Thursday, October 29, 2009
Bethpage the Red
The bag visits the Red. Here's the 18th of Black from hole #4 of Red.
Bethpage the Red
Bethpage is more closely laid out and operated in concept more similarly to the Links at St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland than any other golf facility in the United States. There is the one great course that you need a bit of help securing a tee time and several other supporting courses of varying quality making up the choices. It is purely daily fee and that sets it apart from the resort at Pinehurst in North Carolina also vying for the title of America’s St. Andrews. That’s another story for another day. Being a New York Resident helps much more at Bethpage than anything at all does at St. Andrews. Access to the Black is very hard for an out-of-stater, the Red is a little less so.
At St Andrews The Old Course stands out as does the Black at Bethpage. It is the clear top course and has the major pedigree to add to its cache. At Bethpage the Red Course stands out as the next best alternative perhaps the Jubilee of Bethpage.
Designed by A.W. Tillinghast, Dev Emmet is said to have had some input, but it reeks of Bethpage State Park lately save spots like 4 green. Joe Burbeck? As for the black? Not going there. The routing gives the player of the Red a joyful, interesting walk tightly knitted to use every cranny of the land. The first and the last give a stern introduction and difficult finish and perhaps as such give a bit of a disparate view of the course. Each is a very demanding par 4 - the first at the Red perhaps being played as a par 5 by most. A markedly elevated green makes the hole all the more interesting and challenging with a smaller rise jutting in from the left just 30 or so yards short of the perched green to soften the roll back of the shot that comes up short. Of note, the excellent par 5 fifth uses a ground feature remarkably similar to this in a manner eerily reminiscent of the first. In between, the Red is a little more friendly.
Overall the routing of the Red is one aspect that gives the golfer great deal of pleasure. It is a very short distance from the green to the tee hole after hole, very intimately put together in a winding path for the first 8 holes set in a gently rolling bit of land that is some of Bethpage’s best. Then through the flat plain routing of the holes through 15 is not an all-too familiar over and back again but rather multiple changes of direction to give importance to the ever present wind given the course proximity to the Atlantic Ocean just to the south. This is much more interesting than the parallel holes often seen in public access courses and various lengths of doglegs and elbows make up this stretch. Then the Tillinghast double dogleg template makes up the lovely 16th before the run home.
Seventeen, a bit disappointingly as with the other par threes, plays a familiar length, the one variety begging at the Red. Certainly, the green settings are rather different and the fourth and seventh greensites are particularly distinctive and somewhat memorable but it’s basically the same club for the set of par 3’s most days.
Bunkering – one is left to wonder at the Red. Holes two and three, each a dogleg right with no bunkering, tree-lining, width with little strategy and one wonders contemplating the delicious par 3 fourth if the remainder of the par 4’s vary as little as two of the first three. Two and three do not make a particularly interesting connection for the golfer to the stretch of 4-7. The greens at the Red are as with the Black relatively devoid of severe contouring relying more on slopes than any other factor to determine weight and break.
However, standing on the fourth tee you are unmistakably on a golden age US Golf Course, the green is faced on the left with a deep, somewhat abruptly faced menace of a bunker. Once on that green, one has a fine panorama of the Black 1 and 15-18. It is this connection to the Black that elevates the Red right at the start. When this early savory par 3 hole leads into the sublime part of the Red routing that is when it really gets the golfer going and holds that feeling for quite a stretch. One sees those lucky golfers with the Black tee times of that day, running for home or perhaps only limping so. The elevated view of those holes stirs the golfer and the stretch of the course that follows rewards those golfers on the Red with their own special thrill of great golf holes.
Five as with sixteen are wonderful par 5’s with more of an elbow on five at the end of the relatively flat drive. Given the uphill nature of the second shot and the elbow rather than dog-leg design, one can really go after the drive on five a bit harder as it doesn’t make a big difference whether you are left or right off five too, you just need to be long enough to go for five in two. Sadly there are no bunkers to aid in strategy or excitement to that drive, but the landforms of the remaining 250 yards with a good 30 feet of elevation are the real challenge here.
I find the first 8 holes of the Red extraordinarily thrilling even with the comments about two and three. If there were just a bunker on each to break up the visual of the trees, the entire stretch would sing. As it is I am not a fan of framing to comfort the golfer, but rather in this instance to give a little visual element, I would like a bunker, there’s just a plethora of trees. My readers know I am not a fan of too many trees as they are generally bad for the turf. The nice thing about many of the early bunkers on the Red is that they are not too penal. The bunkers should not be of the character of those on the black as we are looking at different crowds that visit the courses. I am going to hazard a guess that something in the realm of 60, 000 rounds are recorded on each of the courses that are not the Black every year. As best as I can recall, that is the number Dave Catalano – the superintendent, offered as a statistic. Given the wide range of skill sets possessed by players that visit Bethpage that is remarkable. (That is also why the famous warning sign overlooks the teeing ground of the first of the Black – the other courses function just as local municipal courses). However, the Red is a hearty cut above the remainder and tips out over 7,000 yards.
