Bethpage State Park Black Course

6,704 yards, 145 slope from the Middle tees

Course:  As part of the Bethpage state park system, the Black course is its crown jewel.  Built by A.W. Tillinghast in 1936, he was commissioned with building a stern test of golf that would rival Pine Valley.  Set on dramatic hilly and sandy terrain, Tilly had quite the grand landscape to work with.  He responded in kind, building holes of a grand scale, fraught with character, each asserting itself after the other in its own separate way.  A decidedly demanding driving course off the tee and just as challenging to the green, Bethpage Black is a difficult and heroic course that delves in strategy and flexibility in stretches.  Tilly did well in creating immense holes that climb and drop over a vast acreage of meadows and woods, relying on forced carries to towering greens, elaborate bunkers and lush rough that can be outright punishing.  In more ways that one, it’s a truly grand course.

Bethpage Black is the flagship municipal golf course in the U.S.  It is ranked in the top 100 golf courses in the world (Golf Magazine 2017/18: 52) and is a perennial favorite of countless golfers from all walks of life. From the architecture nerd (me), the single index handicapper (definitely not me) to the casual golfer, the appeal of Bethpage is widespread and universal; not a cult favorite, a lesser known or an overhyped resort course.  Likewise, it’s accessible to all and the green fees are a fraction of what you’d expect from playing such a classic treasure.

Alas, the accessibility of Bethpage Black is one of if not the biggest treasures to public golf in the U.S.  Being able to golf at one of the best courses in the world, a classic legend that was one of the pinnacle achievements of one of the best course architects ever, for almost 3 times less than Pebble Beach or Shadow Creek, is municipal golf at its best.

Of course, there is quite the demand to play the course, which has resulted in a procedural system in place to secure a tee time.  In-state residents are able to make tee times a week in advance, yet they go pretty fast.  Non-residents can book a few days in advance for any tee times that are still available.  Either way, you must register with the course, provide a driver’s license and get a registration number in order to book.  There is also an elaborate system for walk-ups, as tee times are set aside for them.  These tee times are doled out on a first come-first served basis, so scores of golfers have been known to sleep in the parking lot the night before to get a chance to play the course.  While all this is in place, I have heard that walking up on most weekday afternoons as a single, or even as a twosome, can get you on fairly easily.  There are websites dedicated to guide you through getting a the time at Bethpage but in reality, it’s not that complicated.  In fact, we drove up there without any plans in place, stayed the night and then walked up in the morning to secure an afternoon tee time after our first round at Engineer’s.  It was painless.

While the Black course is the star here, the Bethpage park system has a number of courses, including the Red, Green, Yellow and Blue.  The Red is another Tilly design and while quite different from the Black, is likewise revered and praised.  The Blue course is the this Tilly design and also worth a play. I need to get back and play the Red and Blue ASAP.

Bethpage Black has been my Moby Dick of golf courses for years now.  I have declared to anyone listening how I was going to march up to Long Island and play it, even registering in the system more than six years ago, but never managed to make it happen.  The course hosts one of the FedEx playoffs fairly regularly, which usually takes it out of play for at least a month during those years, it closes some time in November and I think is always closed on Mondays, so the window to play is much narrower than other courses.  Coupled with trying to find someone to go with, season after season went by without me putting together a plan and getting up there.  Finally, I was able to play it not due to anything I did, but fortunately I was able to go with a group that had a plan in place; all I had to do was show up.  So in the end, the good will and well laid plans of others finally got me the white whale, the castle-on-the-hill of public courses, a mere 2 hours from my front door.  And it was glorious.

The First is a 429 yard par 4 (from the Middle tees).  A sweeping dog leg right with trees clustered on the inside of the turn to block going for it from the elevated tee.  Most will face a longer approach into the deep and narrow green with deep cut bunkers on either side.  This is also the introduction to the rough, which is thick, lush and deep.  Hitting into it off the tee only compounds the difficulty getting to the green.  Despite the width and scale before you on the tee, the area for an ideal landing area is quite small.  The green slopes from back to front.  I found that most of the greens were moderately challenging yet straightforward.  I think this moderation is well designed, as it is so challenging from tee to green that there is no reason for the greens to be overly protective or complicated.  They have subtlety and require acumen to negotiate, but are more than happy as second chair to the tees, fairways and bunkers.

The First

A look at the green

The greenside bunker on the left side

The Second is a 389 yard par 4.  Crossing over Round Swamp Road gets you there, with the dog leg left ahead, into a valley with high ridges on both sides and the green set on a bluff where the ridges converge.  The approach shot is blind, with a bunker in front and below the green, and the green on a terrace, up against a hillside on the far side.

It should also be mentioned that Bethpage Black is walking only.  You can hire a caddie or use a pull cart, but you can’t take a cart unless you fall under a medical exemption.  One of the guys I played with who’s a regular said it’s about an 8 mile walk, with hundreds of feet in changing elevation, so keep that mind.  Walking the course as the second round of the day on a warmer day wasn’t what I always envisioned, but it was good exercise.

