FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The ominous warning sign sits behind the first tee, the world-famous words of caution reminding the casual player about what lies ahead at Bethpage Black.
That warning, head professional Charlie Bolling noted, is for the casual player and perhaps not so much for the golfers who will make their way around the jewel of the five-course Bethpage State Park compound for this year’s PGA Championship.
“The modern players will do just fine out here,” Bolling said. “This is a golf course that beat up the likes of the Corey Pavins and Nick Prices and the Fred Funks of the world back in their day because of its length. The modern player hits the ball so far.”
The challenge, Bolling pointed out, might be not the length of the shots but the length and scope of the walk.
“One of the things nobody talks about enough with Bethpage is the physical requirement of the golf course,” Bolling said. “It’s a little bit of an endurance test. It’s a long walk, mileage-wise. If a typical 18-hole round of golf is a 5-mile walk, Bethpage is about a 6-mile walk. If you got a guy like Tiger Woods, and I know he’s fit, these are the factors that go into considering Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as favorites. This is a big, big walk.
“I think Tiger and Phil are going to be challenged by the physical requirements of this venue. Even though it’s a walk in the park, it’s not a walk in the park.”
In a 45-minute conversation, Bolling walked through every hole on the course, explaining the nuances, the secrets, the challenges and the opportunities. If you’re looking for the scores typically associated with a major at Bethpage — Woods won the 2002 U.S. Open at 3 under; Lucas Glover was 4 under seven years later — it’s time to start thinking differently.
“If the golf course plays soft and it’s not too windy, somebody is going to get it under [10-under] 270,” Bolling said. “If it’s cool and windy, the winning score is going to be between 272 and 275. If the weather is benign, I like 268.”
No. 1: Par 4, 430 yards
Put the sign out of your mind. While the first hole might be a challenge for the regular player, the dogleg-right opener isn’t an ease-into-the-round situation for those chasing the Wanamaker Trophy. This is a chance to get in the red from the start, especially for the big hitters who can make the trees down the right side irrelevant.
“The key to No. 1 is you want the angle coming in on the second shot. The longer hitters are going to take it over the corner. But the key to the first hole is to put the ball in the fairway. You are almost better off being slightly left than you are being slightly right. It’s a birdie hole, especially for the guys that fly the ball 320.”
No. 2: Par 4, 389 yards
Although Bethpage has a reputation for its length, No. 2 is about position. A dogleg left with an elevated second shot awaits the players. The second shot won’t be quite the same in May as it was for the U.S. Open (June) or the Barclays (August).
“Just a long iron or a hybrid or a fairway wood off the tee to put the ball in the fairway. The green complex is significantly elevated. When the green is firm, it can be very challenging to hold [the green] out of the rough. But at this point in time, it’s not looking like we’re going to have terribly firm greens.”
No. 3: Par 3, 230 yards
Want to gauge the difference between the players who show up to take their whacks at Bethpage Black and the professionals? The scorecard for the average player has this hole at 158 yards; the pros will be play it at 230 yards.
“It’s got a fantastic green that comes from wide in front to narrow in the back left. Players that are trying to bring it in from the right side of the pin, if the pin is in the back, it’s easy to hit through the right side of the green, and it runs away. There’s a little slope running away there. Just a wonderful par-3.”
No. 4: Par 5, 517 yards
This is the signature hole at Bethpage Black. It’s a daunting look from the tee, with bunkers seemingly everywhere. Again, elevation comes into play: You drop from the tee, then come back up the hill to the green.
“I think No. 4 is arguably the best par-5 in the world without a water hazard. It’s really a good par-5. On the tee shot, the left bunker is about a 290 carry, and it’s about 330 to the end of the fairway. The bombers are going to fit it in there. It’s going to leave them with a 200-yard, significantly uphill second shot. The green is not particularly deep. When the golf course is firm, it can be very challenging to hold. In the conditions we have right now, the players are going to be able to hold the green.”
No. 5: Par 4, 478 yards
You stand on the fourth tee and stare off at massive bunkers. More massive bunkers will be staring at the players as they stand on the elevated fifth tee. There is trouble down the right side and, you guessed it, another big climb to get to a small green protected by bunkers.
