BETHPAGE, NY – Cinderella got her name because she was always dirty with ashes from cleaning the fireplace. She sure ended up on top though didn’t she? The dirty, messy, unrefined step-sister became the Belle of the Ball.
That’s exactly what’s happened to Bethpage Black Golf Course. Bethpage could very well be the little step-sister in A.W. Tillinghast’s design career. Some people aren’t even sure it’s a Tillinghast design. Because of a book written in 1959, a quarter-century after the Black opened, some writers think the credit should go to Joe Burbeck, Sr., the long-time course superintendent who did the physical construction. But most people dismiss that as a local writer over-playing that angle. Locals are always going to be homers.
Either way, it’s perhaps the most remarkable career arc in golf design history. Bethpage Black, a Works Progress Administration municipal golf course built in the iron grip of the Great Depression is run into the ground for decades and then resurrected and elevated to major championship status, hosting two U.S. Opens, a PGA Championship, and a future Ryder Cup in a twenty-two year period.
Can any other course in America claim such a transformation? Cinderella got invited to the ball…the biggest ball of all, in fact. Major championships are, indeed, global: the hugest events in world-wide golf. But major championships near New York City are much more: they are a bacchanalia of celebrities, glitterati, media launches, and parties. There’s no limit to the decadence. It’s Petrossian osetra caviar and Dom Perignon ’71 all the way.
Major championships in the Big Apple are just a big ol’ La Dolce Vita.
Add in Bethpage Black golfers, and suddenly it’s like a Jets game invaded a Club 54 fashion show. You have Winged Foot, Shinnecock Hills, and Baltusrol, all among the richest and most exclusive clubs in the world on the one hand, and municipal Bethpage Black on the other.
The resulting crowds at New York major championships are often hilarious. You get both types at the same time: the rich bond brokers who docked their yacht nearby are getting wheel-barrowed back to their boats passed out while Joe Tailgater is yelling “Rory!” at McIlroy, then turning to vomit before looking back at McIlroy and yelling “Rory!” even louder.
I saw both of those events with my own eyes.
It’s completely over the top. Everyone suddenly turns into a lounge act from Comedy Night at the Apollo, and the poor players just have to let it roll off their backs. At Bethpage, more then anywhere else, fans are encouraged to, as the New York Post once put it, “bring a little New York flavor” to the event.
Translation: it’s okay to heckle the players.
But give New Yorkers and inch, and they’ll take a mile. The fans at Bethpage weren’t just rowdy, they were over the top. It was a frat party around the 18th green: rude, crude, and inappropriate. And just like at Winged Foot in 2009, some lugnut got an airhorn in and blasted it around the 18th green late Saturday afternoon. They found and ejected the guy at Winged Foot right away. The fate of the guy at Bethpage, remains unknown, but the fans certainly didn’t point him out right away like they did at Winged Foot.
At New York City majors, there’s no hiding from the raucousness, and there’s no telling them to be quiet.
To some, they are a relentlessly throbbing hangover, but to others it’s just the rhythm of the City. You get used to it when you live here. Smack talk is the sports soundtrack of the town. You have to just let it roll off you’re back, keep a thick skin.
And woe to you if you say one unflattering thing about them…if you complain about them, they hate you for life.
The best advice is to do what you do with your spouse: “Yes, Dear.” Or give them a wink and a nod. That shuts them up for a minute, because they don’t know what to make of it. If they say they hate you, sign an autograph anyway. Take a picture with them.
It is, after all, the People’s Country Club. It’s their place.
The PGA of America knows that loud fans mean more excitement. That equates to a bigger buzz: a wider audience and more sponsorship money. Plus, they want the USA to win the Ryder Cup. So decorum and sportsmanship might have to take a back seat for three days.
That’s why, perhaps, Bethpage Black is a better stroke play championship venue than it is a Ryder Cup venue. New York fans like to get as close to the line as they can…and then dance along it. And if they cross it a little bit, they think they can count on someone moving the line a little bit in their favor. At a U.S. Open or PGA Championship, an unpopular player may get heckled, a popular player will be embraced, and someone in the middle can tip-toe past the sleeping lion without waking him.
But every European player in 2024 is going to have a “Kick me” sign on their back.
Once the Ryder Cup ends though, Bethpage Black should again re-enter the informal major championship rotation. Over the course of these three majors, we have seen proof positive that Bethpage is all we need it to be: relentlessly tough without being weird or unfair. It’s a better PGA Championship venue because it’s not perfect 1-18. It’s not as flawless as Oakmont, Winged Foot, Oakland Hills, or Pebble Beach. If those are “Number 1,” then consider Bethpage Black and Olympic Club in San Francisco to be “Number 1a.” There are some moments of repetitiveness, most notably 7, 12, and 13. Of the finishing holes, only the long, uphill 15th is arguably all-world. And of course the 18th is a denouement after all the whoop and crash of the rest of the golf course.
But the Black Course richly deserves every accolade. It was a formidable U.S. Open venue, if a little boring at times. It’s a perfect PGA Championship venue: enough character to be interesting. Happily, course set-up guru Kerry Haigh is not Tom Meeks. As opposed to Meeks in 2002, Haigh gave the players a five-foot swath of first cut rough, and the primary rough was just 3-1/2 inches instead of the USGA’s five inch jungle brush. At the U.S. Open, it’s over the top of your shoes, at the PGA it wasn’t. You could occasionally advance the ball a little instead of having to hack out sideways with a wedge every time. And scores were low enough to be respectable in a major: 8-under won the tournament and just over a handful of players finished under par, (as opposed to one player at the 2002 Open). The course was difficult enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other classic Golden Age masterpieces in the Pantheon of great major championship venues, without being so tough as to not have enough birdies to excite the crowds.
As an interesting aside, the 2019 PGA results of Koepka over the four days are nearly identical to Woods. Each man shot his lowest round on Thursday, and then shot slightly higher each following day. Woods went 67-68-70-72 = 277, 3-under. Koepka carded 63-65-70-72 = 272, 8-under. They even each bogeyed both one and two to start the final round – how’s that for freaky synchronicity?
Koepka won this major, but so did Bethpage Black. It’s a keeper. The little public course is as much a Belle of the Ball as princely Winged Foot, regal Shinnecock, and stately Baltusrol. Cinderella’s glass slipper still fits, and that’s a really happy ending for local golf fans, especially the public course players.