardia.

This was a no-brainer. In 2007, I was going to play Bethpage Black. The wheels were in motion. Take that Jefe! Now it was only a matter of when and how. The 'how' part was still a mystery. The Black is well-known for its 'camp out all night in your car' tee time system. I actually thought this would be a cool blog subject -- the full Bethpage experience. But there are actually other ways to get on the course. The tee times are made available a week in advance to New York residents. The early, early morning tee times and one group per hour are set aside for the guys who camp out overnight. But the Black course is closed on Mondays and is frequently closed off for tournaments, outings, etc, so it's a crap shoot whether it will actually be open the day you want to play (and their phone system is a series of recorded messages, so best of luck negotiating that if you're an out-of-stater).

As for the 'when', I had a day penciled in to play earlier in the summer, but meetings got moved or canceled, babies were born, etc., so I had to rearrange my travel plans at the last minute. Doh! But a couple of weeks ago, things fell into place where I would have a free afternoon the day I flew in. It's on like Donkey Kong!

From the airport early that morning, I called the tee time hotline and got the daily tee time scoop. The Red Course was closed for the day. The first time for the Black Course was 11:40 am. My flight was due to arrive at 10:07 am. I figured by the time I got my sticks from baggage claim, got the rental car and drove there, I would get to the course around 11:30 or so. Hopefully as a single I would get on, but I was a little anxious about the Red Course being closed. That would probably push more golfers to the Black.

By the time I had landed, the tee times had moved dramatically. The first time on the Black...3:40 pm!!! That's not good. But with little else to do and clubs in tow, I was determined to make the best of it. Three u-turns later, I was on the Long Island Expressway on my way to Bethpage State Park and the mecca of public golf in the U.S.

Driving into Bethpage, the first thing you notice is the grand scale of the place. This State Park is massive, and it's really undulating, wooded and rolling. Seems like the perfect place for a golf course (or five). I had no idea what to expect. But the more I saw, the more I knew this place would be right up my alley.

The first thing I did was head straight to the booth where you make and pay for your tee times, which looks like something you find at the DMV or at City Hall when filing for a marriage license. They have some monitors along the top of the wall that show the available tee times at each course, when it's your turn you just plunk down your cash and tell 'em what course and tee time you want.

I was in luck. The 3:40 time from the voice recording was actually the first available foursome. There was a single opening at 2:30, so I jumped on that. With a few hours to kill, so I checked out the pro shop for a long time, then headed over to the first tee to check out the infamous sign greeting the Black's next victims:

My buddy Jefe had lost cell phone reception at his house for some reason the previous weekend, so I hadn't had any communication with him for 5-6 days. He had no idea that I was going to be in New York, much less that I had crafted this master plan. So I simply sent him the above picture from my cell phone with the caption 'teeing of at 2:30 pm', knowing full well it would invoke one and only one response: 'you bastard!'

Here was the e-mail I received from Jefe:

"You bastard!!!! This came out of nowhere! I didn't even know you were in NY. Congrats, how'd you get a tee time? What tees are you going to play? It's gotta be great out there this time of year. Call me when you're done.


Jefe was right about one thing. It was a perfect fall day for golf. It was about 70 degrees, not a cloud in the sky. You couldn't ask for a better day for golf.

Now back to that sign...I had trade some messages online with a guy named Philip Young on golfclubatlas. He had given me some pointers about the whole Bethpage experience when I was planning to play it earlier in the summer. Little did I know at the time that Phil was definitely the right guy to be talking to...there probably isn't a soul alive who knows more about the place. He wrote two books about Bethpage and the US Open. When I mentioned the warning sign, he casually mentioned to me:

"As for the sign... The park honored me by giving me the sign from the 1st tee that was made for the 2002 Open as a gift because of my Bethpage history and 2002 Open books. I love showing it off."

How cool is that? I gotta believe that 'I love showing it off' has to be greatest understatement of the year. If it were me, I'd be wearing the sign around my neck everday. If they're looking to give away the sign after the '09 Open, I officially nominate myself (for his glowing review on his blog in 2007, we present Jim Colton with...)

With a bunch of time to kill, I sat down for lunch on the patio overlooking the first tee and 18th green. Immediately after ordering a club sandwich, the korean lady from the DMV comes running over, telling me they have a opening in about 10 minutes. She said she had been looking all over for me (I think she had a soft spot for me because she mistakenly thought I was part-Korean or something. I guess you don't find many 6' 2" Korean guys. This is the same reason I'm so popular at the dry cleaners.) This caused all sorts of commotion, since I just ordered lunch, hadn't changed into my golf shoes and didn't have my golf clubs with me. So after a little bit of scrambling to get the food to go, running to the rental car and back, I was ready to go. it's a good thing I got off early, because little did I know six hour rounds are quite common on the Black Course. If I had teed off at 2:30, there's no way I would've finished before dark.

