Sunday, May 5, 2019

Bethpage Black Golf Course Review: The Front-9 (2019 PGA Championship)

I watched the boisterous 2002 and 2009 U.S. Open championships and marveled at Bethpage Black's gargantuan length and legendary bunkering.  I saw the notorious "Warning" sign hundreds of times online and dreamed about one day taking on this A.W. Tillinghast masterpiece.  And in May I finally teed it up on this world-renown track for the first time. 


I didn't walk up to the first tee pounding my chest and humming like Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street, but I was definitely confident for the impending challenge.  In the end I didn't solve the puzzle that is Bethpage, but Black didn't exactly chew me up and spit me out either. 

One day I'll return for a rematch.  And perhaps I'll give the narrow fairways, small elevated greens that are closely trapped around the entrance, and dense rough and cavernous bunkers a little more respect a second time around.  Then again, Bethpage will always expose every weakness in your game (no matter how you play it), and it requires a great variety of shots to score well. 


So I'll probably play it the same way next time that I did this time: aggressively taking on Black's twisting fairways, subtle angles, and protective bunkers like I know what I'm doing.  But secretly, I'll just be hoping to survive.  Let's get into my front-9 review now of this par-71 (plays to par-70 for the PGA Championship), 7,426 yard  monster. 

Par-4, 430 Yards 
The first hole won't bring you to your knees, but it's a good indicator of what's coming, and it definitely sets the tone for the day.  You see right away there's a premium on driving as the dogleg-right fairway is extremely narrow (second pic shows the fairway from the 18th hole greenside rough). 


If you want to play the right side off the tee you'll need to hit your drive about 270 yards to avoid being blocked by trees.  Miss too far right, and you'll find the rough.  And you don't  need to be in the knee-high fescue to be in trouble at Bethpage.  Even the second cut of graduated rough is extremely thick, making it very tough to get good contact. 


The left side is safer and you only need about a 250-yard drive to have a good look into the green.  But from this side you'll have a longer approach into the deep and very narrow, multi-tiered green that slopes back to front.  The green is also protected by sticky rough and two deep bunkers on either side, with fescue farther out that penalizes the worst misses. 

Par-4, 389 Yards 
It's only about 220-yards off the tee to the corner of the dogleg that winds left on this shorter par-4.  But you'll need to be extremely precise on No. 2 as the fairway is very narrow, and anything in the rough will cost you at least one extra stroke. 


Superb bunkering protects the front of a small, disk-shaped green for approaches left short.  And overhanging branches from the large tree in the back left can potentially cause all kinds of headache.  Any approach shot to the elevated green requires a high, soft approach shot to hold the green and your distance control needs to be very precise and borderline outstanding (this is a recurring theme that you'll find on hole Nos. 4, 5, 15, and 17).  I did not hit this green. 

Par-3, 230 Yards 
No. 3 is a great strategic hole that can lull you into a false sense of security.  The one-shotter plays peak to peak with a gully in the middle, and features a large and inviting green.  Miss the green however, and it's a grim struggle to save par at best. 


If you don't take enough club, long and deep bunkers on the left will swallow you up and spit you out (the lower-most left bunker is more than 20-yards deep).  If you take too much club, you'll be left with a steep uphill shot to a narrow, bean-shaped green that angles away from the tee and to the left.  Morale of the story?  Don't miss this green. 

Par-5, 517 Yards 
Remember the first time you saw a natural wonder and how amazing it was?  Maybe like the Grand Canyon or the giant sequoia of California?  That's kind of what seeing Bethpage's iconic "Glacier Bunker" is like for the first time. 


And it turns out this wouldn't be the last of Tillinghast's famous "Great Hazard" designs on Bethpage.  The very next hole I'd have to contend with another diagonal waste area (albeit more subtle).  And two holes later I'd be challenged by another cross-bunker on one of the world's greatest par-4s. 

This is probably as good a time as any to mention something about the architect.  Tillie was all about twisting fairways, oblique lines, double-doglegs, and of course the diagonal great hazards.   No. 4 is the signature hole on Bethpage Black, and illustrates how bunkers can completely dictate how to play a hole


Off the tee it's crucial you stay to the right of the first fairway bunker on the left.  The bunker is deep, about 50-yards long, and sits below the fairway.  If you find it, you're only real second shot is going to be a lay-up.  That tip comes from my own personal experience.

