The Black course at Bethpage in New York has a famous warning sign.
Almost every golfer who plays the world-class – yet publicly accessible – layout which is 45 minutes east of New York City takes a photo with it.
The sign bears the text, “WARNING: The Black course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.”
The Black course was designed by renowned architect A.W. Tilinghast and is a brutal test of golf. It measures 6,829 metres (7,468 yards), but has many long carries over rough and ravines from the tee, heavily bunkered greens and several steep and uphill approach shots.
When it was still on the USGA rota, Bethpage Black hosted the 2002 US Open – which Tiger Woods won with a three-under total – and the 2009 US Open won by Lucas Glover at four-under. Under the heavy hand of the USGA, slick greens and persistent New York summer rainfall on both occasions, they were stout tests of championship golf.
But it won’t play any easier now it has been adopted by the PGA of America and will host the first PGA Championship to be held in the month of May. “I’m preparing for a massacre,” Marc Leishman says. “I think it’s going to be that hard.”
New York will be two months into spring, but is still prone to cold temperatures in May. To be fair to the PGA of America, it had secured Bethpage as a venue for the PGA Championship before they liaised with the US PGA Tour to move their event to May, while the Players Championship reverted to its former March date.
Australian Golf Digest spoke to three Australians likely to tee it up at Bethpage, as well as some key figures in the US golf industry, to try to predict how the 2019 PGA Championship could play out.
“A PGA Championship at Bethpage in May is certainly going to be different. It will be interesting to see what happens with the weather. Hopefully, the weather is good and it will be reasonable as a test. I mean, if it’s cold, it’s going to be brutal, proper brutal. I think it’s got potential to be really, really, really hard because it’s so long. And then, if it’s winter-like weather in New York, it could be brutal.”
Leishman missed the cut when the first event of the US PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs were held at Bethpage Black in 2012 and 2016. “I’ve had terrible results at Bethpage. I don’t think I’ve ever made a cut there, so my expectations are very low going into Bethpage, to be honest. Hopefully that’s a good thing and I can play good because I’m relaxed.
“I just remember there are a couple of holes where you can hardly get to the fairway in August, and if it’s cold, that could be very interesting. I don’t have great memories there of the way I’ve played and where I’ve hit it on some of the holes, so hopefully I can make some good memories [laughs].”
2015 PGA Championship winner at Whistling Straits
Day, an ace at the PGA Championship, has a sound record at Bethpage Black and the New York/New Jersey area in general. Day was in contention through 36 holes at the Barclays in 2012, and tied for fourth in 2016. “A PGA in May in New York is going to be interesting,” Day says. “I’m hoping that the weather has turned good by then. If that’s the case, then it should be like a nice PGA there. But cold weather is always tough to play around Bethpage because the course just lengthens dramatically.
“However I think the PGA do a really good job in the way they set the course up and they’re not really worried about what the score we’ll shoot (like the USGA guards even-par). I know that it’s a tough golf course anyway, but I don’t think they’re going to be generous with the rough. They’ll make it hard but playable. If we had a US Open there, it would be crazy. I haven’t seen the course this year, so I don’t know what it’s going to look like in May. But, typically, if the winner gets to single-digits under par, it’s tough.”
Given the US PGA Championship is ‘the bombers’ Major’, Smith doesn’t have great results given the three he has played were at Whistling Straits, Quail Hollow and Bellerive Country Club.
He was not on tour/eligible for the 2012 and 2016 Barclays and as such has never played at Bethpage Black. “I don’t know too much about Bethpage,” Smith says. “But from what everyone tells me, it’s a tough course. I know it’s long, but I generally play really tough golf courses well, so I’m looking forward to it. I’m actually excited for a PGA at a course that is demanding and not just long.”
Jack Nicklaus believes all four of the Majors should have Mother Nature play a large role. And he’s spot on. The 18-time Major winner said the move to May will add an extra element to the event. “Now you’re going to have May and I think that’s good because now the PGA will have a weather issue, which I think is part of the game of golf,” Nicklaus said. “Some guys can play when the weather is bad, some guys can play only when the weather’s good, some guys only like the combination. I think it’s going to be a better test. I don’t know anything about Bethpage Black but everybody says
it’s a strong golf course… and I like weather as part of a golf tournament. We’re an outdoor sport.”
chief championship officer of the PGA of America
“Weather not great for golf,” was how Haigh described New York’s spring 2018. But Haigh has an excellent rebuttal to those suggesting there will be complications for the PGA in May. “We’ve been hosting the Senior PGA Championship in May the past 17 years, and we’ve had fewer weather delays and issues than the PGA in August.” Haigh says the move to May was made after weather patterns were already analysed. “We anticipate the courses, the tournament, to be healthier. Maybe, even more interesting.”
Bethpage’s director of agronomy
Wilson admitted the lead-up to the PGA Championship will be up to the elements. “It’s up to Mother Nature more than anything else. If she wants to beat us, she’ll beat us and we’ll recover.” The winter of 2018 was colder than most, but Wilson says Bethpage could have hosted a PGA last May based on conditioning only. “We came out of this winter fine,” he said. “The course (was) green and the park (had) a spring look to it. The greens, fairway and tees were ready for the PGA. The playing surfaces were very good. We will have to change some practices in taking care of rough, especially high rough, to leave certain areas undisturbed in the fall to have a good look in the spring.”
Golf Digest (US) architecture editor
In spring of 2017 – not long after the announcement that the PGA Championship would move to May and would be held at Bethpage – US Golf Digest’s architecture editor, Ron Whitten, paid the Black course a visit. “The place was wall-to-wall green,” Whitten wrote in Golf Digest. “Trees were fully leafed. The primary roughs, a hodgepodge of bluegrasses, ryegrasses, fescues and even a bit of Poa annua, were densely green, if a bit clumpy: shoe-top deep at one spot, ankle deep at another. Attribute that to different growth rates of the varieties of grasses. One sweep by a rough mower, and everything would be a uniform depth.”