Golf: The L.I.E. Open

The following is an actual announcement made over the loudspeakers of Plainview–Old Bethpage High School some years ago:

“In other news, teachers Stan Louckes and Del Presowitz defeated the student team of Tommy Baron and Josh Benson in a golf match on the Black Course yesterday …. Baron and Benson spent most of the round searching for their balls in the Bethpage weeds on their way to scores of well over 100.”

It’s common knowledge among the golfing residents of central Long Island that public humiliation is an integral part of playing the Black Course, the beast of Bethpage State Park which, 12 years after that calamitous student-teacher showdown, is the site of the 2002 U.S. Open.

Now, with the barrage of publicity accompanying the arrival of a major championship tournament at Bethpage, the rest of the world is being let in on that piece of local wisdom. The Black Course is being trumpeted by the sporting media as a freak of the golfing universe. At 7,214 yards, it will be the longest venue in Open history. Competitors will be hitting out of miserable, club-grabbing rough that is rarely found on the fancy country clubs that host most professional golfing events. And the fact that Bethpage is a public course will make for a unique and perhaps intimidating atmosphere for the world’s best golfers: Unlike the member-heavy galleries typical of other events, the crowd at Bethpage will consist largely of the same lunatic types who habitually camp out in their cars in the parking lot to get tee times.

Although the course has been lengthened and made otherwise more sadistic in preparation for the Open, the Black Course has never been ordinary. One of five courses at Bethpage State Park, it is accessible, in theory, to anybody who owns a set of clubs. Yet it’s so difficult that playing it can be a test of emotional and physical endurance. The fairways are both narrow and distant from the tee, and failure to reach them usually results in catastrophe. The course’s length, and its hilly layout, make it a trial for some less-than-hardy amateurs even to walk the course, regardless of how well they’re playing. (Golf carts are forbidden on the Black Course.)

It has been intimidating enough to keep most people away; traffic on the Black years ago was sparse enough to allow enterprising youngsters to play there on a daily basis. The routine my friends and I held to, for example, was to sneak out to the second tee during a gap in play in the afternoon, and then get through as many holes as we could before dark. In those days, the park rangers who patrolled the course were kindly old men, and they were usually willing to turn a blind eye to our transgressions.

Looking back, I realize that their indulgent smiles were more likely to have been mocking grins than anything else. When they saw us trudging off into the distance, they knew exactly what we were in for: about a dozen holes of utterly futile golf, and then a marathon hike back to the parking lot from the back nine-where, inevitably, we were caught when the sun went down. (As if to heap even more cruelty upon golfers who play the Black, the beginning of the back nine is located about a half-hour’s walk from the clubhouse.)

The professionals coming to town should, of course, have a somewhat more pleasant experience. Many of them routinely drive the ball more than 300 yards and hit nice, high iron shots that stay put when they land. They are comfortable hitting out of sand traps, and they rarely three-putt. Their natural gifts are reinforced by ever-improving equipment, like the new kind of titanium-covered, solid-core ball they’ll all be using this year that flies forever and stops on a dime. The U.S. Golf Association also has had the foresight to assign tee times that will allow them to play their entire round in daylight.

But these fancy-pants touring pros may not be prepared for what awaits them when some of their shots go awry, as they inevitably do. After all, any P.G.A. caddy can tell these guys how to play it from the middle of the fairway. It’s up to the rest of us to act as guardians of the invaluable on-the-ground insight gained-often with great discomfort and anguish-by the delinquent county employees, bored teenagers, and retired cops and firefighters who have crowded Bethpage every day for the last few decades. Here, then, is some of what Tiger, Monty, Vijay and the rest of them can really expect:

Senior pro Jim Dent gave a free clinic at the first tee some years ago. It’s a 430-yard hole with a sharp dog-leg to the right. Standing on the elevated tee, he knocked a whole row of teed-up golf balls over the trees, cutting the corner and landing them about 100 yards from the green. Someone like Phil Mickelson, who is always talking about how aggressive he is (and who, unlike Mr. Dent, is considerably younger than 50 years of age), should be able to nail this one. Now’s his chance to back up his words: He should let rip with a driver and turn this hole into a pitch-and-putt.

My friend Tommy thought he’d found the solution to the second hole one day. He’d just bought a new driver, and he announced his intention to make the elevated, trapped green less daunting by hitting a Chi Chi Rodriguez–style hooking tee shot around the sharp leftward bend to the end of the fairway. Of course, he ended up hitting a towering drive right through the fairway and into the woods beyond. (It was followed immediately by the crash of his new club into the woods to the left of the tee box.)

