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Lessons from Bethpage: The champ finishes it off, a plethora of public gems, the Tiger effect and more

May 21, 2019

Tiger Woods exited early but Brooks Koepka stole the show last weekend on Long Island, winning the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black and claiming his fourth career major title. But that wasn’t all that happened last week. Here, our staff reflects on its most memorable moments in our Lessons from Bethpage.

It’s golf for the public, and that’s why it’s great

Everybody’s always so mushy about first love, and it really is kind of repulsive, but it’s beautiful, too, and that’s what any golf on Long Island represents to me. Suffolk County in particular. The Nassau-Suffolk border runs right through Bethpage State Park, and I don’t know what side of the line the 15th hole falls on, but you won’t see too many par-4s as good as that one. That it’s on a public course makes it better yet. Golf on public courses is where it’s at. Now that’s easy for me to say, because I play a lot of private-club golf courses, with their smooth greens and open tee sheets. But the underlying greatness to this 101st PGA Championship was that it was played on a public course surrounded by other public courses, four of them. (Ask for them by color.)

Down the road, there are the three public courses at Timber Point. I played there as a kid, right on the bay. West of that is West Sayville, a Suffolk County Parks course, also on the Great South Bay. Another 20 or so miles east, there’s the Bellport course, owned by the village of Bellport, on Bellport Bay. I had a kid membership there for $50 a year through high school and college. Another 60 miles east, there’s the Robert Trent Jones public course called Montauk Downs. It’s spectacular, and you’re playing through an ocean wind. You don’t feel the presence of salt water at Bethpage Black, but it still has some of the very thing that makes the Old Course at St. Andrews so great. It’s firm. The ground heaves and moves. It’s old. And it’s public. The warning sign’s a cool thing but not really necessary.

Public-course golfers talk about the local courses all the time. We know, we know. We never played BPB as kids. Way too hard. But we had other options. Last week, they all came flooding back to me. — Michael Bamberger

The 15th hole at Bellport Golf Club.
The 15th hole at Bellport Golf Club.
Courtesy of Bellport Golf Club

The champ kept his cool

When Brooks Koepka missed a short par putt on No. 17, his three-shot lead suddenly became two again. Three shots feels impossible to blow on one hole (apologies to Mr. Van de Velde) but two? Two is always in play. You could feel the tension suddenly rebuilding in the crowd. The last hole of a major is always mobbed, since there’s no action anywhere on the course, but this was particularly tense. Drunk Long Island fans. Long Island fans, period. A fading two-shot lead. A potentially historic win or historic collapse hanging in the balance.

I was inside the ropes with my boss Alan Bastable plus a dozen or so reporters and a handful more cameramen, photographers, etc. Harold Varner III teed off first and fired his way right. Then Koepka hit a pull-hook to parts unknown down the left side of the hole, toward bunkers, fescue and trees. Everything was suddenly in play. As Koepka walked off the tee box, the first fans ducked under the ropes to join our yellow-lanyarded crew. Then a few more. The State Park police started to take notice, and grabbed one or two, but then the dam started to break. Chaos!

For a moment it felt completely inevitable that this would be some sort of Tour Championship redux, where fans poured down the fairway behind Tiger and led to one of the most electric scenes in sports history. But this time, at least half the crowd was hoping for disaster and a DJ-Koepka playoff.

Somehow, the cops reacted quickly enough to keep the mob from growing to critical mass. They lined up their bikes, end-to-end, and a few key standoffs and rough shoves seemed to do the trick. But what I’ll remember from the week more than anything is that energy coming down the 18th. Koepka kept his cool, just enough. He finished it off. But at that point, nothing was guaranteed, which made it exciting as hell. — Dylan Dethier

Brooks Koepka, and hundreds of others, walks off the 18th tee on Sunday of the PGA Championship.
Brooks Koepka, and hundreds of others, walks off the 18th tee on Sunday of the PGA Championship.
Getty Images

The winners outside of the ropes

Rory McIlroy didn’t win the 2019 PGA Championship, and like everyone else this side of Brooks Koepka (except for Dustin Johnson) he didn’t come close. But after his final round Sunday afternoon, McIlroy made a few folks happy. He passed along the railing near the practice green and signed autographs on everything fans shoved in front of him. I happened to walk past just as Rory whipped out his Sharpie and found myself sucked into a mini-mob scene. Rory’s in the blue hat.

