They’re calling it the “People’s Open,” which, to the uninformed, will sound as absurd as the notion of a “People’s Princess.” For the first time ever, the U.S. Open is being played on a municipal golf course, the kind of place where guys with big bellies, baseball grips and back-pocket flasks show up in shorts and T-shirts, pay their daily fee, and spend five hours hacking around and having a few laughs. In other words, the very kind of place where most of the nation’s golf is played.
Bringing the Open to the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island is an eloquent statement about what golf in America is, and what it is not. Twenty-six million people play golf in the United States, and 80 percent of their rounds are played on public courses. According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of public-course players increased by 4 percent in the late 1990′s, while the number of private-club players fell by 14 percent. Golf may not be the sport of the masses, but it’s also hardly the American equivalent of grouse-hunting.
New Yorkers by the tens of thousands have played Bethpage Black, and they don’t all live in the kind of communities, or lead the kind of lives, that foolish people associate with golf. They’re firefighters and mechanics and nurses and cops and maybe the occasional newspaper reporter, the kind of people who fill the city’s 13 municipal courses every weekend. They’re 21st-century versions of Ralph Kramden in his tam-o’-shanter and Ed Norton learning the game’s basics in Ralph’s Bensonhurst kitchen. (“Address the ball.” “Heell-looo, ball!”)
Most of the hackers who’ve played Bethpage Black-people who could give tips to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who never saw the course until this year-play a game with which the sport’s graying lords and ladies are unfamiliar: blue-collar golf. It is gritty and often unlovely, a recreational choice for those who don’t have the time to master the game’s subtle pleasures. It is played on government-owned courses (and you needn’t be Rush Limbaugh to know what that means), or on privately owned tracts open to the public for reasonable fees. It respects the game’s rules and traditions, but it reserves the right to let a profanity fly when a tee shot doesn’t.
In a sense, New York is the capital of blue-collar golf. Unless you’re a member of the Richmond County Country Club on Staten Island, if you’re playing golf in New York City, you’re playing blue-collar golf. You can take the subway to the Van Cortlandt Golf Course in the Bronx, the oldest public course in the country. You can park your car by a graveyard and tee off at the Silver Lake Golf Course on Staten Island. Or you can stand over your putt for bogey on the Marine Park Golf Course in Brooklyn while traffic on the Belt Parkway whizzes by.
This year’s U.S. Open is a celebration of blue-collar golf, a tribute to the spirit of the municipal golfer. In fact, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Open logo, taken from artwork in the Bethpage clubhouse, shows not a player but a young, workaday caddy from the Depression era.
This is not to say that the golfing experience of Mr. Woods, Mr. Mickelson or the other pros will in any way resemble that of the typical muni golfer. They won’t be jumping from their car to the first tee without so much as stretching a hamstring; they won’t be carrying their own clubs; they won’t be playing behind some mook named Rocky who likes talking on his cell phone while strolling (or, more likely, driving) down the fairway; and they won’t be worrying that some moron will pick up their ball by”accident.”They’ll have a convenient greenside gallery to stop their errant approach shots. But they won’t have a beer cart to restore necessary nutrients after an exhausting putt.
What’s important to note is that Bethpage is not a faux-public course, like the privately owned Pebble Beach in Carmel, Calif., which is open to all hackers provided they have 350 bucks for a round and another $25 for a cart. And Bethpage is even more welcoming than another surprisingly accessible institution, the Old Course at St. Andrew’s in Scotland. None of the state parks and recreation workers at Bethpage will ask to see a document from your local club testifying that you have a handicap of 24 or less for men, 36 for women, as the royals and ancients do at St. Andrew’s. There’s no St. Andrew’s–like lottery to play Bethpage-although that might be a better system than waiting on line in a parking lot for a night or two. And St. Andrew’s fee of 90 pounds looks downright aristocratic compared with Bethpage’s weekday fee of 31 bucks, weekends for $39.
I’ve been playing blue-collar golf since the day my firefighter father stuck a 9-iron in my hand and brought me to a pitch-and-putt course in New Holland, Pa., when I was 15. I’m a member of no club. I’ve never paid more than $40 for a round-$25, the weekday price of a New York municipal course, is more like it. I’ve played public courses where blacks outnumbered whites by 2 to 1 (Weequahic in Newark). I’ve never had a caddy and wouldn’t know what to do with one.
And this year’s Open at Bethpage is a salute to my kind of golf.