As is typical of any course where anyone and everyone plays, pace of play is often very slow and players (not that private and resort players do not do it, too!) often play tees beyond their capabilities. There was a big gap since the last players had gone out when I last played. I asked two fellows on the first tee if they minded if I jumped ahead. Unlike the response one gets at the $250 resort course, they said “Sure, we’’ll just hold you up, go ahead”. One never gets that kind of a response at the resort and don’t get me started on the manners of some club players. Once I eventually caught up on the tenth hole, the players I was with were proficient and speedy players (as well as regulars to Bethpage). I sense a real pride in Bethpage as a whole with daily fee players seemingly aware of what a gem the State Park is. That’s the one way Bethpage is different from St. Andrews is that you just don’t see more than 15-20% that are not “regulars”. It is like a publinx club at Bethpage with a clubhouse structure to go with the best of private clubs. The restaurants, bars and dining halls are as first class as the golf.
Holes 9-15 on the Red as I alluded to are not the usual parallel arrangement but take a delightfully constant change of direction for what amounts to nearly half of the golf course on this fairly flat plain. In the middle of the stretch, far away from the clubhouse is the thirteenth. Here sits one of the largest bunker complexes in the center-line of perhaps any public hole in America. At over 400 yards there are very distinct options for varied length of carry over the bunker or trying to thread the needle onto the very narrow left fairway.
Depending on pin location this hole could be played differently every day for perhaps two months. Again, no other hole parallels it in any way. Eight, nine, ten and fourteen are all doglegs that fit against each other but subtlely rotate against the clock as to not be parallel to each other. Great routing and use of the wind direction is evident here.
Fifteen through 18 take a variety of direction changes with all stout holes. Fifteen takes two changes of direction and tilt of the land as it abuts against the green. Sixteen is Tillinghast’s double dog-leg where par is always welcomed and often wins the hole.
There are ways that the red perhaps exceeds the Black in that it a) accommodates a greater range of players – b) it has more subtlety and less brutishness about it (save 1, 16 and 18) and c) it is always there. Black closes for the season, Red does not and its loyal players come out in force. I spoke with the starters as well as the women in the cashier booth and being October with a Giants football Sunday there was that gap that allowed me a period of time to have basically the entire first nine to myself to savor, a rare treat indeed. All said that if it were summer, it would be foursome after foursome group after group ad infinitum. As it should be because for a pure municipal type of operation, Bethpage knows no equal. Parenthetically, I may visit legendary Triggs Memorial in Providence on this coming Monday, so stay tuned for that possibility. I am currently at a meeting and in the evenings I may get caught up a little bit on here.
One hole merits a separate description because of its cleverness. Number six, a sharp right to left “buttonhook” - as I like to call them – dogleg which has several interesting fairway rolls and a more complicated green than most holes on Red. It looks potentially drivable on the card maxing at 325 or so, but a true tree-defined dog-leg makes that impossible. I think other than the profusion of bunkers at the other hole – this landform strongly resembles number 10 at Merion. Among those that have intensely heated arguments about the architectural lineage of Merion, I offer this hole as a suggestion that Mr. Tillinghast if not present to suggest a design such as this perhaps was inspired or inspiring with this hole. I rather like it bunkerless at the Red. The land and the treeline dictate approach.
So how do we sum up the parts of Bethpage the red?
Routing - first class, really really good, worthy of comparison to any with its varied terrains joined together seamlessly and in different fashions.
Par 3’s – playing a similar length I’d like to see a shortie in there, but each on its own is a fine hole.
Par 4’s – Right to left, left to right straight, long, uphill, in cadence, short and clever.
Par 5’s - two really good ones
Trees – not out of control, not much evidence of damage to turf
Conditioning – probably just right for the target groups – lies not too tight, rough not ridiculous, tees hold up fairly well, excellent considering the amount of traffic they see, greens sloping rather than huge mounding with appropriate speeds.
Greens and green complexes – not overdone as 40 handicappers have to play side by side with the scratch golfer and single digit. Most open in front.
Bunkers – sparse, but bunker maintenance is very expensive and tough on the handicap man, so we cannot judge Red by the same standards as Black or a private membership course. We'll give the red a little bit of a pass here.
Intangibles are wonderful everywhere at Bethpage, it is very much like a chapel or cathedral there.