The real question was what tees to play. The back tees play at a whopping 7387 yards, par 71. All of the guys teeing off were playing the whites at 6684 yards. The rating and slope from the back tees is 76.6/144. For the US Open, they played it at 7214 yards, par 70 (you may recall, Tiger was the only guy under par). They keep the fairways narrow at US Open width to give patrons the 'I just played a US Open course' experience, but one good sign was they were mowing the rough that day. That was the kicker for me...I was off to play the back tees.

This is not the type of place where you want to dribble one off the first tee, especially if you're trying to play from the tips. The tee box is surrounded by onlookers. Thankfully I muscle one down the right side, drawing it around the corner of the dogleg. It's in the rough, but no big deal. If this were the Open, I'd probably have trouble even finding my ball. But I have only 85 yards to the hole from here. One of my playing partners (we'll call him Craig because I can't remember his name) yanked his ball right down the adjacent first fairway of the Green Course (almost an identical hole to the first on the Black). Well that must be the right play because he was left with an unobstructed view of the green from 100 yards out, where Craig stuffed it in to 5 feet and rolled it in for birdie. What a start! Who's so bad now, Mr. Black?

Initially, the Black Course was as tough as I thought it was going to be. I loved the grand scale of the place and the big, deep bunkers. The view from the 4th tee is simply amazing, one of the coolest par 5's you'll ever play. This course was right up my alley. The course is very demanding off the tee. You need to hit it straight, else you are dead. Thankfully, I was hitting the ball pretty well, I was only a little bit off here and there but that usually was enough to turn a par into a bogey or a birdie into par. The toughest part of the course for me was the greens. In the first ten holes, I completely misread at least four putts. Not misread as in I didn't play enough break. I mean misread as in I played it to break four inches to the left and it broke four inches to the right. I'm still mystified. A lot of putts would break one way towards the hole then mysteriously turn the other way right at the hole.

On the 553-yard, par 5 seventh hole, I hit a good drive right down the pipe and had only a downwind 5-iron to the green from about 210 yards out. I mentioned to Craig that the pros must chew up this relatively easy par 5, especially considering I'm hitting only five iron to the hole. Craig pointed out that they actually play from a different tee box and play the hole as a 489 yard, par 4. Oh. Forget what I just said. There are no easy holes on this course.

The back nine is where the Black really starts to show its teeth. Remember the hole where the pros complained that they couldn't even reach the fairway from the tee? Well, that would be the 10th hole, a 502-yar Par 4! Thankfully it was downwind for me. You think you're getting some let up on the back nine since it's a par 35, but there are at 4 par 4 1/2's: the 10th, the 499-yard 12th (my downfall), the 478-yard 15th and the 490-yard 16th (into the wind).

Again, I was just a little bit off and it was costing me strokes. On 10, I hit what I thought was an excellent drive. It bounced right and into the rough near the slope of the bunker so I had to baseball bat it out of there. On 12, I took what I thought was the right line off the tee, down the far left edge of the left bunker for the long dogleg left hole. I smoked my drive but it hit the mound just past the bunker and rolled back into the sand. Double. Turns out it wasn't even close to the right line as immediately beyond that point in the bunker is another 40 yards of rough. On 15, I hit a horrible drive right and again had to play it like a par 5. Thankfully, I finally got a putt right and lagged a 60-foot putt beautifully to tap-in range on this wickedly sloped green.

As I mentioned 16 was playing into the wind and I hit a great drive right down the middle, only I still had 235 yards left to the hole. It's not often (or ever) that I have to hit a 2-iron into a green, but that's what I had to do here.

The view from the 18th tee is breathtaking, and I can't help but think of the USGA commercial where the 35-handicap has a chance to 'tie' Tiger with his 105. Some people bash the 18th as being too vanilla, but I really like it. As I walked up to the tee, I thought to myself 'now this is what a closing hole should look like'. The good vibes must've worked because I striped one right literally right down the mower line to the narrowest part of the fairway, leaving only 9-iron into the green. Sadly my birdie attempt just missed leaving me '0-for-New York' and with a disappointing 42-43 85.

Some complain that Bethpage is too one dimensional, too unrelenting with holes where you have to hit it long and straight, long and straight. I agree it's probably not for everybody, but hey, they do have that sign there for a reason. You know you're going to get a challenge. It's easy to see why the USGA, with their unhealthy obsession with protecting par (I predict someday they will shrink the hole), loves this place. In fact, they recently made some changes to the course to make it even more difficult. But Bethpage really fits me like a glove. I love the place. And for $50 for NY State residents, it might be the best deal in golf. Even the $100 non-resident rate I paid is a bargain compared to Chicago courses that pale in comparison for roughly the same rate. Heck, you could hop on flight to New York go straight to the course and camp out, play 36 at Bethpage (Red and Black) and fly back that night for about $400 or so. I much rather do that than pay $187 per round at the Glen Club. In fact, that's exactly what I might do next summer. Bethpage is too good to pass up. I only wonder why it took me so long to figure that out.