The Second

Approach shot territory

Looking back at the fairway from the green, with the immense bunker, largely hidden from view on the fairway, off to the left

The Third is a 158 yard par 3.  The hole is set on the ridge to the left of the Second, with a fall off into bunkers on the left and a bunker on the front right.  The green is angled from 4:00 to 10:00 and there is a run up to the green in front.  The green is generous and there are plenty of places to miss, so make the most of this hole, especially considering what’s coming up.

The Third

The Fourth is a 461 yard par 5.  As well bunkered a hole as you’ll ever see, the fairway starts out straight before turning left, with bunkers on the inside of the turn, then the fairway ends at a large cavern bunker that carves towards the right.  The fairway continues above the bunkers, moving up and to the right, around another set of bunkers that are in front of and below the green.  There are so many ways to play this hole, so many bad places to miss where recovery is still possible and so many shots that need to be executed well to walk away with a good score that this instantly became one of my favorite holes in golf.

I should note that even though I’ve wanted to play here for years, I was surprised how many holes I was unaware of existing.  This was one of them and it wasn’t until after the round when I raved on and on about it to anyone that would listen that I learned it is one of the more celebrated holes on the course.  Well, for good reason!

The Fourth, from the tips

The Fourth, from the Middle tees

A little closer

Moving down the fairway, the first row of bunkers

Approach shot territory

The Fifth is a 423 yard par 4.  From the elevated tee, the fairway dog legs right, around a larger bunker complex off the right side of the fairway.  The effect is that of a Cape hole, where you decide how much to take try and carry of the bunkers for placement on the fairway.  From the fairway, the green is perched on a ridge, with a blind approach shot with large bunkers on the far and near side.  A great hole where you need to shape shots and draw your best on both the tee and fairway shots.

The Fifth

A closer look at the fairway

Approach shot territory

The Sixth is a 386 yard par 4.  A nice little halfway house awaits between the Fifth and Sixth and then you’re off, with a forced carry the shot over a ravine to the fairway, which dog legs left and pinches in pretty narrow where two larger cross bunkers reside.  The green is below the fairway is surrounded on all sides by sunken bunkers, demanding the utmost precision on the approach.

The Sixth

Approach shot territory

The Seventh is a 525 yard par 5.  Similar to the Fifth, a diagonal bunker off the right side of the fairway presents a risk/reward off the tee, with the more distance carried resulting in a better position for the second shot.  The holes continues to turn right, with trees on the right side hugging the fairway, making left to left center ideal.  Bunkers on the either side of the front of the green create more angling for the approach shot and the green definitely has some movement to it.

The Seventh

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The Eighth is a 191 yard par 3.  One of the first forced carries over water from the elevated tee to the deep green that is multi-tiered, with bigger bunkers lining the back side.  I had a pretty nice round going until the hole, where my chip went above the hole and it took too many putts going back and forth over it.  Suffice to say it’s one of the more challenging greens.

The Eighth

The Ninth is a 385 yard par 4.  A dog leg left with a forced carry tee shot over a ravine to a fairway that dog legs to the left, as well as slopes from left to right.  Climbing uphill to the green that is partially blind from the approach, the green is separated from the fairway, surrounded by rough and cross bunkers on the front side.  I enjoyed this hole a lot.  The movement of the fairway and the positioning of the green gave you a lot of different ways to get to the green and using the slopes to get the ball running in the right direction is a good part of the strategy here.  

The Ninth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The front nine rises and falls with each hole, with fantastic bunkering terrific green sites and a lot more subtlety from tee to green than I anticipated, all for a very strong set of nine holes.  I’d rank them 4, 5, 6, 9, 2, 1, 8, 3, 7.

The back nine starts with the 434 yard par 4 Tenth.  There are bunkers lining both sides of the fairway, most of the ones on the left are hidden from the tee.  The fairway turns a little to the left before ending well short of the green, so the approach will likely need to carry the rough between the fairway and green to hit it.  Similar to the Ninth in emphasizing an aerial approach to the green, Tilly would mix in a variety of approaches to the greens, some forced carries, some allowing for the ground game, some blind.  Like several holes here, the tee shot is almost the most important shot to set up for the approach.  The areas off green and sloping on the far side are also a little different than prior holes and place a twist on the challenges around the green seen elsewhere.

The Tenth

A look at the green from a left side fairway bunker

The green

The sloping areas off the far side of the green

The Eleventh is a 421 yard par 4.  The hole seems straight away to the green, but is actually angled off to the left.  Like the Tenth, there are a series of bunkers lining both sides of the fairway.  The green is slightly elevated, with a narrow opening from the fairway.  The bunkering around the green is substantial.  The shaping is great; no bunker is round, but rather they elongate and branch.  I suspect that Rees Jones did a lot of work to the greenside bunkers as well.

