In a dark, dimly lit parking lot, a few dozen grown men stand patiently waiting in front of their respective vehicles, huddled in groups of four. It’s nearly summer, but the chill of the early-morning New York air still yields faintly visible breath. Sleep deprived eyes pivot from bright cell phone screens to the parking lot entrance, while feeble murmurs reveal beer-ridden breath abound.
It’s 4:15am on Friday morning at Bethpage State Park, and already the parking lot is swarming with eagerly waiting golfers – many who have camped out in cars, tents and even hammocks – all hoping for a crack at the famed Bethpage Black Golf Course.
After a tantalizingly long ten minutes, a pair of headlights emerge from around the corner and an elated voice among the crowd shouts, “Here we go boys!” Not even the mere three hours of sleep can suppress my excitement as the State Park official makes his way down the row of parked cars, wishing a ‘Good Morning’ and handing us each a numbered ticket, securing our place in the tee time line.
The excitement continues as we’re hustled a few hundred yards from the designated camping lot up to the pro shop to cash in the numbered ticket for a wrist band and corresponding tee time on Bethpage Black. Our arrival at 2:30pm the prior day paid off, earning us ticket numbers 9 through 12 and securing our place as the third foursome in line (tee time 6:55am).
Homecoming at Bethpage Black
Though this wasn’t my first time playing Bethpage Black, it was my first time camping out to secure a tee time. In my days as a financial analyst in New York City back in 2010 through 2013, I spent the better part of three years catching the train out to Bethpage.
I rarely deviated from my Saturday ritual:
6:40am – Out the door of our West Village apartment
6:42am – Stop at the West 11th Street Cafe to grab a cinnamon raisin bagel (+ strawberry cream cheese) and a coffee
6:55am – Hail a cab running up 8th Ave toward Penn Station
7:08am – Scramble to print my round-trip ticket
7:12am – Scurry onto the train toward the Farmingdale stop on Long Island
8:06am – Arrive and hop in one more cab to make the quick commute up the hill to Bethpage Golf Course
8:15am – Stroll into the pro shop and secure a round on one of their five golf courses
As a single, I’d manage a morning time on the Black course more than half the time, while happily accepting a spot on the Red (or Blue) courses should the Black be jammed until the afternoon.
Despite having played the Black course dozens of times in the past, it had been over four years since my last round. In my experience, the number of outings on the Black has little impact on excitement level — whether you’re a first-timer or a regular, each visit to this property stirs anticipation and exhilaration for the round ahead.
Perhaps it was the Golf Channel Morning Drive interview I did prior to this recent round, or the company of a few Golf Digest folks joining my foursome, or maybe just the length since my prior visit, but I found myself particularly amped for our 31st round of the Ultimate Golf Road Trip at Bethpage Black.
WARNING: The Black Course is an Extremely Difficult Course…
The large “warning” sign lurking behind the first tee says it all; the Black Course is anything but easy. As we’ve seen from past PGA Tour events and Major Championships (2002, 2008, 2012 US Opens), the Black Course routinely challenges even the best players in the world. Quite an impressive feat for a state-owned, public municipal golf course.
The Black, however, is not your average muni. Brutally long holes, surprisingly dramatic elevation changes, dense primary rough flanked by thick fescue, penalizing bunkers, and forced carries are but a few of the common hazards that wreak havoc on even the best players. Patience is a must out here, and perspective helps too. Tackle the Black course with the expectation of firing a personal best round and, well, the Black course will more than likely send you moping home, tail tucked firmly between your legs.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to score out here. As a scratch player, I managed a front nine 32 (-4) on the Black Course back in 2012. For a second, I was even impressing myself! Making the turn, the Black course finally awoke as I bogeyed the 10th, before plugging an approach shot into the face of the 11th green side bunker, yielding a triple bogey and quickly dropping me back to even par with 7 holes to go. Such is golf on the Black.
Is the course fair? Absolutely. What you see is usually what you get out here. The A.W. Tillinghast layout is exceptionally good, void of any quirks, tricks, or unnecessary illusions. You’ll use the big stick a lot, though there are a handful of holes that call for brains over braun. The sharp dogleg left 2nd, and the 6th and 11th holes, both protected by well-positioned bunkers off the tee, come to mind as holes where placement resonates more than power.
Like any tough golf course, there are a few things you need to know before tackling the Black Course at Bethpage State Park.
6 Things to Know Before Your Round on Bethpage Black
1) Expect a Long Day
Anytime you spend the night in your car, it’s reasonable to suspect the next day might require a little extra coffee. That’s certainly the case here, where campers unite to crack beers, swap stories, and enjoy some golf-centric camaraderie. We didn’t call it a night until 1 A.M. and that 4 A.M. wake-up call sure came early.
Aside from the sleeping arrangements, Bethpage Black is no walk in the park. Tough conditions, hilly terrain, a walking-only policy (pull carts and caddies are available) and an expansive property lead to 5+ hour rounds. If you’re lucky enough to snag one of the first few tee times, it’s feasible to play in just over 4-hours. Mid-to-late afternoon times will push upwards of 6-hours most days. Stay patient, hydrated, and enjoy your stroll around this magnificent property.
2) Don’t Be A Hero!
So you’re a mid-to-high single digit handicap and you hit it a long way. Good deal. My recommendation: forego the blue tees and stick to the whites. Sure, you could stretch it back to the 7,400 yards or more, but you will be grinding. There are three sets of tees on the Black Course – blue, white and yellow. Most players will still find plenty of challenge from the white or yellow boxes. Or, don’t be afraid to mix boxes, playing one-up on the brutally long holes. If you do want to back-it-up to the blues, prepare for a tough test of golf.
