Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bethpage the Black

America’s Championship was played at the Black in just horrendous conditions in June, 2009. It was the people's or common man’s Open to the regulars at the Black. Somewhat marginally better conditions were present in June, 2002 for the first USGA Open Championship played at a course “anyone can play” – in this case anyone who lives in New York State and the few who otherwise get lucky. Bethpage is a course that for me, further study has revealed much more over time and with experience than just about any other. Make no mistake that the Bethpage Black course is far superior to the course at Torrey Pines, the other truly daily fee course to hold an Open. As with the private Oakland Hills, it is architecture so good that The Open Doctor cannot destroy its soul.

Monday 5 October, the experience was easily the best I have personally had at the Black, playing in a three-ball with no one for three or four holes ahead of us and no one behind us with any chance to catch us after a shotgun start. First ball in the air to last bag on the cart was less than 3:30. Starting on number 7 (Par 4 for the Open and Par 5 for regular golfers), we were given the easiest pin position of the day. We were given the exact pins the field faced in the 2009 USGA Open second round. You remember, the one that took three days? We got a 500 yard par 4’s pin playing as a par 5 for us. Our first break! Into a fierce two plus club wind, not quite able to reach in two, an easy two-putt par ensued. After that most pins were 8 or less from any edge, some (such as #15) only three from the edge and on a ledge - marginalization by any stretch of the definition. Twelve pins could easily be considered very front and that was important in revealing a major flaw in the current set-up/design of this most interesting Joe Burbeck course (Ron Whitten, don’t bogart that joint). Haha, had to get that in somewhere, sorry ...

In having the pins so front and corner, the greatest slopes of the greens were brought into play, those obviously created for surface drainage. One negative of that is that it leads to soft approaches limiting the run-up shot. No worries here! This set of pins made apparent just how many greens currently have grass mowing patterns that can only be described as anti-strategic. Many of these front pins were on greens with no run-up but rather 20-30 yards of lush, bluegrass rough from the end of the fairway to the very front of the green. To be fair, where one can run it up, well-thought out pins were used such as hole #1, 4 from the left and about 7 on, up against the edge of a slope such that a drive perfectly positioned could use that feature to keep close. On number 8 the tree was put into play, even from our measly 186 vs. the big boys 215. As one goes further back on the tee of number eight, the more the tree was in play. It dictated that if you drew the ball, you were not getting it close to this pin.

Design-wise the combo of elevation of greens and these bluegrass morasses make the course play perhaps 100-200 yards longer. The professional players love this as much as they love water as a hazard, which is quite a lot. For the day-to day gamer it means three-putt territory after non-regulation number of shots to hit the green, far more often than not. Tedious.

The superintendent and Dick Rugge, head of the committee for balls & implements within the USGA hierarchy were an interesting pair of speakers for the group at lunch. Rugge spent much of his time going over statistics of how every tour in the world catering to world-class players had seen leveling of driving distance 2002-2009. Numbers of players with 300+ yard averages and over 120 m.p.h. swing speed players having actually decreased during this time period as well. The new rules for grooves were discussed at length and are reported much more comprehensively elsewhere than I care to here, so enough of that.

When listening to Craig Currier, the superintendent, one realizes that there are tremendous differences in how the definition of good varies. The Black was much too lush, too green, too soft, even the fairways were rather soft. Fast and firm ought to really be described as fast firm and fun. No fast, no firm, not much fun. Granted the east has had some rain, but not that much lately and I was getting 2-3 yards roll from my pitchmarks on this brute of a course even at 6600 yards. (I asked about the sanding program and they do not sand fairways at Bethpage any longer.) As I have said here before, the setup for elite players is almost becoming antithetical for regular players needs. Few if any can generate the clubhead speed necessary to extricate from 3” lush bluegrass with any useful sort of shot. The idea is that even for the professionals, with their superior club control and clubhead speed, they are unable to obtain any consistency. Funny thing is that short grass and slopes adjacent to greens does the same thing and is much more fun and manageable for the weaker player. Given the choice, I’d rather have good old-fashioned hardpan any day and I think although the aesthetics aren’t too pretty, most regular golfers would prefer hardpan to bluegrass, too. It’s a struggle with bluegrass to love it any way whatsoever. It’s easy to grow and make “healthy”, but it is a rotten surface for golf. It is in massive abundance at Bethpage. I respect the design, but I am less and less of a fan of this sort of golf/set-up. The super really sounded as though he had somehow been cheated by all the rain around this year’s Open as the golf course didn’t play “the way it was supposed to”. Who came up with the “supposed?” Want bluegrass? On the glacier hole, I pulled my second into a shorter left front bunker leaving 40 to the front of the green. Walking up to the bunker for the shot, I was in the middle of what seemed to be 2 acres of the stuff, perfect as paint, but over 3” deep. Amazingly homogenous grass, as perfect a lawn as America could want, but for golf? It then wrapped around all three tees on the fifth hole and I was thinking it was nearing three acres. What are we doing to our golf courses? What would Tillinghast (the true architect, not the consultant) think? I doubt that this was his vision, and just whose vision is it now?

