[Author’s note – as most golf aficionados are aware, this year’s PGA Championship will be held next week at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, one of the most testing golf courses in the United States – and one that is open to the public. This recounts my experience there.]
It was a summer evening in either in 1992 or 1993 that I decided to bite the bullet and queue up for a tee time at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course.
I had read much about A.W. Tillinghast’s work and the stern test that the Black Course presented, as well as (due to the lack of public golf courses available to the masses living on Long Island) the lengths to which metropolitan New York golfers would go to secure a tee time, including spending the night in a parked car near the main clubhouse in order to be first in line when the operation opens in the morning. This initially seemed to me to be a bit much in order to play a round of golf, but after spending three days and nights listening to my then-in-laws bicker, a night cramped up in the back seat of a VW Jetta didn’t seem like such a horrible idea.
The sad fact of those times was that my ex-wife grew up in a house in that bordered Seth Raynor’s Southampton Golf Club – which borders William Flynn’s Shinnecock Hills – which borders C.B. MacDonald’s National Golf Links. Just down the road in East Hampton stands Willie Park Jr’s Maidstone, a marvelous piece of linksland whose Hamptons-style clubhouse sits atop a crest overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Unfortunately, these masterpieces (and several other nearby tracks) were unattainable for the likes of me – all private, and except for Southampton Golf Club, all pretty much comprised of members whose money predates the Louisiana Purchase. A couple of my nephews had caddied at Shinnecock and National, and my former brother in law lived across the street from the then head pro at Shinnecock. All of them told me they could get me on either of those courses, but in the 18 years of my marriage, it never came to fruition.
Not that I’m bitter, or anything.
Anyway – the drive from Southampton to Farmingdale took about an hour; when I arrived at Zero Dark Thirty, there were about a dozen or so cars already in line. I pulled into the end of the queue and was about to climb into my back seat when there was a tap on my shoulder.
“You a single?” a stocky man with a heavy Long Island accent wanted to know.
“What’s your handicap?” he demanded.
“Eleven,” I replied.
He thought for a minute, then said, “Ok, my group needs a fourth. We’re the third car in line. Come over and meet the guys.”
Manny was the fellow who greeted me, Marco and Jeremy were his compadres. All were locals.
“Yeah, Gene couldn’t make it this week,” Marco told me. “We needed a fourth for a game.”
“You guys do this every week?” I asked.
“Not every week,” answered Marco. “We’ll get tee times on the Red or the Green some weekends, but we try to do the Black once a month. Brings us back down to earth.”
[A couple of notes – there are actually five courses in Bethpage State Park, all designed by Tillinghast and all color coded. And I’m cleaning up the dialogue here, these boys had variations on cuss words that I’d never encountered before or since]
“So the Black is that tough, huh,” I mused.
They looked at me for a moment and almost simultaneously burst our laughing.
“Here, have a beer,” advised Manny. “We’ll tell you all about it.”
In an effort to keep the riff-raff (i.e., high-handicap players) off the course, there’s a sign on the first tee of the Black stating the following:
“WARNING! – The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers”
I honestly don’t remember that much about the round, other than I broke even money wise and it was like the Bataan Death March. At that time there were no carts allowed on the Black and there’s a surprising amount of elevation change; that, combined with a hot sun, lots of waiting (apparently, other Highly Skilled Golfers were having issues), minimal sleep, spotty conditioning, and Tillinghast’s diabolically positioned cross bunkers (which seemed to be precisely located where my tee shots and approaches landed) made for a less than enchanting experience.
Manny and Company made the round bearable. We played a game of 6-6-6 (six hole matches, alternating partners), and there was plenty of good natured (and profanity laced) needling back and forth that kept everyone entertained. And the beer afterwards was nice and cold.
Things have changed at Bethpage State Park (and the New York State Parks system in general) since those days, thanks in large part to a woman named Bernadette Castro, the COO of a Long Island furniture chain (and longtime piñata for NYC radio blight Don Imus) who was named state Park and Recreation Commissioner under the George Pataki administration. Ms Castro managed to get a large capital investment into all of the state parks of New York, many of which include golf courses. Moreover, she convinced the USGA to bring the US Open to Bethpage Black in 2002.
The conditions at all New York State Parks have improved dramatically as a result, and nowhere is that more evidenced than at the various golf facilities throughout the state. For Long Islanders, this also includes Montauk Downs State Park, a Robert Trent Jones beauty located on the tip of the island that is mostly routed in a circular fashion to vary the effect of the ever-changing Atlantic Ocean winds. Despite its remote location, the line forms early at the Downs as well.
Bethpage is more easily accessed than Shinnecock Hills, so this year’s PGA Championship should bring out New Yawkers in droves. I hope Manny and Company will be there to cheer and jeer their respective favorites and villains (Phil Mickelson is extremely popular among the New York crowd; Sergio Garcia, not so much), and the other locals will kibitz and compare notes as to how hard or easy the Black is playing, what score they made on a given hole, the odd of Tiger pulling off a shot that was absolute jail for them . . .
Oh – and maybe a swear word or two.