The Eleventh 

From the back tees

Approach shot territory

The Twelfth is a 432 yard par 4.  Speaking of bunkers, they become the forefront of the tee shot here. The raised bunker on the left challenges those off the tee to carry it, or steer clear to the right, where the fairway is narrow and bunkers and rough are off fairway to the right.  After the fairway bunkers, the fairway darts off to the left, where a couple greenside bunkers await.  The green is generous and slopes from back to front.

The Twelfth 

Approach shot territory

Closer approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 480 yard par 5.  The fairway tightens up a little more than other holes, with trees lining both sides and sloping towards the left.  Each shot must be thought out to make sure the next gives you a chance to adequately advance to the green.  The green it self is set behind a raised bunker and creates the illusion that simply carrying the bunker is enough to reach the green.  In fact, it’s still 10 – 15 yards away.  Very much a demanding hole with not a whole lot of room for misses.

The Thirteenth

Moving down the fairway, with the shadows playing havoc 

Approach shot territory

The Fourteenth is a 149 yard par 3.  The green has an intriguing shape, narrow towards the front then widening towards the rear.  Along with the valley between the tee and green, as well as the large bunker complex short right, you may be tempted to hit it more towards the rear of the green, but the slope will take those shots well off the back side.  It’s almost better to flirt with the front side or front center.  A nicely designed shorter par 3 with complexity.

The Fourteenth

The Fifteenth is a 430 yard par 4.  Crossing back over Round Swamp Road, the closing stretch of holes does its best to make your score card irrelevant and presents some of the more well known and memorable holes on the course.  The tee shot gives you a generous fairway, mainly to give you more of an opportunity for a chance at the approach shot, to the green that is set high atop what is affectionately called Cardiac Hill, with bunkers along the front slope in front of it.  One of the more heroic shots on the course that’s a do or die moment for the round.

The Fifteenth

Looking left from the Fifteenth, at the Sixteenth green and Seventeenth

Approach shot territory, with Cardiac Hill awaiting

Approach shot territory

The Sixteenth is a 457 yard par 4.  An elevated tee shot to a fairway that bends to the left.  The green is between two bunkers on the near and far side, which means most tee shots will need to be aerial.  Those that find the right angle off the tee, however, will have more options to the green and be able to use the opening from the fairway.

The Sixteenth

A look at the green

The Seventeenth is a 195 yard par 3.  While the hourglass green is set perpendicular to the tee and is wide yet shallow, you get the bunker placement on the hill creating the sense that there’s no where to hit other than in a bunker.  Distance control is vital and if you end up in a bunker, it’ll likely be a delicate shot needed to make sure you don’t end up in another one.  A fantastic par 3 that uses the hillside brilliantly.

The Seventeenth 

The Eighteenth is a 394 yard par 4.  Likely the most famous hole and/or most photographed holes of the course, the view from the tee is stunning, showing the golfer what lies ahead all the way to the green.  The symmetry of the bunkers on each side is remarkable, tightening up just where tee shots will be landing.  The green is set on the same hill as the First tee, which gently slopes.  The hole gets infinitely tougher if you end up off fairway or off green.  A manageable distance, precision of placement is important.  Otherwise, hopefully your bunker game is in great shape by now.

The Eighteenth

Moving up to the green with the clubhouse looking down

The back nine plays tougher than the front yet with that comes memorability.  The subtlety and complexity of the course shines on the back, reminding you that this is a course to be learned.  Ranking them, I’d go 17, 18, 15, 14, 12, 10, 16, 11, 13.

Generally, I was a lot more impressed with Bethpage Black than I anticipated.  While the course is known for its length and rough, with the consensus being brute strength is needed to play it well, I found it to be a lot more complex than that, with great green and bunker placements creating an array of options.  The holes all stood out on their own as unique, presenting varying degrees of challenge, strategy and beauty.  Unlike other more challenging courses where I feel a sense of exhaustion and necessary rejuvenation before I play it again, I was raring to get out there as soon as we were done, playing different tee shots in my head, attacking different sides of greens and fairway, convinced I could shave bushels of strokes off my score.  It deserves whatever praise bestowed upon it and is likely now my favorite public course.  I will be back soon!

Gripes:  The clubhouse was essentially closed when we were done with the round.  No pro shop, no food, nothing.  And we weren’t the last group in either.  Beyond this, I think the course is pretty well organized considering the sheer amount of play it receives but conversely, shouldn’t the hours of the clubhouse be able to accommodate that?

Bar/Grill:  Looked decent, overlooking the Eighteenth.  We couldn’t get food though, so ended up leaving and finding some where else.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop:  Pretty large with a ton of stuff, all well priced.  When it’s open…

Practice area:  I know there’s a driving range, but we had no time to check it out.  We literally walked to the First tee, checked in, and away we went.

Nearby:  We found a Chili’s a few minutes away.  Probably other stuff too.

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