The Glacier Bunker comes into play on your second shot.  And unless you're striping driver 300-yards plus down the middle of the fairway, you'll need to hit something that travels at least 150-170 yards uphill to clear this enormous hazard and reach the second fairway (that runs slightly diagonal to the right).  And trust me, that's a lot harder than it sounds.  


If you're a big hitter and decide to go for it in two, or even if you're hitting your third shot on approach into the elevated green, you better find the putting surface.  Bunkers short and left might be the most expertly placed of all.  Murderous rough protecting the green is about 4 inches deep.  And if you bounce your shot off the back or left side?  There's a catastrophic slope awaiting you some 50 feet down. 

With all that said, No. 4 is not a difficult hole if you play it the way it is intended to be played, and hit good shots.  Take on more risk than the hole allows or get a little sloppy tee to green however, and you'll learn a hard lesson. 

Par-4, 478 Yards 
This is one of the hardest holes on the course.  And the first thing you have to decide on this massive par-4 is how much of the 100-yard long cross-bunker you're going to take on off the tee.  The prime fairway real estate is on the right side and gives you a better angle into a green that's elevated almost 30 feet.  However, that means you risk missing in the gnarly rough and fescue, and you do not want to be there. 


The left side is wider open and safer.  However too far left and you'll either have no shot into the green (blocked by trees), or be required to hit the most ridiculous and of draws that honestly even most professionals would need luck in executing. 

The green is guarded by two front bunkers, and while you can see the flag on approach, the putting surface is partially to completely blind.  And because of the elevation, this is not a green that holds long irons easily.  I made an absolute mess of this hole.  And it taught be once and for all that it's just as important to drive it accurately at Bethpage as it is to drive it long

Par-4, 408 Yards 
This hole plays downhill the entire length, and the safe play off the tee is to hit a wood or long iron short of the fairway bunkers.  The landing zone there is wider and you don't have any real trouble.  The trade-off is having a long iron into the green (as opposed to a mid-iron or wedge). 


It's very tempting to shave off the corner on this sharp dogleg left as you only have to carry one bunker on the left.  However, the landing zone is twice as narrow so you need to be precise.  And if you miss, the dense rough surrounding the bunker is pretty much death with the downhill lie. 


The green is one of the most intensely bunkered green on the course, and very small.  Landing in any of these hazards will require real skill to save an up-and-down

Par-5, 553 Yards 
You're going to need at least two long shots on this dogleg right hole no matter what your strategy is off the tee.  Incredibly tall trees on the right corner will keep you from cutting the dogleg, but you still have to contend with the sprawling, diagonal cross-bunker that's more than 120 yards wide.  


Positioning is key with driver as you also have to be cautious of driving it through the fairway and into another smaller bunker on the left side.  If you can avoid these hazards, you have a fairly easy lay-up that just needs to remain in the fairway. 


On approach the relatively flat green is protected by two front bunkers left and right, and allows for shots to run up to the putting surface, which is rare for the course.  Even if you reach in three, a ridge running through the middle of the green will make putts tricky to read. 

Par-3, 210 Yards 
Bethpage Black's only water hazard protects the front of a green, that's also guarded by a bunker left and a tree right.  It's one of the most picturesque and most photographed hole on the course. 


The front bank of the green is shaved, so miss short and there's a good chance your ball will roll back into the pond (another example from personal experience). 


It's definitely better to hit long here and use the ridge that runs through the green as a backboard.  Of course, hit it too long and you'll either find yourself in a tricky back bunker, or worse, somewhere in fescue tall enough to make your shoes disappear. 

Par-4, 460 Yards 
A finger bunker was added by "Open Doctor" Rees Jones to the left corner of this dogleg hole in his most recent updates to Bethpage Black, and creates more strategic risk-reward options from the tee. 


If you play short of the bunkers, you'll have an approach from an uneven lie from a severely sloping fairway with only a partial view of the green.  If you play it safe to the right, you'll have a more even lie, but the longest approach in (and this is not a green that holds long-irons easily).  But if you challenge the bunker and clear it, you'll have a flat lie with a wedge in, and a full look at the green. 


The elevated green is tightly protected by two deep bunkers in the front.  And when you sink the putt to make the turn, your calves will probably be burning.  Don't think you'll be able to run into the clubhouse for a quick drink however.  You're at the farthest point from the clubhouse anywhere on the course (which is about eight miles around).   And now the real fun begins.

READ MORE: Bethpage Black Course Review: The Back-9 (2019 PGA Championship).

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