While Bethpage Black is a true public golf course, there are few, if any, golfers who have played the course more than Kestner. Counting local Metropolitan PGA sectional championships, New York State Opens, U.S. Opens and casual rounds, Kestner has played the course about 75 times. One of those rounds, a 65 at the Metropolitan PGA Section Assistants Championship in 1987, served as the course record until Craig Thomas of Metropolis Country Club came along and broke it with a 64 in 2007.
Kestner struggled with the lengthy U.S. Open setup in 2002, however, shooting 77-86 to miss the cut, as he says, by a mile. But he wasnt the only player to scuffle along in the second round. Among the other players to shoot over 80 on a cold, damp Friday were Adam Scott (80), Pat Perez (81), Paul Azinger and Stewart Cink (82), and Michael Campbell (83). Campbell won the U.S. Open three years later at Pinehurst.
Ive played in eight U.S. Opens ' at Shinnecock, Oakland Hills, Olympic and Pebble Beach ' and it (Bethpage) is by far the hardest, Kestner said. Its outgrown me.
Kestner failed to get through U.S. Open local qualifying this year, so he wont see the longer, even meaner Bethpage this year. Not that he minds all that much.
At least I dont have to play Bethpage now, he joked. Im not sure I can play that course anymore. At 6,800 yards, yes, but not at 7,400.
For some insight on how Bethpage will play later this month, heres a hole-by-hole blow from Kestner, including some of his recollections from the 2002 Open:
Hole 1: Par 4, 430 Yards A dogleg right, this hole plays significantly downhill. Players will either hit 3-wood to the corner of the dogleg or cut the corner with driver, leaving a short iron or wedge into a narrow green. If theres a breather hole on the course its No. 1, except youre so nervous because its the first hole of the U.S. Open, says Kestner. Youre trying not hit people in the gallery.
Hole 2: Par 4, 430 yards A dogleg left, the second shot plays significantly uphill. From the fairway, all youre looking at is the top of the flagstick. It plays a club-and-a-half longer up that hill, says Kestner. In 2002, Id see other players walking up to the green expecting to find their ball, only to discover they were in the bunker. They could not believe it was them. You DO NOT want to be short and right in that greenside bunker, because then youre looking at a plugged lie and a sure bogey.
Hole 3: Par 3, 232 yards A new teeing ground now makes this the longest par-3 on the course. The green might also be the narrowest on the course. In the 2008 New York State Open pro-am, we played the new tee because they were testing them out for the Open, says Kestner. I got lucky and hit a perfect 3-wood to about 3 feet and made birdie. It was the best birdie Ive ever made on that hole. Youre playing into the prevailing wind so it plays longer than the yardage, and you have to be so accurate with your tee shot. If youre long and right, youre dead, and if youre short and left youre probably plugged.
Hole 4: Par 5, 517 yards The most photographed hole on the course, due to the cross-bunker which separates the fairway in two. The driving zone sits significantly lower than the green, and the green slopes front to back away from the player, making it unreceptive to long approach shots. Its hard to hit in three shots, let alone two, says Kestner. Youve got to hit a towering iron shot in there because youve got this huge elevation change, and a very narrow, fast green. A flat shot is not going to hold that green. Hole 5: Par 4, 478 yards Tee shots on this slight left-to-right diagonal hole must hug the large bunker on the right side of the fairway to give you the best approach into the elevated green. If you push your tee ball to the right youre going to have to carry it 270 yards to clear that bunker, said Kestner. But if youre too far left youre going to get blocked out by the trees. Theyre forcing you to carry that bunker. Then youve got at least one more club up that hill, with two very large, deep bunkers front-middle and side-right.
Hole 6: Par 4, 408 yards In 2002, most players hit a 3-wood to the top of the hill to give them the best view of the green, which sits 50 feet below the driving zone. However, the USGA converted the hillside rough to fairway, freeing up players to hit driver to the bottom of the hill. If they can hit it far enough, they can be in the greenside bunker and try and get it up and down from there, says Kestner. Thats probably not a bad play for the long hitters.
Hole 7: Par 4, 525 yards A new teeing ground has been added since 2002, adding 36 yards and making it the longest par 4 in U.S. Open history. At 525 yards, its 8 yards longer than the fourth hole, a par-5. Theres no breather for awhile after this hole. They talk about the Bear Trap and other tough stretches of holes, but 7 through 12 at Bethpage, oh my God, theyre hard, says Kestner. Its like the longest mile right there. Youre playing hard for pars, and if you make birdie, you feel like Tiger Woods. Its the meat of the golf course right there.
Hole 8: Par 3, 210 yards Two new front hole locations will bring the only water on the course into play, forcing players to decide whether they want to be aggressive with their tee shots or play it safe to the middle portion of the green. The green plays extremely fast downhill, however, making two-putts no sure thing. Its a very underrated hole if they put the pin up and get the green speeds up, said Kestner. You have to challenge the pin a bit because if youre well past it, youre likely to three-putt.
