Course Name: Bethpage State Park Golf Course – Black Course
Designer: A.W. Tillinghast/Joseph H. Burbeck (1936), Rees Jones (1998, 2008, 2015 Renovation)
Location: Farmingdale, New York
History: Who do we have to thank for Bethpage Black? Indirectly, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal inspired the Long Island Parks Commission to hire A.W. Tillinghast to build the largest public golf facility in the world. After completing the Red Course in 1935, Tillinghast finished his last design ever in the Black Course in 1936. I won’t delve into the controversy, but many believe course superintendent Joseph H. Burbeck played a significant role in the design. This debate rages on today, but evidence points to Tillinghast playing a substantial factor in the design. The LI Parks Commission wanted the course “to be a great test like Pine Valley,” and it certainly was, as Sam Snead famously declared the course “an unfair test of golf” in 1940.
Sadly, the Black Course fell into disrepair up until the 1990’s when USGA Executive Director David Fay saw the Black Course as a potential U.S. Open venue. Fay had played here as a child and felt it would be a great test for the best players in the world. This idea took off and the USGA pumped in an incredible $2.7 million to improve conditions and hire “U.S. Open Doctor” Rees Jones. The resultant course opened to great acclaim and became the first municipal course to host a U.S. Open in 2002. Tiger Woods was the only player to finish under par that year, further enhancing the Black’s popularity. Since then, the Black Course has hosted the 2009 U.S. Open, several FedEx Cup events, and is slated to host the 2019 PGA and 2024 Ryder Cup. Accolades for Bethpage Black include:
- #38 Best Course in America – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
- #8 Best Public Course in America – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
- #7 Best Course in New York – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
- #4 Best Public Course in America – Golf.com (2016-2017)
- #1 Best Public Course in New York – Golf.com (2016-2017)
- #1 Best Public Course in New York – Golfweek (2017-2018)
Conditions: 9/10, Bethpage’s conditioning is superb and is something every public course should aspire to. The course is jam-packed every single day, but you can’t tell because the teeboxes and fairways are pristine. The greens at Bethpage are a mixture of bentgrass and poa annua, and are receptive and smooth. They weren’t the fastest I’ve ever played, but they were beautiful and ran at about an 11 on the stimpmeter. Part of what makes Bethpage one of the hardest courses in America is the thick ryegrass rough. It is easily the thickest rough I’ve ever encountered on a public course and yields everything from flyers to buried lies.
Value: 10/10, Somehow immune to New York’s high prices, Bethpage might offer the best value of any top 100 public course. On the weekends, it’s $150 for out of staters but New York residents only pay $65 for weekdays. There are even twilight and senior discounts available. New Yorkers don’t know how lucky they are.
Getting a tee time is another story, and one that is steeped in mystique. Anecdotes of golfers sleeping in their cars overnight may have been true at some point, but today you can schedule tee times via phone 7 days in advance for New Yorkers and 2 days in advance for out-of-staters. You can probably get out as a single if you arrive at the course early, but you’ll have no luck if you try it with a foursome. You can only reserve one tee time per month due to the demand. Luckily, I golfed with two New York residents who secured the tee time.
Tee Par Yardage Rating Slope
Blue 71 7468 78.1 152
White 71 6684 74.0 145
Red 71 6223 77.8 150
Best Score: 85 (White Tees), 7/9/2017 with Will S., Chandler S., and Mike K.
Front 9 Best: 42 (White Tees), 7/9/2017 with Will S., Chandler S., and Mike K.
Back 9 Best: 43 (White Tees), 7/9/2017 with Will S., Chandler S., and Mike K.
Hole Descriptions: I won’t lie. After being thrashed two weeks prior on my Wisconsin golf trip, I expected carnage at Bethpage Black, a course many consider to be one of the most difficult in America. A serious slope-rating of 74.0-145 from the Whites and the infamous warning posted on the first tee seem to reinforce this notion. In the end, I ended up playing one of the better rounds of my life, hitting 8 greens in regulation without losing a ball. Is Bethpage hard? Yes. Is it the hardest course I’ve ever played? Resounding no – I thought Whistling Straits was much more challenging. However, let’s talk about what makes Bethpage hard.