3) Keep it in the Short Grass
I love the opening hole at Bethpage. It’s certainly not regarded as one of the best holes (I’ve even heard it referred to as the “ugly ducking”), but I like that it eases you into the round while still giving you a sense of what you’re about to experience. Standing on the tee, the hole dares you to bite off the corner on this dogleg right layout. The fairway is somewhat narrow, and any tee shot pulled down the left or scurrying through the dogleg will welcome the golfer with thick primary rough. Whispy fescue awaits wayward shots left, while a cluster of trees captures the familiar high-right shot.
For anyone who doesn’t find the short grass, they quickly realize just how penalizing this rough can be — even with a short iron in hand. It provides an early round wake-up call and reminds all that placement in the fairway is a must to score out here.
If you do find yourself in the rough, keep the long irons in the bag and use a mid (or short) iron to get something running back in play. A longer pitch from the fairway is always better than trying to manage an up-and-down from more dense rough. Sure, you might take some flack from your buddies for “laying up,” but enjoy that post round ice cold brew on their dime after you smoke them in your Nassau match.
4) Bunkers Add to the Challenge
They’re everywhere! Okay, so the raw number of bunkers won’t overwhelm you, but their placement may. Tillinghast designed the Black course with so many perfectly placed bunkers, including the ever intimidating cross bunkers. Fairways on the 4th, 5th, 7th and 12th holes (to name a few) feature deep-faced expansive bunkers waiting to snatch poorly struck shots. No way to avoid these other than stepping up and executing solid golf shots.
Similarly, the relatively generous greens at Bethpage Black are all flanked by extensive bunkering. Some holes have run-up areas, where shots can be played to chase onto greens, but many others require shots carried all the way to the surface — often over bunkers! The latter creates a great aesthetic and a great challenge.
The good news is that recent work on the bunkering means the sand is consistent and plentiful, so assuming your approach doesn’t plug (fingers crossed), sand saves are possible. Get your bunker game in top shape before your visit!
5) Putt For Dough
So you’ve navigated the rough, avoided (or splashed out of) bunkers, and you’re on the putting surface. Congrats! Now, time to conquer the greens. The good news is that most surfaces are relatively flat, and aside from the periodic lengthy putt up or down tiers (and the 11th green, which is somewhat severely pitched from back-to-front), you’re likely to manage a lot of two putts.
However, the subtle greens on Bethpage Black are notoriously difficult to read. I’m always stunned at how many edges I burn and how difficult it is to hole those 8-to-12 footers. Again, not a ton of massive humps and swales, but the flattish surfaces can be tough to read. Stay patient, trust your lines – you’re bound to make a few.
6) Save Some Gas in the Tank
Fourteen holes into Bethpage Black and you’ll likely be thinking, “Okay, four to go.” A few minute walk from the back of the 14th green, down a hill and across the street, the 15th hole presents itself. Oh boy.
Stepping onto the tee, nearly 500-yards of gradual uphill terrain stares back, with the faint view of a flagstick waving atop the distant hilltop. Welcome to the closing holes of the Black.
The closing four provide for a tough finish on this bucket-list course. Time to dig deep as you realize, the battle on the Black is far from over!
The 15th hole is ranked as the toughest on the course, and for good reason. The fairway bends to the left, making it a tough target to hold, while the second plays a few stories uphill to a perched green. Approach shots from the rough are nearly impossible to get the height required to carry front bunkers and hold the green. Truthfully, there’s no shame in playing this as a three-shot par 4. Yes, you read that correctly.
The 16th flips in the opposite direction and offers one of the most fun tee shots on the golf course. That same hill you climbed on 15 sets up a downhill drive, where “tee it high and let it fly” is certinaly the hole’s mantra. It’s another near 500-yard par 4, where two perfect shots are required to reach the green in regulation. I love the view from the green, where you can see sweeping views of holes 1, 17 and 18 of the Black.
The uphill, 210-yard par 3 makes for a tough 17th hole, where golfers are required to carry their tee shot over bunker and onto the surface. A two-tiered left-to-right green means two putts on this hole are no bargain.
Finally, the home hole on the Black tends to reward strategy, as numerous fescue-lined bunkers pinch the fairway right in the driver landing zone. An iron or hybrid laid back leaves a tough approach to another severely elevated green, while an aggressive play off the tee leaves an easier wedge or short-iron.
As you make that final climb up to the 18th green, catch your breath and take in the beauty of the property one last time. This is a moment you’re sure to remember forever.
There are few experiences in the world of golf that match that at Bethpage Black. From camping out for tee times to navigating the notoriously difficult layout, the Black course delivers a truly unique golf experience. The world class design, pristine conditions, and reasonable price make this hands-down the best deal in golf.
Looking for an unforgettable golf trip? Grab some buddies, fill your coolers, pack the air mattress and sticks, and head straight to Bethpage. The Black awaits.
Watch Episode 23: The Dapper Drive Takes on NYC for more on our time in the Big Apple.
Other Useful Info*
Course Yardage: Par 71: Championship tees – 7,468 yards (76.6/148) // White tees – 6,684 yards (73.1/140)
Greens Fees: Non-NY Residents: $78 (weekdays twilight) – $150 (weekend peak) // NY Residents: 1/2 price
Caddy’s Available: Available on request
Overnight Accommodations: None on property; Hotels in Farmingdale, NY (5 minutes from Bethpage GC)
Clubhouse Amenities: Restaurant & bar (indoor/outdoor), pro shop, locker room with day lockers & showers
Driving Range**: Yes; nothing fancy, but a place to hit balls. Mats always (no grass); no drivers allowed. Small buckets $8, large bucket $10.
Short Game Area**: Two putting greens. No chipping area
*As of 7/10/17