Jeff Ritter

Rory’s hits included a giant rubber golf ball for 8-year-old Emerson Pinero, who was waiting right up front against the bars. Emerson’s father, Allen, said this was the boy’s first-ever golf tournament. Suddenly Emerson found himself face-to-face with his favorite player, who he’d seen on television.

“I was kind of nervous because he’s kind of famous,” Emerson said while clutching his freshly autographed memento.

Yeah, Rors is kind of famous. Big moment for the kid. There wasn’t much suspense inside the ropes on Sunday afternoon, but the autograph game at the practice area was still hotly contested. Here’s one of the winners below. — Jeff Ritter

Jeff Ritter

You should meet your heroes

When I’m not watching Brooks Koepka dominant major championships, I’m locked into Mets baseball. I had interviewed Mets legend and PGA Championship ambassador David Wright a few weeks prior to the event, but it was conducted over the phone. On Saturday, our paths crossed on the range while watching Koepka and Jordan Spieth warm up.

I walked over and introduced myself and my voice slightly squeaked. That hasn’t happened since my teenage years. I’ve interacted with people far more famous than Wright before but there’s no comparison to meeting the athlete you idolized. To no surprise, he was pure class. We didn’t talk Mets baseball as the conversation stuck strictly to golf, guys on Tour and his experience throughout the week. Wright’s a Koepka guy and was concerned about how Spieth’s slower style of play would affect him that day. He’s truly fascinated to watch how other pro athletes approach their craft.

To my surprise, my time with Wright carried over to inside the ropes following Koepka and Spieth. Wright was clearly the fan favorite in this group. I told him that he might be the only man giving out more thumbs up than Phil Mickelson today. He started cracking up. My week was made. Whoever said “never meet your heroes” didn’t have a hero like David Wright. — Tim Reilly

David Wright was a big draw at Bethpage Black.
David Wright was a big draw at Bethpage Black.
USA Today

The Tiger Effect

I’ve been on the golf beat for eight months now, and this week was the first time I ever got to cover a major championship in person. And a pretty good one at historic Bethpage Black, one of the toughest and most well-known public courses around. But there will be one moment that will stick out from the many stories I’ll take with me from this week on Long Island: following Tiger and Brooks on the back nine of their first round on Thursday.

It was surreal walking inside the ropes alongside arguably the greatest player of all-time and the most dominant player in the sport right now. I kept thinking I had to pinch myself because it was too good to be true. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening.

The raucous New Yorkers in the crowd lining the ropes roared for Tiger on every shot from every hole. It sent chills up my spine. But Koepka, like MJ or LeBron in a road playoff game, silenced the gallery with a dominant course-record performance. It was Koepka who stole Tiger’s show at Bethpage. It’s a memory from this tournament I’ll be sharing for a long, long time. And hopefully the first of many to come from covering this sport. — Patrick Ralph

Brooks Koepka and Tiger Woods shake hands after their round together on Friday at the PGA Championship.
Brooks Koepka and Tiger Woods shake hands after their round together on Friday at the PGA Championship.
USA Today

Why Dustin Johnson needs another gear

Without being too harsh — because Dustin Johnson did enormously well just to put himself in that position in the first place — we saw DJ once again stumble with a major championship on the line. And for the first time, I finally started realizing why DJ needs to do to turn these near-misses into the major total worthy of his talent.

Johnson’s problems are the product of what we all wished we had: immense talent, raw athleticism, and supreme ability. He swings hard and aims at pins, over and over and over again. Unleashed, there may be no better player in the sport today, and it works wonders in regular Tour events, where birdies need to fly in fast and free. But majors are different. There are times when players need to learn to manage the situations. To fold a decent hand instead of raising once again. Trailing by just one shot at the time, DJ was the only player inside the top 10 to miss long on 16 because he tried to rope a long draw into a back pin. It was an error he compounded by missing a short par putt not long after. And again when he flared his next shot right and failed to get up and down. And again on 18, when he pulled driver and lost it right, costing him a birdie look on the short finishing hole. Miss anywhere not long on 16 and it’s advantage DJ. Guarantee yourself anything from the fairway on 18, even if it means clubbing down off the tee, and birdie remains very much on the table.

Dustin Johnson doesn’t play golf like Zach Johnson or Nick Faldo because he’s never needed to. Where they’ve been forced to use their mind to create tools to compete in a world of abundance, DJ continues playing off instinct and talent with reckless abandon. But knowing how to hone that ability is something all the greats did. Tiger and Jack weren’t just the most powerful players on Tour, they were also the smartest. If DJ aspires to that level, it’s a tool he needs to add. — Luke Kerr-Dineen

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