Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Bethpage Black gets the Ryder Cup

Following the announcement that Bethpage Black will host both the 2019 PGA Championship and the 2024 Ryder Cup, I thought I would rehash re-post the account of my Bethpage experience of May 2012. If you've never played this incredible course, make sure it's on your list. 

I have previously written about the presence of Bethpage Black on my golfing 'bucket list' and, luckily, I was able to tick this item off just over a week ago. I was also fortunate enough to play more than just the Black course, so this documents my whole Bethpage Experience - the Black & Green courses on the Saturday and the Yellow on the Sunday.

Bethpage State Park. The Mecca of golf on Long Island, NY. Five courses, of varying degrees of difficulty and accessibility - from the relatively straightforward Yellow & Green, through the Blue to the Red and finally, the piece de resistance, the Black, host course for the 2002 and 2009 US Open and The Barclays in the 2012 FedEx Cup.

Earlier this month, I found myself with a spare weekend in New York following a working week in Manhattan. I had the bonus of bringing my golf clubs with me (free with Virgin Atlantic, if you are interested) and, given the sun was shining it would have been daft not to make the effort to play at least one of the courses at Bethpage. 

Clearly, the Black was high on the agenda - I felt I have a good enough game to get round without making a complete tit of myself - but the question was whether I would be able to get a tee time. 

Many words have been written about the original process of queuing in the car park, even camping overnight, in order to secure a slot the next day. There is now an automated reservations system (you need to fax a copy of your driving licence to become registered) but my experience dictates that this is largely a fruitless exercise. I spent a good couple of hours on the Thursday night trying to get a time booked on the Saturday with no success. I decided, therefore, to bite the bullet and go hardcore - I would get the train from Penn Station, get to the club at silly o'clock and wait as long as necessary to get a tee time on the Black course.

So, as my alarm clock sounded in the depths of Friday night/Saturday morning and I glanced across to see this sight, I did begin to wonder what on earth I was doing. Unbowed, I got ready and marched out of my apartment to hail a cab for the short hop across Manhattan to Penn Station. To get to Farmingdale (the nearest station) at an appropriate hour for queuing, there are two choices - either get the 0253 or 0443 Ronkonkoma train. These take just under an hour so, to ensure I got there in plenty of time, I plumped for the 0253 option. This is, essentially, the last train of the night (the next one is the first train of the following day) so you can probably imagine the scenes of carnage which greeted me on the LIRR concourse at Penn Station. I can safely say, without fear of contradiction, that I was the only sober person on that train and certainly the only eejit carrying a set of golf clubs.

As we ploughed further along Long Island, the crowds gradually dissipated leaving only a few hardy souls on board as we pulled into Farmingdale just before 0400. Upon leaving the train, I made the decision that the fresh air would do me good and opted to walk the mile-and-a-bit to the golf course, which certainly got me a couple of strange glances from the waiting taxi drivers. There was a steady stream of cabs available so that would certainly be an option, although I understand it can be expensive relative to the distance being travelled. The walk took about 20 minutes so it was just after 0400 when I was greeted with this sign welcoming me to the Park.

There were plenty of cars already in the car park (on the immediate right hand side as you drive into the Park), so I made my way to the back of the line and waited for the tickets to be dished out. It was then that I received my first stroke of luck of the day. An occupant of a car some six or seven spaces ahead of me in the queue made his way over, ostensibly to use the facilities. He then enquired whether I was on my own and offered me a space in his car with him and his cousin. Joe and Kenny were both extremely friendly and their assistance was greatly appreciated, both in terms of jumping the queue and giving me a lift back to Farmingdale to source some breakfast.

So, how does the system work? Well, your place in the (very) early morning queue entitles you to receive a numbered ticket, the order of which allows you to purchase a green fee depending on availability. These are dished out to all occupants of the car as you drive up to the main car park by the clubhouse. You then make your way to the pro shop and mill about outside until your numbered ticket is called. You then wait in line at the walk-up window and make your choice of course and tee time from the available slots on the five screens (one for each course) and pay your green fee. Given I was playing solo, I had pretty much free reign to choose whichver tee time I wanted, so I would tee off at 0709 on the Black course. I also decided (when in Rome, and all that) that it would be a wasted opportunity not to play another course, so took a slot on the Green course for later in the afternoon as well. Having paid the necessary fees ($150 on the Black; $43 on the Green) I was presented with my two receipts to be handed to the starters and a sartorially-challenging wristband was affixed for the Black course. This process was done and dusted by about 0500, so I had a couple of hours to kill until game time.

