Bethpage Black: A Bucket List course

Bethpage Black
Photo: Getty Images
Bethpage Black is one of the most demanding, beautiful and enjoyable golf courses in the world.
By
Ted Bishop, PGA
PGA.com

Series:

One of the most common and strongest bonds between golfers is the shared courses they play, particularly ones of historic and iconic status. Regardless of whether you are a beginning golfer who plays mainly on a local municipal or an Officer of The PGA of America, the thrill of finally hitting a shot on one of your "wish list" courses is one of the great thrills of the game. Here's Ted Bishop, the Secretary of the PGA, and his story of a recent round at one such venue.

Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman brought plenty of attention to the term "Bucket List" in a movie that they co-starred in a few years ago. For those that don't know, a bucket list is a term that defines the things that an individual would want to do before they leave this Earth.

Golfers often talk about their own bucket list when it comes to the courses they want to play before they die. In my case, Augusta National, Pebble Beach and Prestwick in Scotland are courses that highlight my own personal bucket list. These are places that I have been lucky enough to play. There are many other venues that I have been fortunate enough to experience, but until this week those three stood out.

Augusta National is every golfers dream. Pebble Beach could be the most spectacular setting in the world. Prestwick was founded in 1851 and was the site of the first 12 British Open Championships. It's hard to beat that lineup, but after this week I will add a fourth to my bucket list.

Bethpage Black on Long Island was the site of the 2002 and 2009 United States Opens. Tiger Woods won the first Open at Bethpage and Lucas Glover prevailed last year when Bethpage became a swamp after late June rains deluged the New York City area.

The Bethpage Park complex is owned by the State of New York and it consists of five golf courses- the Black, Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. While the Black course gets the modern day recognition, the Green was built in 1923. The Red and Blue were opened in 1935, one year ahead of the Black. Tillinghast, the famed golf course architect, gets the credit for designing the courses at Bethpage.

Dave Catalano is the Director of Bethpage State Park. He has served in that position since 1995. Catalano actually first started to work at Bethpage in 1967 while attending college. He once served as the golf course superintendent for the Green course.

"My job is to keep everything coordinated, which is not an easy task sometimes," says Catalano. "We have 50-80 employees who are charged with taking care of the five golf courses, adjacent polo fields and picnic areas."

The Bethpage experience is widely known in golf circles. Players line up the night before to secure precious starting times. When I played last Tuesday, the five Bethpage courses entertained nearly 1,700 rounds- that day!

"I would say that 1,700-1,800 per day is a little busy," observed Catalano. "Our typical day this year is around 1,450. Play is down this year. We have had perfect weather, so I would say the economy has had an impact. We raised our fees and that probably hurt as well."
The fees to play the Black course, assuming you can get on, are $135 weekdays and $155 on weekends. Residents can play for $70 and $80, respectively. Fees on the other four courses at Bethpage range from $38-$43 weekdays, $43-48 weekends, with Senior Citizens enjoying a 20% discount weekdays only.

The thing that makes Bethpage extremely unique is that you see walkers with pull carts, people toting their own bags, blue collar types and the Manhattan execs. No golf cars are allowed on the Black course. The parking lot extends over acres because it takes some space to accommodate vehicles for 1,800 people. The clubhouse area is like the proverbial ant hill with golfers crawling everywhere. It's difficult to find 20-feet of open space on the putting green and plan to stand in line if you want to hit a warm-up bucket.

However, the entire buzz is left behind when you step onto the first tee at Bethpage Black. You are about to enter a tranquil, but brutal course that sports some of the world's toughest holes. I have been fortunate to play Augusta National the past two years. I can tell you that Bethpage Black matched the pristine playing conditions that The Masters site is known for.

My foursome on Tuesday included my daughter, Ambry. We were joined by Doug who sells lubricants and lives in The Hamptons. He packed his own sack. Our fourth player was Tom, an anesthesiologist from New Jersey, who showed up with a pull cart. Tom set the tone on the first tee, "Well, we are here. We might as well play it all the way back."

Doug and I looked at each other and said, why not. So, we tackled the 7,498 yard par 71 obstacle course. As Doug would later describe Tom's game, "He hits it forever, but he has no zip code."

Pace of play for our round was five hours and 15 minutes. My highlight was making a birdie on Number 4. This is the signature hole for the Black course. It is an uphill par 5 that plays longer than the 517 scorecard yardage.

Catalano said it best, "The diversity of our players at Bethpage is really unique. We have all races, all economic types. To do that everyday and host U.S. Opens with the best players in the world is pretty special."

The term Bethpage is a Biblical reference to a strip of land that lies between Jericho and Jerusalem. According to Catalano, Nassau County historian Jesse Merritt encouraged Robert Moses to name this special spot with that in mind. They did it with geographical implications in mind.

After Tuesday, I would propose that from a golf standpoint, the name is absolutely perfect. With all its beauty, serenity, craziness, crowdedness, diversity, hackers, avid players and best golfers in the world- Bethpage Black lies somewhere between everything in the sport of golf. Bethpage Black just landed squarely in my bucket!