- Length – At almost 6,700 yards from the Whites with elevation changes, the Black is one of the longest courses I’ve ever played, especially when you consider the par threes and fives are actually reasonably short. The par fours are brutal, with only one under 380 yards. I hit a lot of good drives and was left with a good mid to long-iron in on most par fours.
- Perched, Elevated Greens – Not only do most of these greens require carries to reach, they are also the most bunkered I’ve ever seen. With many players hitting long irons or hybrids in, this is a recipe for disaster.
- Thick Rough and Fescue – While you won’t lose many balls at the Black, golden fescue and thick rough line these exceedingly tight fairways. I got a few flyers, but the majority of these lies were devastating. Wannamoisett’s similarly thick rough prepared me well for deciding whether to go for the green or smartly take my medicine.
- Stamina – Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the Black is the required walk through eight miles of rugged terrain. This beastly course is a full body experience and you will be tested to the max both physically and mentally. By the time we got to the lengthy uphill 15th, a few in my group wanted to call it quits. Water and nutrients are scarce on the Black so pack accordingly for your 6-hour round.
Although Bethpage Black is a supreme challenge of golf, it is surprisingly fair, as everything is laid out right in front of you. This is a pure shotmakers course, as long, straight players will be rewarded. If you rely on your short game to get you through, be prepared to struggle, as the Black is much tougher tee-to-green than it is once you’re on the putting surface. A lot of golf critics criticize these greens for being too easy, but I found them to be a perfect difficulty level considering how challenging the course is otherwise. If anything, these greens reward a player who takes their medicine with a makable par putt, while the course punishes those who try heroic recoveries.
Be prepared for an audience on the opening teebox, as other golfers and spectators mull on the patio as you hit. The 1st hole at the Black is often called one of the worst opening holes in Major Championship golf as a 429 yard sharp dogleg right. While it is undoubtedly one of the weaker holes out here, the drive from this elevated teebox is a fun one. The goal is to reach the dogleg, which requires a solid 260 yard poke. Anything short of this might be blocked out by thick trees that line the entire right side. For players who hit the ball right, the Green Course is directly right of the trees and provides a shortcut to the 1st green. However, this is OB when tournaments are hosted here. The 1st green is narrow and guarded by two deep bunkers on either side. I made a smooth triple here after taking three to get out of the greenside bunker for a great start :).
Technically speaking, Bethpage Black doesn’t really have separate front and back nines. There are no 9 hole rates, and the 9th tee is the furthest point away from the clubhouse. The only true hole separation at Bethpage is Round Swamp Road, which you must cross to access holes 2-14. The 2nd hole is the shortest par 4 on the course as a 354 yard uphill dogleg left. Driver isn’t needed here, but finding the fairway is, as this this hole is lined with trees and thick rough. The approach shot is severely uphill to a round, flat green. This is undoubtedly one of the best birdie opportunities of the day.
The 3rd hole is the first par 3 at the Black and reminds me an awful lot of the first par 3 on the Red Course. Playing only 158 yards from the White Tees, this hole stretches to a brutal 230 yards from the Blues. While this hole requires a carry over a valley of fescue and bunkers, it is undeniably one of the easiest on the course.
One of the best tips I’ve ever received is to avoid thinking about the next hole whilst playing the current one. This is almost impossible when you putt on the 3rd green, as you glimpse down at one of the most famous par fives in the world. Easily my favorite par 5 I’ve played to date, the 461 yard 4th hole is the signature hole at Bethpage, and also one of the most strategic. Playing straight uphill, this heavily-bunkered hole plays longer than the scorecard indicates. A large, intimidating bunker guards the left side of the driving area, while another gigantic one guards the entire right side of the lay-up area. Finally, two deep bunkers guard directly short of this green. All of these bunkers are in view from the tee, making this short par 5 much scarier than it actually is.
My conversation on the 5th tee went something like this:
“Mike, does this hole open up on the right past the bunker?”
“Honestly, I forget.”
“Eh, let’s hope it does” – me, as I blast it out right into fescue.