As well as getting some breakfast sorted (thanks for the ride, Joe), I was able to wander around, soak up the atmosphere and take some pictures prior to kick off.

Having got myself suitable prepared (pull cart rented, sunscreen applied, yardage book purchased, putting practice done) I made my way to the first tee, past the foreboding warning sign and met up with my three playing

The 1st tee - 50p...dinner plate...50p...dinner plate
partners for the day. Brandon (5 hcp) had played the day before and shot 91, so that met my expectations for trying to break 100. George and Jeff were virgins on the Black, so this would be a great experience for all of us. It was never formally discussed which tee we would be playing from but once Brandon placed his ball between the blue markers, it certainly felt the right thing to do.

I won't bore you rigid with a blow-by-blow account of my round (it would definitely take too long) but there are a couple of things to highlight. First and foremost is the rough. The first cut, a strip no more than three or four feet wide, is reasonable enough. Playing from here and you have a semblance of control on the ball and, all being well, it won't punish you. The second cut, however, is a bitch. It is a good two-three inches deep in places and is tufty, so the ball has a tendency to get buried, which means hacking out to the fairway is a good result.

#6 - 200+yds to an island green? Sure, why not...
The picture to the right, showing the approach to #6, shows the two cuts of rough to the left of the fairway.

This rough also has a nasty habit of showing up all around the greens, depriving you of a ground route to the dancefloor which, when you are faced with 200+yds to carry to the green, can be challenging to say the least.

That doesn't even begin to cover the issues
#4 - a good up-and-down for par for me here
with the thick fescue grass which makes up the third cut. Go in here and you are in serious bother, generally resulting in a lost ball. This stuff is deep - even if you find the ball, you'll do well to get it out, as I discovered on #2 when decent contact with a PW advanced the ball no more than 6ft.

Couple that issue with the occasionally ridiculous slopes on the course, and you are presented with a serious test of your golfing ability. This manifested itself most prominently on holes #4 and #15, both of which combine significant length with uphill slopes.

Bunkers - as you can see from a number of pictures, there are a lot of them. They are immaculately maintained with plenty of soft, white sand and, whilst I found more than my fair share of beach during the round, I didn't encounter many issues escaping from them, up-and-downs at #4 and #16 being particular highlights.

Once on the green, I actually found them to be relatively straightforward. I've played a few courses where reading the greens is nigh on impossible for pace and line, but these were generally pretty easy. They were very true and, whilst quick, were certainly not like marble. This made a big difference to the game - if I had struggled as much as I did with the rough, only to find myself three or four putting every hole, it would have been too much to bear. Having the confidence that, even if I missed the green, I could get away with a one or two putt was a real plus.

#16 - teed off here thinking it was a par-5..
All too quickly I found the round was coming to a close - I went out in 50 (multiple-snots on #2 and #9 did the damage) and, having set myself a goal of staying under three figures, I was very pleased to come back in 45, including pars at #14, #16 and #18, for a 95.

Considering how badly I was hitting the ball off the tee, this was a really good result. My tip for playing this course well is certainly to take your medicine when straying from the fairway, which you will definitely do. Don't be afraid to chop out and try to play for position to get up and down - the greens are large enough and fair enough to enable you to do it. Unless you are going to play it more than once, play it from the tips. I mean, why not?

#17 - not the largest dancefloor on the course

#18 - homeward bound
So, having walked the 7000-odd yards and made 95 blows, I enjoyed the relatively short rest before my tee time on the Green that afternoon. I am overjoyed that I have ticked off this bucket list course and, whilst I cannot be certain that I will ever play it again, it's good to know it didn't obliterate my game. 

And now on to the Green course. I was paired up with a family group - a father & son - Jack & Chris (surname Ryan - I kid you not) - plus Jack's brother-in-law John. This course was, to be honest, a bit of an anti-climax following the morning's action. There was a noticeable difference in the quality of this course compared to its more famous sibling, not just in layout but in terms of maintenance - rough round the edges doesn't quite cover it. 

