by Jeff Skinner
We got to Bethpage State Park around noon and checked in. It is an amazing place with five eighteen holes courses, three designed by Tillinghast. We hit a bucket on the range, had a little lunch, putted a few and watched as the groups ahead of us tee off. Oh yea, it was 95 degrees and as humid as a steam bath, but we were playing The Black.
On a course like this you would think that the golfers that play here might be an experienced and passionate group. Think again. One of the best things about The Black is that anyone can play it. One of the worst things about The Black is that anyone can play it. One of the guys ahead of us teed off in flip flops. That’s right flip flops. We then watched him and his caddy search for his ball in the tall fescue grass on the left of the first fairway and waited for our turn.
The four of us stood on the tee and no one said it but we all were nervous as hell. It wasn’t that there were a few groups waiting behind us. It wasn’t that we feared a shot in the rough. I think that it might have been the fact that this was a special place and we didn’t want to disrespect The Black.
The course looked so different compared to the last time I saw it. Gone were the concession stands, the merchandise shops, the port-a-johns, the bleachers and the gallery ropes. There were no ropes at all, just a great course waiting for the next shots. There wasn’t a single sign that this was nothing more than a public golf course. That is until it’s your turn and you tee it up. I don’t know how I did it but I fought off a near terminal case of first tee jitters and hit it straight down the middle, right next to my brother-in-law Matt. The old guys had shown up the young guys. My son, Tyler and my nephew, Bryan were longer but both had hit the rough and Matt and I reveled in the glory of a shot right down the middle.
Of course none of us hit the green but three bogeys and a double were good enough for us and we walked to the second green all finally voicing how nervous we were on the first tee and how glad we were to walk off number one without a major train wreck.
It was our consensus that the fairway was absolutely plush and unlike any we had played on. The first green rolled very true but wasn’t as fast as we anticipated. The rough however was as advertised; deep and thick, as thick as we had seen at The Opens at The Black and at Winged Foot. It was deep and we were in trouble if we spent much of the day in there.
As we stood on the second tee and waited for Flip Flops, in the fescue again, the only thing that I feared could ruin our round rumbled closer. The forecast was for ninety plus temperatures and thunderstorms, with a chance of hail. The wind started to blow and the sky darkened, we knew we were in for it.
By the time we hit our approaches to the second green the wind was at gale force and it had started to rain. At the green the rain was coming down harder and thunder was crashing and lightning was flashing a little too close for comfort. Matt, Tyler and Bryan had headed for the safety of the maintenance garage that bordered the second hole but I wanted to get my ball out of the deep, greenside bunker that had swallowed it up. After my second attempt the ball landed on the fringe and I was off to the garage, running as fast as my old feet could carry me. A loud clap of thunder hurried my pace. The last one was really close. As I reached the garage my son had come out to see if I had survived and truth be told, I barely made it.
After I was in the shelter for less than a minute, the group ahead of us ran into the garage and told us that they watched me run for cover and about 150 yards behind me, on the third hole, a huge tree had crashed to the ground. I was indeed a lucky golfer.
After about ten minutes the rain stopped, replaced by a few minutes of hail. As we made our way back to the second green, amid the sirens of the surrounding community, we all laughed at the fact that we had survived one heck of the storm. (The storm caused thousands of homes to lose power for six days and damaged many towns in its path.) If it was our home course, we would have been out of there, but it was The Black and we were going to finish. But first we had to do a little housekeeping on the green. Leaves, branches and hail covered the green so after a quick clean up we were back at it. Unfortunately, the storm did not cool it off, it was still over ninety.
Now we were all soaked and sweaty, The Black was making us work for our first round. We hit our tee balls to the third green and as we approached the green we saw the tree that had been felled by the storm. It had fallen down the hill to the fourth hole and had littered the fourth tee with branches and debris. We played out the third, the easiest hole on the course, but had only one par in the group. Matt had back to back pars and was looking pretty comfortable despite the heat and the rain.
Matt kept it up on the fourth hole a tough par five at 461 yards and the second hardest hole on the course. Bryan got his game going with a par but I had found my third bunker in four holes and struggled to a double. I realized here that the fairway bunkers were so difficult that a punch out shot was my best option, rarely can you advance the ball down the fairway from these deep bunkers.
It got no easier at the fifth , a tough par four (423 yds) with a fairway that goes right and then back to the left to an elevated green. The best we could do was bogey and we were happy with that.
We thought we would get a breather at the sixth, with iced teas from the snack shack and only 386 to the green. We should have known better. A fairway bunker did me in. A greenside bunker took Matt out. Bryan ping ponged his chips across the green and Tyler had been done in by his usual problem: hitting it too far. He can drive it 300 yards but when it landed in the deep, thick rough of The Black, we could rarely find it. Our best at the sixth was my bogey.
The par five seventh required a healthy drive over a huge bunker and we all made it. We were ready to roll now. Bryan and I held up our end with professional pars: on in three shots and two putts.
The par three eighth was next and it was a hole I remembered well. We spent an afternoon there during the 2009 Open and watched the pros deal with the long downhill shot, over a pond to a two tiered green. The golf gods smiled upon Bryan and me and again and we managed a pair of pars. Back to back pars! This course was easy.
Our luck ran out on the ninth, as Tyler was the only one to mange a bogey on the tough par four.