A shot-maker like Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie might want to try bending a driving iron off the tee so that he can hit a wedge for his approach shot. Most others would be advised to hit short out into the middle of the fairway and try to stick a short iron on the green.

The third used to be 150 yards long, but the USGA brought in a famous golf-course designer named Rees Jones to make this hole harder. Now it’s been lengthened by about 50 yards in order to discourage the pros from hitting cute shots to difficult pin placements. There’s a mountainous gully to the front and left of the green that acts as a magnet for pulled shots. If the pin is anywhere near the edge, players should just shoot for the fat part of the green and take their chances with the putter.

The view from the fourth tee is spectacular. The upward-sloping fairway is broken up at intervals into layers by huge, sweeping traps, and leads up to a green that is some 517 yards distant. This is the hole where Andy, another high-school friend, tried so hard to hit a long tee shot that he wound up snap-hooking his drive from the back tees with sickening violence onto the heads of a group waiting at the white tees below.

Tiger Woods should pose no such danger off the tee to those in his immediate vicinity, but if he goes for the green in two, he’ll have to hold his ball on a green that is small and slopes away from the hitter. No doubt the crowds will encourage long hitters like Tiger and John Daly to be aggressive, but the easiest thing for them will be to hit the second shot pin-high and to the right and get up and down for birdie.

The best thing about the fifth hole is that there’s a hot-dog stand at the end of it. It’s almost impossible to get the drive right; the only good shot is a blasted draw that flirts with the massive sand trap in front of the fairway and the tick-infested weeds to the right. If all goes well with the first shot, it leaves a blind second to an elevated green surrounded by nasty hillside bunkers. Bethpage people simply don’t par this hole. The pros might, but only if they trust themselves (and their caddies) enough not to agonize over the second shot and just slam it.

This is another hole that’s been toughened up. It used to be possible, especially when the ground was dry and patchy, to hit a hooked drive that rolled all the way down a hill, nearly to the end of the fairway. Now there’s Bethpage rough at the bottom of the slope, so the thinking man’s play will be to lay up off the tee. (A tee shot of 250 yards is considered a lay-up for most of these golfers.) The green is surrounded by junk, but the second shot is clear and downhill all the way.

Bethpage golfers have long looked at the seventh hole as a wonderful opportunity to play recovery shots. It was manageable-barely-as a par 5, with the second stroke often made from the massive but flat bunker guarding the fairway (short drives), the weeds beyond it (hooked drives), or the trees on the right (pushed or sliced).

Instead of making the hole into an obscene par 5 for the pros by having them drive from the old championship tees set back in the middle of nowhere, the USGA has, in its wisdom, decided to create an obscene par 4. The drives will have to be aggressive, but any ball that goes through the fairway isn’t destined to see the green anytime soon afterwards. The hard ground to the right of a fairway that bends way, way around to the green at least affords the opportunity to hit low, running fades with long or mid-irons. It’s the sort of thing that may give swashbuckling Australian Greg Norman-who had to play in a qualifying tournament for this Open just like a regular person-an opportunity to put his famous words into practice: “If you can slice it into the woods, you can slice it out.”

Bob, a crafty Black Course veteran with a signature “looped” swing to accommodate his beer gut, famously scored his only birdie of the day on this relatively easy hole with a poorly hit 8-iron that rocketed down off the elevated tee and plugged into the soggy green just several feet from the pin.

The tee has been moved back for the Open to a little over 200 yards, but the green is so far below the tee that it will still seem short.

A good drive on the ninth hole was a high-drawing shot, over a sort of valley of rough, onto a raised fairway. Shorter hitters had the somewhat frustrating experience of having their ball coming to rest in the valley or rolling sideways along the fairway’s slope into yet more unpleasant plant life.

This hole is another one that’s been lengthened in order to give some of the pros a taste of what ordinary people have been put through for years. Now, all the cunning and course-management ability of little guys like Corey Pavin will be of scant use to them here; they’ll have to wallop their tee shots to avoid having blind long-iron shots into the green.

It’s dead straight, but a long way to the green. The typical Bethpage way to play this hole is to slam a drive into the first bunker on the left and then hit a series of sand shots into each of the bunkers beyond it. (One common variation is to zigzag, landing alternately in the bunkers on both sides of the fairway.)

Zimbabwean Nick Price will have the skills to keep his drive low and in the fairway-amajor variable on this holeisthe wind-and to drophisapproach shot in the middle of the small andwell-guarded green. Those golfers who lack the ability to hit wind-cheating shots may find themselves intimately involved with the many aesthetically pleasing bunkers on the 10th.

