Bethpage State Park Red Course

6,570 yards, 127 slope from the Middle tees

“We’re all getting birdies here.” Waiting on the Sixteenth tee, the older gentleman in the Notre Dame gear proclaimed it so. All of us would walk away with birdies on this hole and there was no other possibility. It seemed promising enough as everyone got off the tee well, except me, who found some trees on the right. Notre Dame was unmoved from his position. “It’s a par 5, so you’ll be able to get back in position for your birdie.” As we kept playing the hole, he kept repeating the mantra, “we’re all getting birdies here.” To his credit, we all had a birdie putt at least. And while we didn’t in fact come away with birdies, we all had pars. Yet more to the point, as we were all hitting our shots moving closer and closer to the green, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one that believed him, determined to make it so. The power of positive thinking indeed.

The golfers you get paired up with is one of the things I enjoy the most about Bethpage. This is a Mecca of public golf and most here have a deep appreciation and knowledge of the game. They take the longer rounds in stride, content to talk among the group of strangers who become fast friends, rooting for each other throughout the round. And then at the last, hands are shaken and everyone goes their separate ways, probably never to see one another again but alas, for the time during the round, are as thick as thieves. So when Notre Dame sounded the call for birdies at the Sixteenth, we did our best to rise to the challenge. Because who were we to make a liar out of him. And because shit, pars through the group is nothing to take lightly and if anyone asked us from that point forward, pars is what he hoped for anyways.

The Red was designed by A.W. Tillinghast and opened in 1935. It came before the Black, which began construction a year after the Red was opened. There is also the Yellow, Blue and Green courses, a massive public park project where each course had its own identity and intent. Of the courses, the Black and Red get singled out for the two best and their personalities provide us with just as much insight of each course as they do of the other. The Black was intended as an ultimate test of golf while the Red was intended as a more strategic, more fun and more light-hearted course. Make no mistake, however, the Red is an excellent design in its own right. Just because it may not have the outright challenge of the Black is of no consequence and simply defines the differences between the two courses. In fact, one could argue that the Red was intended to host many more rounds and engage the public while the Black would stand for those who wanted their skills stretched to the utmost.

There are, however, similarities between the Red and Black in terms of its large scale and how the holes are configured to the terrain but instead of focusing on outright challenge off the tee and emphasizing penal elements throughout like the Black, the Red features more chances of recovery, more strategy from tee to green and a more interesting set of greens. The course engages the golfer and provides countless scenarios where he must think his way around and wants to be inventive at his chances at redemption. More to the point, the Red would be an excellent Tillinghast design if the Black never came to be. Yet with the younger brother Black actually existing and next to the Red, both courses enjoy a symbiotic relationship, feeding off the the other’s differences and making Bethpage one of the best public golf destinations any where.

The timing of this review is fortuitous, as I just recently visited Bethpage a matter of weeks ago. It helped crystallize my thoughts on the Red, even though I played the Black and was only able to see it from afar. The two courses most certainly were supposed to exist in separate spheres with separate identities. The Black may make the golfer cry, yet the Red makes the golfer beam.

The First is a 459 yard par 4 (from the Middle tees). From the top off the hill upon which the clubhouse rests, we head out with the Black Eighteenth to our right, the green on the same hill as their tee. The fairway bends and climbs to the green simple enough yet the longer approach in amplifies the efficacy of the undulations comprising the complex.

The First
Looking back

The Second is a 387 yard par 4. A dog leg left where the differences between the Black are becoming evident. More intimate, less penal and at least at this point, a gentler opening sequence. The turn does make the tee shot one to think on since driver will likely be too much club heading straight out. The green is straightforward with the fairway feeding right into it, a single bunker on the left side.

The Second
Approach shot territory
The green

The Third is a 368 yard par 4. A dog leg right with more width than the hole prior, this time the single bunker is on the right side of the green. It’s almost like the exact counterpart to the Second. Interestingly, we have not yet encountered a fairway bunker, unless we count those bordering the First that are on the Black. The small depression before the green also varies this hole, complicating the approach in a little.