Hole 9: Par 4, 460 yards The easiest par-4 in 2002, Jones installed a new teeing ground some 40 yards back. Most approach shots will be played from a severely sloping fairway to a green that is mostly blind. The shorter hitters will do what I did in 02, and hit it to the crest of the fairway, says Kestner. The ball will then roll back down some 30 yards to where all the divots are. Then its a 4-, 5-iron up the hill. If youre able to clear that crest youve got a wedge or 9-iron in. Its a huge advantage if youre a long hitter. Hole 10: Par 4, 508 yards This hole received its fair share of criticism in 2002 because many of the pros couldnt reach the fairway. That wont be a problem this year, as the fairway has been moved back, closer to the tee. But the hole remains a bear. I was aiming for the walkway [in 2002] because if I could hit the walkway, it would roll out to the first cut of rough, said Kestner. But I still had to lay up because of the large gully in front of the green. If you dont hit the fairway, you basically have to lay it up to 75 yards and try and get it up and down from there.
Hole 11: Par 4, 435 yards Deep bunkers guard both sides of the fairway on this straight-away par-4, which features a slightly elevated green that slopes from back to front. Its one of the most undulating greens on the course, said Kestner. Its quick. You need to carry the ball on the green here to walk away with par.
Hole 12: Par 4, 504 yards The third and final par-4 measuring over 500 yards, this hole played as the second hardest in 2002. Michael Campbell, playing in front of Darrell Kestner, made an 8 on this hole after his tee shot buried in the fescue just above the left cross bunker fronting the higher fairway. Its 260 yards to carry this bunker, and even if you succeed, you still have a long iron into the green. Its basically a par-5, said Kestner. Its against a prevailing wind and its hard to get over that bunker. After seeing what happened to Campbell, I hit a 3-wood, short of the bunker, then another 3-wood. That still left me with 40 yards. It plays harder than No. 7, I think.
Hole 13: Par 5, 605 yards A birdie hole in 2002, a new teeing ground has added 50 yards to this par-5, making it reachable in two for only the longest hitters. Shorter hitters will have to avoid a deep fairway bunker about 150 yards out with their second shots. A large bunker looms about 30 yards short of the green, although it appears to be much closer to the elevated putting surface. Whats changing on that hole is the strategy of the second shot, says Kestner. Youre going to have a lot more guys laying up, and theyre going to have to deal with that bunker 150 yards out. The hole also plays into a prevailing wind.
Hole 14: Par 3, 158 yards The shortest of the par-3s, this hole yielded a lot of birdies in 2002. The green was enlarged since then to bring in three new hole locations for this years Open, including one on the narrow front-left portion of the green. Youve got a good shot at birdie here or a breather par, said Kestner. You dont want to short-side yourself here, or youll face a tough up-and-down from the enormous front bunker.
Hole 15: Par 4, 459 yards The toughest hole in 2002, the two-tiered green is perched some 50 feet above the fairway and slopes severely from back to front, making it the scariest green on the course. The green ran as high as 14.5 on the Stimpmeter in 02. It plays so much longer than you think, like 2-1/2 clubs longer, because its so steep, said Kestner. It might be the most demanding second shot on the course. Then when you get to the green, youve got to deal with the severity of the slope there. Its a bear of a hole.
Hole 16: Par 4, 490 yards The teeing ground on this slight-dogleg left sits high above the fairway, offering you a good view of the bowl-like green, which is almost completely surrounded by bunkers. If you can get it in the fairway, youve got a chance of hitting a mid-iron close and making birdie, said Kestner. Its all carry on the second shot, so again it helps to be a high-ball hitter.
Hole 17: Par 3, 207 yards This hole will have a Yankee Stadium-like feel to it, with two large grandstands on the sides seating thousands of spectators. Its a great hole to watch, too. The two-tiered, hour-glass green is surrounded by deep bunkers, and while the green is very wide, its not very deep. Its a narrow tee shot to the right portion of the green and a lot more carry on the left, said Kestner. Its such a big advantage to play a high shot in here that lands soft. A prevailing left-to-right wind will make it challenging to hit the ball the correct distance.
Hole 18: Par 4, 411 yards Much like No. 16, the tee shot plays significantly downhill. A cluster of bunkers on both sides of the fairway squeezes the landing area, making it difficult to keep driver in play. The second shot plays extremely uphill to a blind putting surface that slopes from back to front and is heavily guarded by deep bunkers. Its a very underrated hole, said Kestner. Just like No. 17, you could have a two-shot swing here because you can make birdie, but if you dont get your drive in the fairway bogey is a real possibility.
Darrells pick: The course lends itself to a long hitter who can bring the ball in nice and high and has great patience. A lot of patience. Youre going to have to deal with a good amount of adversity. Tiger is an obvious choice, because of all those factors. Plus, he won it here the last time out. Sergios a great ball-striker, and Vijay. I like Sean OHair. Hed be my darkhorse.