It’s particularly depressing to blow a good hole by putting badly. The 11th green is one of the tougher ones on the Black Course, whose putting surfaces, overall, are free of guile. Three-putts are common here, as are chips that roll off the green and into bunkers. The trick, then, is to hit the green and hold it-something that will be a lot easier to do after a long drive.

One time, a local pro bet Tommy that he couldn’t reach the fairway on the 12th hole. He offered him three tries to get it done. Tommy accepted. Hitting from the very back of the tee box with one foot in the rough, he smacked three good drives. They all wound up short of the fairway, at the bottom of a massive bunker that protects the route to the green.

Although this tee box has been extended even further back since the days of The Bet, most pros will be able to hit drives over the trap. But the green is sort of small, which means that players like Vijay Singh and Ernie Els, who can drive long and hit precise, high irons, will have an advantage.

The 13th is a long par 5 that looks fairly straightforward. This illusion has been responsible for many a bottleneck at this hole, on which players feel obliged to try to redeem themselves from the day’s misery by reaching the green in two. It’s possible, but the result is usually an angry lash with a fairway wood that sends the ball squarely into the deep woods crowding the fairway on both sides.

Those pros who find their drives in the fairway on this hole might be able to make it home on the second shot, but a trap in front of the green makes that a pretty tough play. Crafty old guys like Bob Tway will be hitting chips for their third shots and should make more than a few birdies.

The problem with the par-3 14th for average golfers is that slight misses become magnified. The greenside trap is one of the more benign places that a bad tee shot can come to rest, and that’s not particularly pleasant. The slope behind the green is a disaster, as is the chasm in front.

The pros should find it reasonably easy, as long as they don’t try anything too fancy when the hole is in a difficult placement.

The hill sweeping up to the 15th green is so steep that Long Island schoolkids go sledding there on snow days. When the snow melts, this innocent playground reverts to form as a sort of hell on earth for golfers. The rough off the fairway on either side is deep, meaning that an errant drive leaves little choice but a hacking recovery shot for the second. Even a booming, straight drive leaves a demonic shot to a distant uphill green. All that’s missing from the putting surface (when the ball eventually gets there) is a clown’s mouth to putt into. It is multi-tiered, fast and tricky. Anyone who’s spent enough time around Bethpage has more likely than not seen this green four- or even five-putted.

The trials of the 15th have been known to induce a special blackness of mood. It was here that a full-grown adult famously followed up an errant second shot by turning around and belting a driven ball from the group behind him back at the tee box. He narrowly missed scoring a direct hit on the unsuspecting foursome-his best shot of the day.

For the pros, a big drive would be nice on this hole, but the premium will be on a precise second shot. For David Duval, whose putting has been shaky this season, the most important thing to do will be to land it below the hole and keep it there.

Sixteen always looked easier than it was. It’s a long way down from the tee to the fairway and, standing up there, it often seemed as if a good drive could almost reach the green. It goes without saying that this was a fantasy. Mediocre drives often wound up in the rough before the fairway or, if the shot was miserable enough, in a diagonal-running ditch.

The ditch has been filled in for the Open, but it will still take a decent poke off the tee to make for an easy second shot. Greenside traps make it difficult to run the ball up to the hole, so a high approach shot will be the only way to get close to the pin.

Ten forlorn golfers walking in towards the clubhouse after dark met up at the tee for the 17th hole, a par 3. They had decided, optimistically, to hold a closest-to-the-pin contest to decide who would get to buy the pitchers of Michelob at the 91st Hole, an assemblage of plastic picnic tables that functioned for years as Bethpage’s outdoor bar. (The plastic vanished shortly after the Black was announced as an Open venue.) It was a daunting challenge: In addition to the dim lighting, the green was 200 yards away and surrounded by a sea of sand traps. One after another, they fired their shots into the dusk, and then trudged through the high weeds to see where they had landed. Needless to say, all they found on the green was nothing.

The good news for the pros is that this hole will be no longer for them than it is for the golfing public. The bad news is that it’s another tiered green and very shallow, which will leave them little choice but to fire the ball straight at the pin. Late-round nerves should make that a very interesting prospect.

The last hole on the Black Course has always been regarded as a sort of concession by the course’s designer to its players. It’s pretty short and straightforward, and it gives even the most desperate hacker a chance to finish up a round with a par.

That’s not to say that this hole is a pushover. In the past, when the pin was moved to the very front of the forward-sloping, raised green for local professional tournaments, it became a tough hole to birdie. For the Open, the tee has been moved way back, the fairway has been narrowed, and the sand traps have been more strategically placed. It still might not seem terribly trying, but on the last hole, with the U.S. Open on the line, there’s no such thing as a gimme.