And the 2007 golf season winds down, if there's one thing I've learned this year it's this: I may be a pretty good golfer, but I'll never be THAT good. Sure there have been ups and downs and flashes of brilliance but overall the more things change the more they stay the same. In a three-week span, I saw Tiger dismantle a Dubsdread course like it was a pitch-and-putt, saw Trip Kuehne win the Mid-Am that I wanted so desperately to qualify for with a bogey-free 9-and-7 thrashing, and shot 85 on a US Open course under pretty benign conditions. Under US Open conditions I probably would've been 10-12 strokes higher. How amazing is it (or sad, depending on how you look at it), that I would probably need 12 strokes a side from Tiger just to keep it interesting (and you know he'd still beat me)? I guess I'm not much different from that guy in the USGA commercial. But I will keep plugging away and do my best to enjoy the ride.

Jim's Top 10 (probably final for 2007)
1. St. Andrews (Old)
2. Pacific Dunes
3. Blackwolf Run (River)
4. Whistling Straits (Straits)
5. Kingsbarns
6. Bandon Dunes
7. World Woods (Pine Barrens)
8. Carnoustie (Championship)
9. Kiawah (The Ocean Course)
10. Bethpage Black

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  1. Anonymous said...:

    Do you plan on doing fantasy basketball projections again this year Jim? Last year, your blog was the first spot I checked for useful FBB information. Thanks.

  1. Anonymous said...:

    Hi Jim,
    I played the black about a year and a half ago and it was some experience. I had played all the other courses at Bethpage but not the black.So when the chance came I jumped at it.When I played it it was in June and the rough was well lets just say it was a good thing one of the guys in our group had a caddie.On one hole can't remember what one the hay was so high you couldn't see the fairway. The caddie came in handy on that one. I live about 7 miles from the course so I plan on trying to play it before the 2009 open.
    by Jim Long Island Golfer

  1. Anonymous said...:

    Reading your blog makes me remember playing Bethpage Black two weeks after the 2002 US open with my grandfather. Wonderful memories. We got to the course at 2:30 in the morning and had the first tee time at 5:40 in the morning. It was amazing, you definately can't pass up this course.

  1. Anonymous said...:

    Love the blog and love your top 30 Chicago list. Been looking for something like this. Great! We're working our way through the list.

  1. Anonymous said...:

    I play the Black 4 - 5 times every year and twice i played right before tourneys, the first time in may 2002 before the open and then the week before the ny state open. I just want to say that that the author may have shot an 85 on a "benign" course but let me assure that benign is an understatement and he would not break 110 here under tourney conditions.

    In may 2002, the first cut of rough was chip-out tall, and good luck finding the ball with no caddy. This is with fairways about half as wide as they are today. The second cut of rough is waist high hay. Again in 2002, it lined every fairway, framed all the bunkers. One "duffer" shot and you are reloading. Greens were stimped at 13 to 14 = no way to hold the greens unless you can spin the ball, which is pretty hard for your 10 handicapper when you are hitting woods into them. Also, lots of 3 and 4 putts when you get on the green.

    It is laughable how much easier they keep the course now. By 2003, they cut all the hay, and by now leave essentially no rough, and have the greens stimped at 9 to 10. I really think it plays as a different course now than the tournament brute. As long as you keep it in generally in play, its not that tough now. They had to defang the course due to all the frigging 25 handicappers that want to play the tips and hello 6 hr rounds.

  1. Anonymous said...:

    RE: The guy who commented on TOURNAMENT CONDITIONS couldnt be more accurate.
    I live 6 miles from the park and play it (One of the 5, not Black)weekly. Ive played Black more than 200 times, 35 times in 2005 alone. Its everything the myth of it all spins.
    Anyway, back to the point. Black is only in Tournament condition in July and August (give or take a week or two). When it is, its a friggin monster. Ive played Shinnecock, Ive played Winged Foot... nothing, and I mean NOTHING, has the teeth of Black in Tournament conditions. Its any golfers worst nightmare, and any decent golfers dream.

    Blah blah blah, I could go on forever aboyt BP, so Ill leave it at this... if you want info, or maybe even a time on Black, hit me up at and maybe I can assist but no promises. Any real golfer needs to play here.

    *SIDENOTE: Played Red today. As the woman handed me my ticket, the super yelled out "Play is suspended". I was given the choice NOT to play and get my money back. Decided to wait it out. 3 hour wait. Glad I did. Original time was 12:52. Teed off at 3:50. Since we were the second group out, there was no backup. We finished by 7:45. a sub 4 hour round (after 7am) is completely unheard of. Glad I waited.

  1. Anonymous said...:

    Enjoyed your Bethpage blog. I played the Black two weeks ago (in late July). It is now my favorite course (from amongst St Andrews Old Course, Carnoustie, The Bandon courses, Torrey Pines, Chambers Bay, Ballybunion, Waterville and Cruden Bay). On vacation from San Diego,I left my adult daughters in Manhattan for the day, rented a car and arrived at Bethpage at 7:30 with a tee time of 4:15 pm with hopes of getting something sooner. The girl in the booth asked if I'd like the 8:21 time and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
    Playing the Balck ranked right up there with the Old Course, Carnoustie and Ballybunion as golf experiences. And the course is easily the equal of all of them, I think. I can't wait to see the US Open next year.

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