The Third
Approach shot territory
The green

The Fourth is a 158 yard par 3. The course starts to wake up a bit. The green sits on a ridge with the space before it pulling down and to the left. The bunker front left lines the base of the green and may will pray their shot ends up in it if they miss short. The green is wide and some what shallow. In fact, those who go beyond the green will find themselves on the Eighteenth tee of the Black. Also mind the overall right to left movement of every shot.

The Fourth
Views of the back nine of the neighboring Black

The Fifth is a 510 yard par 5. We head down the hill to the next tee only to find the fairway slithering back up, our shots needing to slalom around the turns and trees to reach the green. The narrowness and turns are enough for the golfer to handle on the first and second shots but bunkers start to crop up near the green on both sides. The green is modest in size, keeping with the the theme of the hole, which seems to encourage if not altogether demand a fair amount of accuracy in each shot. To be fair, the hills on either side funnel shots back to the fairway yet the trees have a way of interfering with that when they so choose.

The Fifth
Moving up the fairway

The Sixth is a 337 yard par 4. Our foray into the forest on the last ends with this tee shot, which is wide open. Of course, the green is almost ninety degree to the left, furiously sweeping over without regard for any sense of gradualness. This places more interest and thought into the tee shot and if pulled off correctly, opens up the approach where only the low left side consists of hazards.

The Sixth
Approach shot territory

The Seventh is a 154 yard par 3. The course had my curiosity, now it had my attention. The green is sprawled on a rift of hills and mounds that all sway off to the right. The bunkering finally comes alive, off set on each side with a bit of space to the green. The right side will pull down towards the woods and a shot over there will be risky, unless it ends up in the bunker and is saved from moving any more down the hill and into the trees. The green is generous in size amidst all of this yet the golfer needs to work at ensuring his line is a correct one.

The Seventh
The rise on the right
Left side of the green

The Eighth is a 378 yard par 4. We now find ourselves in the type of width and scale the Black is known for and there’s even a few fairway bunkers off to the sides. The hole kind of leers to the right in reaching the green where a nice green side bunker on the right puts us all on notice is to be avoided. The green opens up most to those on the left side yet it’s more a matter of preference and the primary goal here is to avoid the greenside bunkers that menace from all sides.

The Eighth
Approach shot territory
From the left

The Ninth is a 449 yard par 4. While Tillinghast mostly runs the holes back and forth over the terrain, most of them are dog legs which varies their direction and ensures golfers are not in too much peril from wayward shots on adjacent holes. Where they dog leg also varies, such as here where the turn comes early off the tee. Heading left, the golfer may decide on cutting the turn but that brings in the possibility of running into the fairway bunkers on the right side. The green is well guarded with bunkers on both sides and with such a narrow entry point, most all approaches will need to come in through the air.

The Ninth
Approach shot territory
The green

The front nine starts off with a bang before a calmer few holes sets the tone until the contrast in width and hazard placement dazzles the golfer to a grander finishing duo. The par 3’s set themselves apart while the par 4’s are well. varied. I would rank them 1, 7, 4, 6, 8, 9, 5, 3, 2.

The back nine starts with the 416 yard par 4 Tenth. Width continues as we dog leg right to the green, bunkers and fescue protecting the inside of the turn. The bunkers tighten the fairway but then it expands out to the green with a nice entry point and bunkers at the wings, far enough out to only come into play on terribly misplaced approaches.

The Tenth
Short approach

The Eleventh is a 416 yard par 4. A longer, more gradual bend to the right as evergreens line both sides of the more slender fairway. The trees now demand some attention from the golfer and they must as we head to the green, where a single green side bunker greets us on the right.

The Eleventh
Approach shot territory
The green

The Twelfth is a 189 yard par 3. The bunkering is more expansive on both sides of the green yet like the Seventh, the room between them and up to the green is enough to counterbalance them. The undulations between those bunkers, however, ensure the golfer can’t simply plop his ball any where; proper attention must be paid as to where the ball lands and where it will end up upon landing. A splendid green shares this delightful movement and the course continues to shine with its par 3’s.

The Twelfth

The Thirteenth is a 385 yard par 4. Whether it is here or the hole prior, the course elevates its structure of play and begins to assert its wonderful charm even more than it already has to this point. I would say it is here. We are met with an innocuous tee shot, especially to someone playing it for the first time who doesn’t know what lies ahead. There are bunkers on the left but they are more or less red herrings to the main feature, which is a magnificently large cluster of bunkers taking up the center of the fairway. The golfer must decide whether he would like to move left, right or short of them off the tee, which then directly affects his approach line into the green. The left is the toughest path but yields the best line into the green while the right side is safer yet makes the approach more precarious, bringing more directly into play the green side hazards. It’s a wonderful hole of strategy and precision.