The 5th hole is a challenging double dogleg playing 423 yards. This teeshot is incredibly difficult for a right hander who draws the ball, as Tillinghast asks you to hit a left-to-right ballflight as this fairway moves gently right. An 100 yard long giant waste bunker runs until about 220 yards on the right side of the fairway and is in play for many golfers. The approach to this green is one of the hardest on the course, as it runs straight uphill and to the left.
The 6th hole provides one of the more confusing views on the course with an almost completely blind teeshot. At only 386 yards, this is one of the few par fours that doesn’t require driver. With two large bunkers on either side of this tight fairway between 220 to 250 yards, driver probably isn’t the best play anyway. What the 6th lacks in beauty on the teebox, it gains on the approach to a beautiful island green complex surrounded on all sides by deep bunkers. Making birdie from 50+ feet here was the highlight of my day.
Playing as a 502 yard par 5, the 7th is one of the easier holes at the Black. However, this hole plays as a par 4 in tournaments and is one of the hardest GIR’s on Tour. This was another confusing teeshot, as all you can see from the teebox is a giant waste bunker and trees on the right. After the bunker ends about 190 yards off the tee, this hole turns right. Unless you can hit the ball left-to-right, drives over 230 yards will run through the fairway. From the dogleg, this fairway narrows with bunkers on either side of the fairway and both sides of the green.
Up to this point, we had played at a brisk pace, but multiple groups were backed up on the 8th teebox. At 191 yards, this is a picturesque par 3 that features a water hazard short of this back-to-front sloped green. A large tree beautifully frames the right side of the green. This tree coupled with the water and elevation change plays tricks on golfer’s minds. More on this hole below.
The 385 yard par 4 9th is one of the shorter holes on the course, but one that requires pinpoint accuracy to avoid big numbers. This dogleg left is lined by trees on both sides and features a giant bunker at the corner of the dogleg. This bunker, about 210 yards to carry, is a formidable scare tactic that forces players to bail out right, leaving a longer approach in. This green is rather benign, but two large bunkers guard both sides short.
While Bethpage Black doesn’t have traditional nine hole divisions, the final nine holes are arguably the hardest nine consecutive holes I’ve ever played. There are definitely birdie opportunities on the opening nine, but most golfers are in survivor mode on the par 35 finishing side rampant with long par fours. The 10th and 11th have a decidedly different feel from the other holes at the Black, but keep up with the mantra of long par fours. At 434 yards, the 10th is fairly open and flat, but lined the entire way with multiple hidden bunkers and tall golden fescue. The green here is separated and elevated from the rest of the hole and guarded in front by two cavernous bunkers. Requiring a long iron or more from most players, this is definitely one of the hardest holes on the course.
The 11th runs parallel to the 10th and plays similarly as a 421 yard dead straight par 4. This hole is almost completely blind from the teebox, and features one of the tightest fairways on the course guarded by eight giant bunkers and fescue on both sides. This green is well-protected and one of the hardest sloping back-to-front on the course. While both 10 and 11 are extremely fine holes, they are a bit repetitive back-to-back in my opinion.
At 432 yards, the par 4 12th continues Bethpage’s relentless assault of tough holes on the back 9. This hole plays similarly to the 9th as a dogleg left with a giant cross bunker at the corner of the dogleg. The only difference is that the 9th is reachable if you go right of the bunker, while this hole leaves you over 240 yards in if you don’t carry the bunker. From the dogleg, this is one of the plainest holes on the course with fairway lined by rough the entire way to a two-tiered green.
The scorecard says the par 5 13th only plays 480 yards from the Whites but on the day we played, the tees were moved back closer to the 608 yard Tips. Despite the Black’s fearsome reputation, few teeshots truly feel claustrophobic. The 13th is one of them, however, with dense woods lining the entire length of this tight fairway. This hole is also extremely well-bunkered on the left side with bunkers between 150 to 200 yards from the tee and about 140 yards short of the green. Do whatever it takes to hit three straight shots on this hole. Par is a good score here.
I mentioned that the back 9 at Bethpage is one of the hardest nines I’ve ever played. The only break you get is in the form of the short par 3 14th that plays only 152 yards. This is not the best par 3 on the course, but it is undeniably gorgeous with a giant valley of fescue and deep bunkers necessitating a carry the entire way to the green. This green is extremely wide yet shallow, placing a premium on distance control.