The pace was, at best, pedestrian and the round took well over five hours. This wasn't ideal, considering the majority of people were in carts - apart from your author, who made the decision to walk and regretted it almost instantly - and the course wasn't that taxing in terms of length. I lost count of the number of times we were held up on the tee whilst the group in front assessed their 230+yds second shots, waiting for the green to clear only to top the ball no more than 20 yards ahead of them - the usual scenario. The front 9 holes took us more than three-and-a-half hours, which is poor by anyone's standards. That we managed to finish the round in under six hours is testimony to the more open layout of the back 9.

I managed to eke out a handful of pars and put together a run of decent holes at the start of the back 9 - hitting fairways and GIR with impunity and even putting well - before the effects of nearly ten hours walking in 80 degree heat and playing more than 170 shots took its toll. I was certainly glad to reach the 18th green (involving a very significant climb up to the green - harsh) and shake hands with my playing partners.

I was also thankful for the company which was a source of almost constant amusement - John, bless him, will never make a golfer whilst he has a hole in his arse but his application, desire to learn from others and determination in the face of comically bad golf has to be admired & applauded. Great guys and a real nice family.

By the time I had returned my pull cart, packed up my gear and got ready to depart, it was well after 7pm. The trains from Farmingdale back to Manhattan run at six minutes past the hour, so I had plenty of time to walk down, pick up a balanced and nutritious dinner at the 7-Eleven and wait for the train just after 8pm. I had plenty to look forward to as I would be back at Bethpage the next day to play the Yellow course.

So, with a few hours well-earned rest under my belt, I packed up my luggage, checked out of my apartment and met my mate Dan for breakfast before the drive back out to Long Island. Whilst the train is extremely useful for those without access to a car, driving to Bethpage is remarkably straightforward, even from the centre of Manhattan. Route 495, the Long Island Expressway until exit 44S - Route 135S until exit 8 and it's a matter of minutes to the clubhouse. Including a stop for fuel (which, regardless of what anyone from the US says, is incredibly cheap at <$4 a gallon) the journey took less than an hour, so we had plenty of time to take in the surroundings, hit a few balls on the range and pick up a cart (there was no way I was walking after the previous day's exertions) before our tee time.

Generally, the Yellow course is regarded as the easiest course of the five at Bethpage. My own take is that the Green is an easier track - I felt the Yellow had more slopes, inclines and dog-legs than the Green. It was definitely more appealing visually than the Green and seemed to be better maintained as well. It's not a long course by any means, so it made for blessed relief to be hitting plenty of wedges into greens as opposed to 5 and 6 irons. The dancefloors were better than on the Green course too - some more interesting inclines and slopes, not to mention pin positions, made for an extremely enjoyable round, despite the pace of play.

Regarding the speed of the round, it was much the same story as I had experienced on the Green course the previous afternoon. Lots of time spent waiting to tee off as the group in front played their second shots (or, more frequently, searched for their balls) although, after that, we were generally able to play the rest of the hole without undue delay. There was a bottleneck of sorts around holes 7 and 8 - a long par 3 followed by a short par 4 and there were three groups waiting by the time we holed out on #6.

Dan & I had set a time limit on the round (due to my check-in time for my return flight to the UK) of stopping by 4.30pm, so it was a bit of a result to have been able to play 16 holes in this time, considering the front 9 took well over 2.5 hours. Whether other groups decided to take a rest halfway round, I don't know, but the start of the inward half was a great deal speedier.

So, looking back on my Bethpage experience, what can I recommend? If you are looking for a good course to play, with a relaxed attitude to speed of play, the Yellow course is well worth a look. I can't speak for the Blue or Red courses, but I would certainly expect them to be of a similar, if not higher, standard than the Yellow and would not disappoint. To be honest, the Green course is probably best left alone - it's not in great condition and the layout wasn't the most inspiring. Of course, if you have more than a passing interest in the game of golf, ideally coupled with a semblance of ability, you can't ignore the Black.

For anyone not a resident of NY State, it will set you back $150 for 18 holes ($75 for State residents) which, whilst expensive compared to the other four Bethpage courses, is peanuts for a US Open venue. Securing a tee time is, frankly, an exercise in dedication - for the full experience, I would say go the whole hog and get out of bed at silly o'clock and queue in the dark. You'll meet some great people, you'll more than likely get a tee time and you'll definitely be able to say you've 'done' Bethpage.

I am the Part-Time Golfer

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