Playing one of America’s toughest courses while rusty is a rude awakening
Welcome to our “Where I played…” series, in which a resident GOLF staffer runs through a recent day at a course you might play in your future. Today, we’re headed to Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y.
Stuck in New York City and in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, my golf clubs collected dust for much longer than I anticipated. So, after not playing for almost five full months(!), I thought it would be a great idea to have my first round back at Bethpage Black. Oy vey.
Course: Bethpage Black Course, Farmingdale, N.Y.
My tee time: 3:45 p.m., Wednesday, June 10
Course type: Public ($65)
Difficulty: Really, really hard! This is the Black Course, after all. I’m a 16.6 handicap, and my course handicap from the white tees (74.2/148/71) was 25! This place is no joke. You’ve seen the sign, right? The length, the rough, the elevated greens. This livin’ ain’t easy.
So here I was, fresh out of an Uber with a rusty game and delicate mental state. I knew Bethpage was going to beat me up, and it did. I didn’t hit my tee shots particularly poorly, but three inches into the Bethpage rough might as well be 30 feet — it’s all the same. And the first time you play it (this was my second round) you think, “How bad can this rough be?” and then proceed to hack a 4-iron 30 yards in front of you. The rough grabs your club and you…have…no…chance. It’s essentially like taking a penalty stroke. There’s where it gets really tricky. Because decent shots that barely find the rough are penalized, both off the tee and around the greens. After a while that really starts to eat at you. I’m not playing that bad! Then you lose your focus. Then your mind. Then things get worse. That’s Bethpage. I didn’t lose a ball until the final hole but still saw my score creep higher. The double bogeys add up quickly.
How to get there: Bethpage is in Farmingdale, N.Y., on Long Island. If you are coming from the city, make your way to I-495 E and take exit 44S to merge onto NY-135 S toward Seaford, then take exit 8 for Powell Ave toward Bethpage. From there you’re just a few minutes away from the gates. You can also take a train from Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan to the Farmingdale stop. It’s about a mile walk from there or a quick Uber.
Fun facts: The Black Course is one of the most famous public courses in America (and GOLF’s 53rd-best course in the world). It opened in 1936 and, despite its brutal difficulty, became a favorite for Long Islanders. It 2002 it took the national stage when it hosted the U.S. Open, becoming the first publicly owned and operated course to hold the national championship. Tiger Woods won, and the U.S. Open came back again in 2009 (won by Lucas Glover). It also hosted The Barclays in 2012 and 2016, and the PGA Championship in 2019. The Ryder Cup is coming in 2025.
Just as the Black Course earned national recognition in 2002, so did its now-iconic warning sign that sits behind the 1st tee. There’s a lot of history there, although what’s even more interesting is the fact that no one can agree on when exactly the sign was put up.
Getting a tee time on the Black Course isn’t always easy. There’s an online system to book in advance (with New York residents able to secure a few days earlier than out-of-staters), although some elect to sleep in their cars in the Bethpage parking lot. It’s a rite of passage for many Black Course loyalists.
Notable/favorite holes: The par-5 4th is one of the Black Course’s signature holes. The second shot calls for a layup over bunkers to an elevated fairway or a hero shot over green-side bunkers en route to the green. The 5th calls for two different shot shapes, a fade off the tee and a draw into the green.
The par-4 15th is one of the most difficult holes on the course (the hardest of any hole on the PGA Tour schedule in 2002) but it’s also quite the the thrill to test yourself against such a brute. We played from the tips (about 485 yards) to a fairway that doesn’t even need fairway bunkers to scare you. The approach is to a small, elevated green guarded by bunkers.
The par-4 18th is a glorious finishing hole. Your drive will need to split a fairway that’s protected by a terrifying amount of bunkers just off its edges, but find the short stuff here and you’ll have an iron into a gorgeous backdrop. The green is elevated (sensing the theme here, right?) with bunkers short, and the clubhouse sits directly behind your target. Like your opening tee shot, you might have a gallery for this one.
I loved: The test, and the par-3s. First, about the difficulty: I don’t think I’d want to play Bethpage every day. It’s grueling. A good drive just feet off the fairway is severely punished in this gnarly rough, and the same goes for approaches that barely miss greens. But if you can learn to not take yourself so seriously and enjoy the beating Bethpage puts on you, it’s a blast. Where else, for this price, can you play a course that hosts the pros and get a first-hand experience of one of the hardest tracks on Earth? Nowhere.
As for the aforementioned par-3s, they don’t get a ton of press. Everyone always talks about how hard the course is, so it’s easy to forget the four shortest holes on the property, but they are all great in their own way. Here’s a look at them:
I didn’t love: It’s a tough walk — carts aren’t allowed and there’s little shade from the sun beaming down on you — but that comes with the territory. You know you’re going to get beat up and then be exhausted after playing the Black Course, but that’s half the fun. It’s also why everyone keeps coming back.