After crossing Round Swamp Road again, you’re in the home stretch ready to play four of the most challenging holes on the course. While I don’t agree with all the hole handicaps at Bethpage Black, I concur that the 430 yard par 4 15th is deserving of its number 1 handicap. With a tight fairway sliding ever so slightly to the left, the drive on this hole is fairly straightforward. The approach, however, is easily the most challenging at the Black as this green is heavily elevated and guarded by multiple bunkers short. It’s not hard to make bogeys on the 15th but pars a rare commodity, as evidenced by a scoring average over a half stroke over par in the ’02 and ’09 U.S. Opens.
Although the 16th runs parallel to the 15th extremely downhill, it still plays as a stout 457 yard par 4, making it one of the most challenging on the course. A drive of at least 190 yards is needed to carry to the fairway from an elevated teebox. From the fairway, the hole plays level to a large green guarded by two large bunkers on either side. This is another hole where bogeys are easy, but pars are rare.
At 195 yards, the 17th is the longest par 3 at the Black and one of the best bunkered holes on the course. This hole plays slightly uphill to an exceedingly shallow putting surface. Pretty much all you can see from the teebox are the five devastating bunkers that surround this green on all sides. I successfully negotiated the right distance with 6-iron, but three-putted from the wrong tier on this difficult green.
As lamentable as the near six-hour round was, at least we able to play the picturesque closing hole at sunset. This 394 yard par 4 receives a lot of criticism for being an over-bunkered, weak finishing hole, but I’d remiss if I didn’t compliment it for its incredible beauty. The teeshot here is downhill to an extremely tight fairway guarded by symmetrical mounds of bunkers on both sides. At it’s narrowest point, this fairway is only about 15 yards wide, making 5-wood or long iron the smart play to avoid the bunkers. From the fairway, this hole runs back uphill to yet another perched green with the clubhouse in the background.
Best Par 3: 8th Hole, 191 yards, 14th handicap. Narrowly beating out the well-bunkered 17th, the 8th hole is a phenomenal one-shotter and probably the most difficult on the course. This hole plays significantly downhill and choosing the right club is imperative as a bunker guards long and a false front and water loom short. On what many consider to be the hardest course in America, this small pond is the only water hazard. The 8th green is one of the most undulating on the course and slopes hard back-to-front.
Best Par 4: 5th Hole, 423 yards, 4th handicap. Double doglegs are rare enough, but tasteful ones are almost impossible to come by. However, the left-right-left snaking 5th is extremely well-done and undoubtedly the best double dogleg I’ve played to date. An uphill approach and multiple well-placed bunkers make this long hole one of the most difficult on the course.
Best Par 5: 4th Hole, 461 yards, 2nd handicap. This is one of the most photographed three-shotters in the world for good reason. Three levels of giant bunkers run along the length of this hole, forcing the golfer to think strategically on every shot. Bethpage’s bunkering is the best I’ve played to date, and this hole epitomizes it.
General Comments: Affectionately known as the “People’s Country Club,” Bethpage differs greatly from its private Long Island neighbors in terms of amenities. The practice facilities are average at best, with two practice greens and a matted range you aren’t allowed to hit driver on. I wondered to myself, “Where do the pros practice?” Shortly later, I was told they open up a range using the other four courses. The clubhouse appears nice on the outside, but is like any other municipal course on the inside. You wait in line to pay, and are given a wristband the starter cuts off. If you have a tee time, you need to be checked in at least an hour before or they might give your spot up.
The Black Course is strictly walking only, and what a walk it is. Pace of play is notoriously poor and our round took well over five hours. Unlike Whistling Straits, this round felt long, as we grew tired waiting on every tee with no water fountains or snack shops except for a shared one on the 6th/12th. Caddies are available at the Black but I’ve heard mixed reviews and we chose to carry our own bags. While these amenities would be unacceptable at a high-end resort or private course, they are part of what makes the Bethpage experience unlike any other.
Verdict: Simply put, Bethpage Black is one of the best pure course designs in the world. The history, conditioning, and name recognition more than make up for lackluster amenities, and I found the course much more playable than people give it credit. Every serious golfer should experience the Black at least once in their lifetime.