The NYC Recap part 3 – Bethpage Black

One thing that remains unchanged from undergrad to grad-school is that, in most cases, the first week of classes is largely useless and thus eminently skiptable. If one of my profs is reading this (which is highly unlikely) I am sorry. With that being said, rather than suffer through another monotonous reading of a syllabus and then a short-introductory lecture of some kind, I traveled down to New York City for a few days, to play some golf and visit a friend who now works in Manhattan. Just a month prior, I had made the same journey to play Piping Rock and Sleepy Hollow; this time, though, the only round I had scheduled was at Baltusrol – enough reason in and of itself to visit. 

I’d been too lazy to schedule another private club, and, truth be told, there aren’t that many appealing public options between Ottawa and NYC along Interstate-87 – and even near New York City. Glens Falls was hosting their club championship that weekend. I had no desire to go through Yale’s awful booking system; nor pay 250$ USD to play what seems like another middling, over-shaped, overly-penal, and sloggy Pete Dye design at Pound Ridge; nor drive all the way out to the tip of Long Island for Montauk Downs. This essentially left me with Trump Ferry Point, Lido, and one of the Bethpages as my options for Thursday afternoon. The thought that a single one of my dollars would somehow, someway end up in that man’s pockets, equally for political and for golfing reasons, was plenty enough to dissuade me from stopping at his place, despite its convenient location near the Throgs Neck Bridge, which costs about 20$ CAD to cross. I’ve always wanted to visit the location of the original Lido, and, based on the aerial, some of the current holes look pretty unique and cool; however, too much of the course looks plain and unimaginative, coupled with negative impression I hold of the kind of crowd a sub-50$ USD green-fee tends to draw. Despite having grown up playing public golf – and probably due to having grown up playing public golf and still being a member of a semi-private club – I’ll admit that I am a bit of an elitist when on vacation. The point of spending money to go somewhere, I believe, is not to experience, to get away from, what you do and deal with regularly. 

Considering that it was a chamber of commerce day over the five boroughs, I figured I had little hope of sauntering up to the window and securing a tee time on either of the Tillinghast courses at Bethpage, so, as I listened to an E-Book of Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island while watching the countless red-brick apartments, sleazy bodegas, over-crowded parking lots, chop-shops, and side-walk merchants surrounding the Cross-Bronx Expressway recede out my window, I resigned myself to the fact I’d most likely have to settle for one of the lesser courses at the facility. I had played one of them (I forget which) when I first visited, and it was fine, but hardly the kind of course you want to drive eight hours to play. 

To my great surprise, though, there was a time available on the Black, which I of course took. Considering the reputation and location of the course, the 150 $ USD green-fee is extremely reasonable, especially when compared to Pinehurst #2 and #4, or TPC Sawgrass, or Bandon, or Streamsong, or even Pebble, which, at least based on pedigree, the Black can be. Surely the Black, despite its shortcomings, is one of the better pure values in America – and, from what I’ve heard, the Red is as well. In fact, both of my partners, two locals and regulars, claimed to prefer it to its more celebrated neighbor. 

My one partner, whose name eludes me now, was about as stereotypical of a New Yorker as you can imagine. He strutted to the first tee with a Miller Lite in hand, his already sweat-drenched shirt untucked, and his black socks pulled up to the middle of his calves; his bushy black beard reached down to his chest almost; he dragged his push-cart all day, blasted country and classic rock, smoked twelve cigarettes, and housed another fifteen clandestine Lites. 

Suffice to say, when he asked me if I wanted to put a little action on the game, I figured, after eyeing his game improvement irons and his fifteen year old titleist driver, there was no way that this guy was beating me. Of course, after learning that he was a “two or three handicap”, I said I’d only play him straight up, figuring that the metropolitan golf scene isn’t shy of men whose bags turn to mud when it rains. To my surprise, he accepted right away and we were off. Ten dollar nassau, two down auto. Despite being so-so all summer, my game was in a good state at that point. He began rather shakily by heel-scraping his drive behind the strangely planted trees along the inside of the plunging and right-bending 1st hole.

Although it hosted the first of its two U.S. Opens twenty years ago, playing the Black already sort of feels like playing a course from a (thankfully) by-gone era. This sense was further exacerbated after I played Baltusrol’s Lower course the following day, which like many of the other blue-blood championship venues, but unlike the Black so far, has recently de-Rees Jonesed its course.

The famous warning sign looming above the Black

Looking down at the twenty some yard wide ribbon of introductory fairway between the bordering velvet-lush expanses of rough morphing into wispy brown fescue, I’d forgotten just how narrow the fairways are cut and how small and flat most of the green surfaces are on the Black. And they seem even more so to the eye due to the fact that the playing corridors, most of which are framed by rows of stately pine trees, are expansive, in addition to the imposing scale of the fairway bunkers and those fronting a number of the greens. As I said in an earlier article, Bethpage is a massive ballpark, and, therefore, the scale of the architecture must be of a similar stature in order to effectively fit into the landscape, which, in its current iteration, it too often does not. There are scattered moments when the golf matches the land, but far too many of the fairways and greens feel as if they are engulfed, futile, and overwhelmed amidst the panorama. 