A seventy nine with two birdies was good enough for closest to pin and a skin, so don’t think it’s a litany of complaints from me. At #6, (my last) I finally hit it down the bottom of the hill (One of the USGA’s good ideas) and it left me a 50 yard wedge to less than three feet for my skin. That and nearly the first into lunch from the furthest starting point from the clubhouse made for a great capper, and the day was perfect weather, too. I just continue to worry a bit about what “good design” is becoming.

Some photos:
Behind #2 Green, the maintenance complex just ruins the aesthetics of this hole

Behind the great Fifth green this muni shack does the same. If I were Bethpage Czar (has Obama appointed that one yet?) theses would be gone.

The Glacier, 2009

The fully cut fairway on six - got it to 50ish yards

The day's start on the lovely seventh tee

Eight, two views

Nine 2009

Nine 2007, can't say I care for the addition

Fourteen, note front left titty

Routing: A nice, if healthy walk with great property save the mile of par 4’s on the flat at the turn. 10, 11 always feels sluggish and the new back tee on #9 ads to the feeling. Still well routed to take advantage of the best features including the use of a gentle to not so gentle ridge on 1 and 15-18. Way better than average land and routing.

Cohesion: Several changes in the overall look of the holes transition well as the course starts on the plain, moves to the woods, goes in and out and returns to the plains with a run up and down a last ridge not once but twice. No repetition of how elevation changes are used. Ten and eleven could use some work though, it always seems like such a droll bit.

Greens: far from Tillinghast’s best set, but with tee to green so demanding, especially for the daily (New Yorker) fee player, some break is welcome. Green Complexes - Given how the bluegrass is used, too many greens are islands as one looks at how isolated they are to all but aerial shots way too often. Blah, to be brutally honest.

Par 3’s: 14 is delightful even with its paste-on-titty of a front left, seventeen already has a legend of its own with just Phil Mickleson, forget the elegantly angled and stepped green surface totally out of view. but number 8 with a front pond and an overhanging tree is too much for me. The third is just plain solid, although I think more of the par 3 green surfaces ought to be like 14. Way better than average.

Par 4’s: Emphasis on length and more length with bluegrass surrounded greens (with a few chipping areas to be fair) make them droll. #2 and (maybe #1) six can even begin to be called breathers and 18 bunkering is just hideous (we’ve all seen it) – still a little better than average.

Par 5’s: #4 Glacier has all-world aesthetics, is an all-world golf hole. Seven is wonderful save the ho-hum green, shame it’s a long par 4 these days and 14 is very solid. Far above average, even in the world of private clubs.

Bunkering Schema: Nowadays shouts "REES WAS HERE" which is really too bad because it is an eyesore in places and over-bunkering (such as seen with the new unnecessary fairway bunker on nine) is starting to creep in in the name of "Par Defence". Back Off a bit, I say.

Trees: I've never cared for the tree on eight and now as the hole lengthens and the tree continues to grow, well, do I need to draw a picture? You surely can't draw a ball to the right side - and on a par 3, that's a shame. Otherwise excellent management.

Conditioning: Not my taste but they sure grow some amazing quality grass out there. Honestly ????? hard for me to judge, but on pure agronomy, great job, just not for fun golf. Good God man, it's hard enough for all but one person two time in eight years at the USGA Open (and that's relative) for Joe Blow & Jane Doe, it can be a nightmare. The bluegrass was cut to 2 1/2 inches for the USGA Open down from the day-to-day 3 plus. What does that say?

Experience: Do NOT miss any opportunity to play, but pack at least two meals as it will be unmercifully sloooow. As a public course it puts nearly all others to shame, to compare to Torrey Pines is a pointless exercise. The amenities for a public facility and five courses make this, not Pinehurst with its insufferable price gouging America’s answer to St. Andrews.


steve said...

BB is indeed too wet, too soft and too slow to play. At my advancing age, I'll play the par4s from the Reds the next time I play there. I think the Red tees should be painted white and the current whites be painted yellow or some other color.

I agree that fast and firm should really be fast,firm and fun as I recently played the epitome of FF&F- HVCC.

the redanman said...

I think all great courses ought to re-color their tees. Heck, like NGLA and Shinnecock make the tips the reds, the middles some 'other' colour like green and the forwards BLACK! haha

that'd show 'em. I think I wrote a piece on tee colours that's on the website.