“If the pin is on the left side, you can’t even see it from the left side of the fairway. It’s guarded by a big tree. The further left the pin placement, the more important it is to hit the ball on the right side of the fairway. The diagonal cross bunker that runs from the front left of the fairway and runs diagonally out from the right, it’s 288 yards to carry it from the deepest point. When the pin is on the left, the guys are going to have to keep the ball on the right side of that hole.”
No. 6: Par 4, 408 yards
The players will see their tee shots go up. They just won’t see them come down. That doesn’t make this hole hard, but it requires them to pick out a line, preferably over the left bunker, to leave themselves a wedge and a good look at birdie.
“It has an hourglass-shaped fairway. If you visualize the narrowing of an hourglass, there’s a massive bunker on the left side of the fairway that goes into the hourglass. Then there’s a big bunker on the right side on the other side of the hourglass. Guys are going to hit driver and 3-wood over the left bunker and catch the downslope that’ll run them down to 120 yards or so of the green. It’s definitely a birdie hole.”
No. 7: Par 4, 524 yards
For the people waiting in their cars to get on Bethpage Black, this is a par-5. For the best players in the world hunting the year’s second major, this is a par-4. The length here is a challenge, as is the usual factor around this place: bunkers that require a long carry off the tee.
“The challenge here is that there are large trees on the right corner, and there is a massive bunker that players have to carry. There are players who might hit 3-wood there, even though it’s 500 yards, to keep the ball from running through the fairway. Again, if the golf course is playing soft, it won’t be as big a challenge because the ball won’t hit and run.”
No. 8: Par 3, 210 yards
This is the only hole on the golf course on which water is a factor. The par-3 is protected by a pond in front, a bunker left and a large tree right. The pin location will dictate the shot — and which obstacle will be most relevant.
“The tree on the right is an issue for pins that are on the front half of the green. That green is 44 yards deep, and there is a back tier. I think that when the pin is in the back, the players are going to fly it all the way back there, which would take the ball right over the tree. When the pin is on the front half of the green and on the right side is when that tree will come into play.”
No. 9: Par 4, 460 yards
Since the 2009 U.S. Open, a new tee has been added to this sweeping dogleg left. The players have choices off the tee, and those choices will dictate what comes next. You can take on the bunker up the left side or play a bit safer to the right of it. The big hitters have a big advantage here.
“If it’s into the wind, it can be a challenging carry. If it’s not into the wind, the players will take it right over the bunker and have a short iron in. Wind direction is going to determine how much of a birdie hole the ninth is. Players who have to play wide right of the bunker end up in a gully in the fairway that is a blind second shot of about 165 yards. Players who carry the bunker, they’ll have the ball 125-140 yards with a good look at the pin.”
No. 10: Par 4, 502 yards
There are no twists and turns here. What you see is what you get. That leaves the objective pretty simple: Find the fairway. There are bunkers right and bunkers and fescue left off the tee. There are a host of bunkers in front to protect the green.
“The fairway ends about 90 yards short of the green. There’s a lot of rough and a gully, and then the green is protected on the front right and the front left. If you miss the fairway, it can be challenging to get the ball over the bunkers and the gully.”
No. 11: Par 4, 435 yards
The greens at Bethpage Black are, for the most part, pretty flat. “I love to say it is a bombers’ golf course, but I’d say everybody on the PGA Tour is long,” Bolling said. “I think the player who is good in the 25-foot range on flatter greens could do quite well here. I think about a Jordan Spieth when I think about that kind of player. This could be a place where he turns his year around.” Once the players get past the bunkers on the right and left off the tee, this is one of the holes that will require a little more thought and creativity on greens.
“It’s not blind, but from the tee box, you can see the green, but you can’t see the landing area. I’ve always found it a little unnerving that I know where I want to hit it, but I don’t see the fairway. The 11th green has some character to it — a two-tiered green with a false front. It’s got more movement and more character than a lot of the greens out here.”
No. 12: Par 4, 515 yards
Another tee shot with another huge, huge bunker staring the players in the face. You can’t bail out away from it here, not with the hole measuring 515 yards, the longest of any of the par-4s. Still, it isn’t as simple as hammering it out over the bunker. The player needs to decide on a line before stepping up and letting it rip.