Not to sound over-dramatic or mystical (an annoying tendency that plagues far too much of the literature about the practice, especially of late), but I do think that the architect, especially in grand natural settings, must duel, or combat with, or struggle against nature, against its hand. The best architecture – whether Stanley Thompson’s in the Rocky Mountains or at Highlands Links, or Tom Doak’s at Pacific Dunes, or Coore’s and Crenshaw’s in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, for example – matches its scale to that of its surrounds, its setting; thus, it doesn’t feel overwhelmed, that it stands toe-to-toe with what surrounds it. In layman’s terms, big vistas require big architecture.

The 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 7th at Bethpage, however, all provide prime examples of this sense of the architecture being engulfed, of being enfeebled by the landscape. The leftward sweeping par 4, 2nd, brings to mind St George’s, in Toronto, specifically with the way that the fairway runs through the bottom of the tree-lined valley and then climbs towards the perched green. At St George’s, though, the fairways tend to spread across the floors of the valleys through which they run and are, most often, almost entirely visible from the tee, which renders to the architecture a sense of potency. Whereas on the 2nd at Bethpage, hardly a sliver of the target is visible from the back tee, which induces the impression that the rough and even the overhanging trees are overwhelming the fairway. Simply pushing the mowing lines of the fairway further out so that both edges – but especially the outside one – climb slightly up the currently rough- covered embankments would not only improve the visual impact of the hole but also restore a measure of potency to the design. 

The par 4, 5th, is, more or less, a mirror of the 2nd, although longer and probably better. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an excellent hole, but the fairway again feels smothered and feeble amidst the encroaching rough and within playing corridor, as does the green, which is cut halfway up an embankment and rests completely blind to the fairway behind the two fronting bunkers. The fact that it follows the genuinely all-world 4th, where the scale of the architecture perfectly matches that of the landscape, further exacerbates this sense.

On the long 7th, with its quasi-cape-ish tee shot that must carry the cavernous bunker that looms short of the fairway set diagonally to the tee, it is more so on the second shot that this feeling is again evident. Here, the two green side bunkers, due to the verticality of their faces, almost appear as if they are looming over the miniscule putting surface, like two gargoyle statues carved into the walls of a marble hall. 

Returning to my match, as I stood on the seventh tee of the Black, however, at only one-over par but three down to my cab-driving opponent, I knew I’d been duped (or that I was, conveniently, as he claimed, witnessing the best he’d played all summer) and that, unless I started carding some birdies, the round wasn’t going to be as great of a bargain as it appeared it would be when I handed over my AMex to the pro-shop clerk an hour and a half earlier. 

I’ll be honest, I was feeling pretty tepid about the course through 7 holes: Tillinghast’s original genius and its potential are evident, yes, but it’s hard to appreciate them considering the current state of the course. Thankfully, the 6 iron I hit to a foot on the downhill par 3, 8th, with its large, multi-tiered, severely back-to-front pitched green, which fits into the grandiose vista, and the new false front they’ve added, which can draw balls back into the pond that fronts the complex, along with the solid par I made from the front-bunker on the 9th, where the mowing line of the fairway beautifully climbs and rides the embankment along the outside edge of the playing corridor, restored me to a bit better of a mood. 

The 10th and 11th, however, dampened it again. These have got to be the two most egregiously mowed fairways in America, if not the world. The left edge of the 10th fairway is currently cut twelve paces from the edge of the bunker that flanks it – I paced it off for fun. And even though the 11th runs pretty much flat, the fairway is essentially invisible from the tee: seriously, you stand up there and you stare out at an expanse of rough. I thought I stripped my drive, but I found my ball resting 9 yards into the rough, which, like every ball that doesn’t find the short-grass on the Black, I then had to try to chop-cut with a 4 iron into a 3 yard wide run-up between the two-fronting bunkers.

Walking over to the 12th tee, I was suddenly overcome with a foreign sensation: namely, when’s this round gonna bloody end? And herein lies the primary issue I have with the Black: it’s simply not a lot of fun, if at all, to play. Trying to hit drives into twenty yard ribbons and long irons into miniscule, often elevated surfaces that were, at least that day, rock hard gets tedious after about the front 9. And if you miss them, you’re either pitching out, chopping something down the fairway, or grabbing your sixty degree wedge. 

My opponent eyeing his approach into 15

Nothing really shook this sensation the rest of the way homeward. It’s so plainly obvious what needs to be done that it hurts my head to look at most of the holes. Still, the 14th and 15th are both cool, especially the later, despite another fairway that’s swarmed by an ocean of rough. The 17th is a pretty setting but 18th is as utterly terrible as I remembered it. (For major championship golf, the fix would be to play cross-country to what I think is the final green of the Red, way off to the right. It would either be a long par 4 or a short par 5, but I don’t think it would require a ton of work. You could push back the current fairway bunkers to the right of 18 Black, creating a diagonal tee shot across them, and then pretty much leave the green as is.)

My proposed 18th would run from the current 18th tee, top right, to the green bottom left

Sure, what is there now was considered the ethos of “championship golf” not that long ago, but it’s not anymore. And, aside from what I assume would be a painstaking process, considering the political hurdles I am sure you’d have to go through to get a plan approved, I think it’s a shame to have a Tillinghast kept in this fashion. Operating at its full-potential, it’s likely a borderline top 15 course in America; as it currently is, however, I don’t think it’s in the top 50, maybe not even the top 75. 

Perhaps shooting 73 and losing by 5 shots to a “two or three handicap” also had something to do with the sense of disenchantment I carried towards Manhattan. 

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