By this time we all were on our fifth or sixth real good sweat but we looked worse than we felt as we were buoyed by the spirit of The Black. We were all struck by the difficulty of the course but on each new tee we welcomed the next challenge. The bunkers were deep and almost impossible to get out of. The first cut of rough, a two yard strip was deep enough to cover the top of your ball and as thick as any we had ever seen. As far as the rough, the deep, thick juicy rough that caused every group to wander back and forth searching in vain for at least one ball on each hole, let’s just say we all appreciate how difficult it is to get your ball back to the fairway, and we gave up on hitting at the greens.
We all realized that a bogey on most of these holes should be heralded as a par, so we were happy to leave the picturesque tenth with a pair of bogeys.
The eleventh is just as pretty as the tenth, another long par four surrounded by tall fescue and a bunch of bunkers. A wide fairway welcomed our tee balls but a well protected green cost us any chance at par.
On the twelfth, the fourth par four in a row, the fairway bunker isn’t as close as it looks as I found out but my plan of playing for a bogey worked as I carded another one.
We finally got a break from the streak of long par fours with a par five. The thirteenth is a 480 par five, not much longer than some of the par fours but the third toughest hole on the course. Unfortunately, the best we could do was Tyler’s bogey and moved on to the par three fourteenth.
The second easiest hole on The Black had to be a piece of cake and it could be if you hit the green somewhere near the pin. Bryan and Tyler managed to do that and had chances for a bird but both had to settle for par. Matt and I used our ingenuity to extricate ourselves from a bunker and that rough. We took our medicine and moved on.
The fifteenth is a memorable hole. Just ask Phil, his bogey in 2009 probably cost him the tournament. A long par four to an extremely elevated, two tiered green, it has beaten better men than us. I played it as a par five and was on in three and ran my first putt two feet past the hole at the back of the green. I felt I had won this hole. It was a par five to me and I was about to reap my reward when I swear the spirit of A.W Tillinghast reached up and swatted my putt away from the hole. A two foot lip out left me with a humbling, double bogey. How dare I play Tillie’s fifteenth as a par five. How dare I think I had a gimmie on one of those greens. I should have known better, there are no gimmies here.
The climb up fifteen took a toll on us but we had a chance to rest on the sixteenth tee as the flip flop guy was in the rough searching for his ball again. We sat for a minute and had a chance to appreciate our surroundings. It is a beautiful spot and the late afternoon sun cast a golden hue across the sixteenth. We all felt the same and even forgot how overheated we were; it’s a great place. I said, “Come on let’s par in.”
Tyler took honors for longest drive on the sixteenth and even followed it up with a great approach and a real chance at a birdie.
Alas, he settled for par and our quest for three straight pars was under way.
As we stood on the par three seventeenth it looked a heck of a lot longer than the hole we watched all day at the 2009 Open. From the bleachers then it looked like a chip shot for the pros. Standing there it was about 190 yards, uphill to a sloped green surrounded by the nastiest bunkers on the course. With the sun in our eyes we teed off and promptly lost sight of a few of our shots. The green was safe as we all came up short with two in the bunker and two in the rough. My ball had nestled down in the deep rough on a narrow strip of land that divided the bunkers. My only option was to try and chop and flop it out of there and hope we could still find it when and if it came down. With a mighty Philly Flop swing I chopped at it and hoped for the best. Tillinghast gave me one back as it flopped on to the green and settled one foot from the hole. It was by far my most memorable and luckiest shot of the day. Par number two on our quest for three was in the bag and we humped it up to the final tee.
On the eighteenth we again had the chance to reflect on our day as Flip Flops was in the rough again. I swear I think he was looking for his flip flop this time, but we took a moment to look up at the clubhouse and the elevated eighteenth green. It measured less than 400 yards but a lot of it was uphill and we had been drained of any long, straight drives a few holes ago. No one could hit the green and the heat had sapped our putting stroke so double bogey was all we could muster. It didn’t matter. We had played The Black and none of us could hide our smiles.
The four of us all agreed that The Black was indeed as difficult as advertised. The fairways were as perfect as they could be and must be hit if you want to score. The rough was so penal it cost you a shot if you found it. The only thing tougher than the fairway bunkers are the greenside bunkers. You need a periscope to see the green and a canon to get the ball out of them. The greens were not rolling at tour speed, thank god, but still presented a real challenge. They rolled really true but we all played a bit too much break all day. The condition of the entire course was immaculate. It certainly isn’t your typical municipal golf course.
Our day at The Black had a little bit of everything. We started off in extreme heat and made it through a dangerous storm. The heat certainly made the day a little bit more difficult but even though each of us had our ups and downs throughout the round we all thoroughly enjoyed the day. One of the striking things about The Black is that it is all about the golf. There are no houses or condos. You won’t find any real estate developments on the course. There are no tricks, no carts and no beverage cart. Only golfers. That’s one of the aspects of the Black that I enjoyed the most. I was impressed with the solitude to be found out there.
All of us were exhausted and elated at the same time. We came to The Black with high hopes and a lot of apprehension. It’s a lot of course for hackers like us but we were leaving delighted with the fact that we all survived, made a few pars and had a ball. Our best ball score was an 83, but you would have thought we had shot ten under. Our scores didn’t matter, our memories do. It was great. It’s big, it’s bad, it’s tough. It’s The Black. We can’t wait to go back.