“It’s about a 285-yard carry over the bunker — and it’s a massive cross bunker. The farther left you hit the ball, the shorter the hole is going to be. If you fly it over the right-center of the bunker or the middle of the bunker, you’re going to be in the fairway. If you fly it over the left side of the bunker, you got another 20 yards of bluegrass you have to cover to get it to the fairway. I think you’re going to see a lot of players trying to shorten the hole and ending up in that swath of bluegrass.”
No. 13: Par 5, 608 yards
There are not a ton of par-5s left on the planet that Tour players cannot reach in two. This one, on this particular week, is going to be tough, given the rain that has hit the Northeast leading into this PGA Championship.
“If it were firm, I would say yes [players can get there in two]. It depends on the wind direction. It’s a fairly narrow fairway, so players have to hit a good tee shot. So to get there in two, you need to hit a good tee shot, then cover the cross bunker [in front] with a 3-wood. You never know with these guys. Rory [McIlroy] hits the bejeezus out the ball. If it’s damp and cool, I say nobody gets there.”
No. 14: Par 3, 161 yards
Finally a break, with a short iron in hand. Trouble lurks ahead once you cross Round Swamp Road. Players will want to take advantage of a fairly benign shot across the valley to a narrow but long green.
“In my opinion, it’s the last good birdie opportunity before you head home. The biggest challenge on the hole is the crosswinds.”
No. 15: Par 4, 457 yards
Elevation change has been noted, right? Repeatedly. Well, there is no more noticeable spot on the course than the second shot to No. 15. For a professional, the trudge up the hill — remember, Bolling said the walk might be the most challenging part of Bethpage Black — is significant. The approach is to a green protected by bunkers, including a front trap in which a player of modest height might get lost.
“I would say that shot plays about 10 yards uphill for the Tour player and closer to 20-25 yards uphill for the average golfer. The bunkering up by the green is very challenging. If I hit the ball in the rough off the tee, I feel like I have a better chance to make par if I lay up to 75-80 yards short of the green in the fairway than if I try to cover the bunkers. You get in that cross bunker in front, you can’t see. You have to line up the shot because you can’t see the flag.”
No. 16: Par 4, 460 yards
Cliché time: What goes up must come down. The rise to get to the 15th green leads to a downhill tee shot on 16. While long, it looks relatively straightforward, with a few trees down the left side and a couple bunkers guarding the green. Don’t be fooled: This is far from simple.
“The fairway is very challenging to hit because you get big crosswinds on that tee. If you drive the ball in the left rough, there is a tree down the left side that will be a factor. The problem with the right rough is you have no angle to the opening in front of the green. The green is well-bunkered on the right.”
No. 17: Par 3, 207 yards
This is one of the more picturesque and fabulously constructed par-3s in major championship golf. The green, stretching 43 yards wide, is huge. A quick glance makes it seem like there are bunkers just about everywhere. Let’s let Bolling do the explaining.
“This a fantastic par-3. I like to think of the 17th as two separate greens: a right green complex and a left green complex. The carry to the left green complex, in addition to being 10 yards farther, has more elevation. It’s a full club to club-and-a-half distance from the right side to the left side. In my opinion, if you are going to have a signature hole on this golf course, other than the fourth hole, it would be the 17th. It’s a gorgeous hole. It’s a hole that can play as short as 160 yards to the front right and as long as 220 to the back left.”
No. 18: Par 4, 411 yards
One last climb, this time from the 17th green to the 18th tee. Once there, you will find one of the more spectacular views in golf, with the Black Course stretched out before you with the green framed by the clubhouse behind. And at last, after a long walk up and down the hills, a gift: This is a birdie. Bunkers line the left and right, but find the fairway, and it’ll be a short iron to a receptive green.
“For this tournament, they put in a series of new bunkers on the right side that narrowed the fairway considerably. The fairway is extraordinarily well bunkered on both sides. While you can get a good lie in those bunkers, you can also find a disaster in there. There’s a significant elevation change on the second shot. For the guys who negotiate the tee shot, I think you’ll see some birdies here.”