“The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers”
My game, while not highly skilled, has been ready to take on The Black for the last two years, but every chance I got something would come up and I couldn’t make it, so naturally when my tee time was finally booked I got so excited, and nervous. For the week leading up I tried to hone down my game, thinking that would help, and rewatched old tournament highlights from when Tiger won the 2002 U.S. Open here, or Lucas Glover in 2009, as well as reimagining the course as I walked it on Saturday and Sunday of the 2016 Barclays, which Patrick Reed won. I sit here typing this now and I can easily say that nothing can prepare you for what you face when you take on Bethpage Black for the first time.
Before I get into my experience, I should give you a little background on my golf game, and how that translates to conquering The Black. The first question every golfer has upon meeting a fellow golfer, “what is your handicap”, so I should start by saying I was playing to about a 7-handicap heading into the round, but you can throw handicaps out the window here. Obviously, the more skilled you are, the better you will fare, but even a scratch golfer will have his fits here, so handicap is very relative when you play The Black. As a 7-handicap my biggest strength is my length (only time I get told that is on the golf course), so the fact that we played from the Tips (7468 yards on the card) didn’t scare me that much. Also as a 7-handicap, my biggest weakness is my putting, so the fact that the greens on The Black are fairly tame, I thought it would bode well for me. However, why you can throw handicaps, and strengths and weaknesses out the window here, is because of that god forsaken rough. The rough, that was just starting to come into form, and which our caddie said “I have never seen it this thick this early in the season”, was BRUTAL. I set the lofty goal of trying to break 85, and I knew pretty quickly that was going to be a tall order, but I was up for the challenge.
We step up to the first tee, and even though there is no other groups in site, the nerves are still real. While it wasn’t as nerve-racking as my first shot at The Old Course with probably 100 people watching, the tee shot at #1 on The Black is still intimidating. That is also a nice microcosm of this course as a whole, because while challenging, the expectations in your head make you more intimidated than you need to be. I proceed to block out my drive towards the trees on the right, but I was just happy to get off the tee and ready to tame the beast. After a couple chips, and one bad putt, I found myself with a downhill 5 footer to save bogey, and all I could think was “just don’t start your day with double”, and I went on to bang the putt and walked off with a little pep in my step. However, little did I know it would be the last putt I would make all day.
We move onto the Par 4 2nd, where I hit a Tiger-like Stinger that just caught up in the 2nd cut, which can be compared to rough at some of the other municipal courses I play. After a decent approach, I found myself on in regulation and lagged my putt to about 6 inches and walked off with my first par. The Par 3 3rd was next, where I made a “nice” bogey, and then we were off to probably one of my favorite holes on the property, the 517 Yard Par 5 4th hole.
In need of a good tee shot, I pounded my driver through the fairway (NBD), but found myself in a great position to try and get on in two. Unfortunately, to get on in two you either need to hit the ball 200 yards high and 200 long to have it fly the bunkers guarding the front of the green, and get it to stop before falling off the back to the collection area. I hit one of the better shots of the day and was just off the right side of the green and I thought I had a legit shot to make birdie. A nice chip left me about 6 feet downhill for birdie, and like I said earlier, I would not make a putt the rest of the day, but I gladly walked off with par.
The Par 4 5th perfectly described how The Black will kill you if you are out of position off the tee, which I learned after I hit a drive dead straight (hoping for a fade), and found myself in the left rough, with a green that is further left so I am blocked out and screwed. After hacking it out of the rough, I had another chip shot in the fescue, which I then skulled into the bunker over the green, and eventually ended up with a double bogey, and wouldn’t be the last of those.
Even though I could give you a play by play of every shot on every hole, I just want to highlight a few more of the signature holes at The Black, and really what makes this course one of the best golf courses in the country. So next, we have the only water on the course at the Par 3 8th, and it is one of the more beautiful holes on the property. 200 Yards downhill, with a helping wind, I had no idea what to hit, so I tried to hit a knockdown 7 iron that flew almost everything, and ended up with another double bogey #YIKES. After a par on the 9th hole, I found myself 8-over, and had to fire something special on the back to even sniff my goal of 85, and what I didn’t know yet, was that I was going to be playing the back 9 dead into the wind.
Let’s fast-forward the first half of the back 9, because trust me, there was nothing pretty from me there, playing the first four holes at an abysmal 8-over I knew 85 was out of reach, so my new goal was to break 90, which would still be a tall task. Even though I said I didn’t make a putt all day, my lag putting all day was on point so it wasn’t until the Par 3 14th where I made my first 3-putt of the day. With the daunting 480 yard Par 4 15th looming, I thought my chances of 90 were finished, but after making par on the hardest hole on the course, I was feeling great.
The 500 yard Par 4 16th, was playing more like 600 yards as we faced the harshest winds of the day on that tee box, and even after nuking my drive, I still had 205 in. I ended up making a bogey after once again missing a putt inside 10 feet, and we walked to the 200 yard Par 3 17th hole. The only real back up of the day was at this point, but I wasn’t complaining because that tee box is one of the more scenic spots on the course, and you got to see people on both ends of the stick. As groups made their way down 1, with all hope in the world that today was the day they beat The Black, and in the distance you could see the 18th green, where those people 5 hours later will have been smacked in the face one last time.
I stood on the 18th tee box, needing a birdie to break 90. After a drive that ended up in the rough, and a spectacular shot into the green that left me pin high with about 15 feet for my birdie. If you have been reading along, you know the theme of the day was I could not make a putt to save my life, and sadly 18 was no different, as I just missed the putt and tapped in for my par on 18, which I will take all day.
My original goal was to shoot an 85, but let me tell you that after playing Bethpage Black for the first time, I was ecstatic about a 90. Overall, I thought I actually played pretty decently, but when you have 6-7 really bad shots at The Black those will not just cost you 1 stroke, but they bring double and triple bogey into play very easily. The Black is a course that not only is super intimidating to play for the first time so you are already on edge, but even with a caddie (s/o our caddie Sean) you are playing blind to the sort of lines you need to take off the tee, and how to attack the relatively benign greens. I will sit here right now and GUARANTEE I break 90 the next time I play The Black, and not because I think I am that good, but I got the allure out of the way, and I can just play against the course, and not the fear of the unknown.
After lunch, and a couple beers, and catching up on some work since I took the day off, there was nothing else to do but play some more golf, so we headed out to one of the other 5 courses on the Bethpage property, and took our shot at the Red Course, which turned out a lot better. Still in better condition, and longer than your average municipal course, the Red still presented a challenge, but was not nearly that of its Big Brother. I ended up shooting a 79, which was more like it, and left Bethpage with much more positivity than if I just left after The Black kicked my ass.
Bethpage Black may have kicked my ass, but it was still one of the best golf experiences I have had in my life, and I cannot wait to get my next chance to try and tame the beast. Even though The Black is one of the hardest courses in America, at no point did I think the course was “unfair”, rather just an extremely difficult course. Although the sign says “We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers”, I would encourage all Semi-Skilled golfers to take a trip out to Bethpage and give The Black a shot, because the course is just that awesome, that you can actually enjoy getting your ass kicked.
**There will be a bonus story about why I had to drive all the way back to Bethpage the next morning at 5am on the Level Headed Podcast, that will be out on Monday so be sure to subscribe**