The Thirteenth
Moving down the fairway
The center bunkers
The green finally in view
From the right

The Fourteenth is a 421 yard par 4. A dog leg left that transitions us out of this part of the course, moving us closer to its final stages. Bunkers on the left guard the inside of the turn while those trying to stay away from it on the right will be met with a much longer approach into the green. The green pleasantly moves while the below grande bunkers are a bit deceptive in how challenging they are to recover back into position.

The Fourteenth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory, from the right

The Fifteenth is a 438 yard par 4. The trees are used so well and that is especially true here, where they entice and flummox the golfer all at the same time. The tee shot seems straightforward enough yet the green can be seen through the trees off to the right. Those tempted to hedge to the right will not be rewarded, as there is long grass and rough in that entire area, the fairway doing well to keep to the left. Simultaneously, the golfer must clear the trees to have a clear approach into the green, which sits uphill and after the fairway turns a couple ways into it. It is more uphill than it looks and the bunker on the left helps with this illusion, which sits about 50 yards away from the green. It’s a remarkable approach.

The Fifteenth
Approach shot territory
The green

The Sixteenth is a 535 yard par 5. So we get to the hole my group was determined to birdie. A hard dog leg right off the tee, my miss to the right fortuitously left me a line out and into the fairway, cutting of a good deal of the turn and indeed putting me back in position with albeit a longer approach to the green. I would not recommend it, as there’s a significant ravine within the trees capable of moving the ball into some harsh unsavory lies while the tree are dense enough to entangle the golfer. I simply lucked out and could have easily been on the other side of it. After the turn, the fairway moves uphill with bunkers a good amount short of the green, again leaving the impression they are closer to the green than they appear. The green moves back to front and is fairly wide. We didn’t all get those birdies, but we all got pars and that’s something I’ll take any time.

The Sixteenth
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
The green

The Seventeenth is a 153 yard par 3. Pay no attention to where the tees are lined up or you’ll end up in the forest. Instead, take the bunker straight on and carry it to reach a green that is much larger than it appears from the tee. Visuals are once again at play here and the golfer is rewarded for playing through them and taking on the hazards. The set of par 3’s finishes tremendously.

The Seventeenth

The Eighteenth is a 401 yard par 4. Similar to the First, we tee off on one hilltop and make our way to the other, yet the green here remains in the valley. A prominent bunker on the right entices off the tee, as the golfer can see the right to left cant and believes he needs to get close to the bunker to manage the slope. I like the left side all the way, which provides the best angle into the green. The approach will need to be aerial to carry the rough and bunkers guarding the last green, which may have the best movement out of all of them. The Eighteenth green of the Black is close by, close enough to hear the cries of the golfers counting up their scorecard, while those on the Red want to walk right back to the First tee and see how they fare with what they just learned on that go round.

The Eighteenth
Approach shot territory
The green

The back nine ramps up in distinction, memorability and excitement, with two very solid par 3’s and a delectable collection of par 4’s. I would rank them 13, 15, 18, 17, 12, 10, 16, 14, 11.

Generally, Bethpage Red is a very well designed course by Tillinghast where he plays on pace, rhythm, width and visuals so the golfer never stops thinking or plotting his way through the round. The variety of hazards and direction and movement is subtle at first but gains momentum as the round progresses. The greens have a lot of interest, which honestly saves some of the more redundant dog legs and enhances some of the holes that are splendid from tee to green in their own right. While the comparisons to the Black are inevitable, one must ask how this course would fare standing on its own. It is then that one realizes how great the course is. The terrain and how it is used and the vibrant variety in all respects (those dog legs could even be seen as appropriate reprieves) is impressive. The reality is, however, the Red is and always will be conjoined with the Black and the others, which is a gift to us all in providing a full spectrum of golf experiences.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: All of the courses enjoy the same clubhouse and shop, which are outlined in my review of the Black.

Practice area: Same as well.