Mr Starter Please tear down this sign


Bookmark and Share
By now its the most famous sign in golf, with the possible exception of No spikes in the grillroom.
We speak, of course, of the simple white placard at the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y., site of this months U.S. Open. In language as direct as possible without crossing the line into insulting, the sign informs would-be players that the Black is extremely difficult and should only be attempted by very skilled players. As part of my continuing linguistic services to golfers the world over, I will translate and condense the sign for all to understand:
Get lost.
Its great that the United States Golf Association has chosen to play the national championship on certain courses that are open to the public. That policy recognizes the continuing trend away from private clubs as the American games only nerve center. Using public courses also presents the real opportunity for fans to do something no other major sport allows: bringing their own game to a championship field. You wont be shagging flies at Fenway any time soon. As in ever.
Bethpage in 2002, extra poignant in the wake of 9/11 and extra exciting because of Tigers win (not to mention Phil being in contention), was the real blossoming of the public-course Open movement in this country. Sure, Pebble Beach is technically open to all, but the price tag keeps out all but a privileged few. Bethpage, though, is a true municipal course, or more accurately a state-run track, which is the same thing. Yes, theres the whole bit about sleeping in your car to wait for a tee time, but thats just a matter of supply and robust demand. And most committed golfers are willing to commit the time and effort it takes to play this public gem.
But what do they find when they get to the door? The ol no-dogs-allowed sign.
This strikes a dissonant note with me, especially in light of the fact that golf needs more participation, now more than ever. Anything unwelcoming doesnt just fail to help the sport. It hurts it. Never mind that everything the sign says is true. Its a hard course, and it can be especially tough on the inexperienced. Its just American human nature ' no one likes to be kept out of anywhere.
Now, I understand there are countervailing interests here, legitimate ones. I expect a tsunami of e-mails from the (usually nasty) golfers who seem to forget they were beginners once too. They swear up and down that all the earths ills are caused by slow, inexperienced groups in front of them. They want such golfers to disappear faster than your tax refund.
Well, so do I. But now that golf participation is flat and has been for some years, we may have to put up with a little inconvenience if the sport is not to go backwards, back to where its only for the few and the financially fecund. Back to where kids wont have a place to play because only big-money real estate developers can afford to build and maintain courses ' and city managers start thinking municipal golf courses generate a lot less tax revenue than another strip mall would.
Theres a better way. I say, let anyone play the Black. Encourage high handicappers to try the other great Bethpage courses first. But if they insist, take their money and relent ' with one big proviso. Anyone with a handicap of 16 or higher must sign an agreement before teeing off that once he or she has taken a number of strokes equal to two over par on any hole, that player must pick up and move on. And thenlisten carefullyENFORCE IT. Wall to wall, all the time, every round. Get the rangers moving. That should satisfy the skilled players, while dissipating the uncomfortable exclusivity cloud that hangs over the Blacks legend.
And good players, buoyed by this protection, should realize this: Not all unskilled players are what one Tour pro called slicing hack monsters when discussing his pro-am partners. Some of us, despite dragging around double digits, can get it around pretty fast. Ive done it at Carnoustie, Muirfield Village, and a dozen other top, tough courses. And yes, I have picked up when necessary.
Its a two-way street, this participation thing. Theres a golf course in the middle, and we can all meet there.