I've played a number of U.S. Open venues, and figured this linksy layout would be tough, but not outrageous. To tune up, I played Shinnecock Hills G.C. A similar feel and a USGA pedigree to boot. I played well, shot mid-70s and was certain that my game was ready for the Black.
I stood on the first tee feeling a bit sorry for golfers who would be dissuaded, rightfully so, from a shot at the Black Course. Sometimes a layout is just too challenging for a particular golfer, as I was about to find out. Jack Nicklaus says that the U.S. Open is a complete examination of a player's golf game. If that's the case, Bethpage Black is a graduate course in distance with an emphasis on humility.
Take a hole-by-hole look at Bethpage Black
The first tee has a dramatic elevation, and with the USGA mow pattern in effect, the landing area seems impossibly small. The hole doglegs to the right and is not overly stressful to play. I nailed my drive, as long and straight as I can hit it, and was at the dogleg in the middle of the fairway. A short iron and two putts and I was on my way.
I didn't realize it would end up being my best drive of the day and the easiest hole by far. I like a course that allows you to play your way into your game. One that starts off with a moderate hole and gets progressively more difficult. Bethpage does just that.
The USGA preparations, my unfamiliarity with the course and blustery conditions conspired to yield a couple of bogeys, but when I turned from the third green to make my way to the fourth tee I caught a beautiful, elevated view of the course's signature hole. A beautiful par-5 with a split level fairway dominated by bunkers possessing that classic Tillinghast look, the fourth is a sight to behold. I hit two good shots and had a sand wedge in, but gave it a little too much. I thought I'd successfully negotiated all of the trouble on the hole, but my ball had caught the slope just behind the hole and had run almost all the way to the fifth fairway.
As my score rapidly inflated, the course just seemed to get longer and longer. The wind was rarely an ally, and on some holes I hit good drives that barely reached the fairway. I've been technologically impaired for some time now. I prefer the karmic power of my dad's old Wilson blades to the forged/cavity back forgiveness of modern day equipment. I have decided I'm old-school (read 'cheap'). My one nod to the advancements made is my original Callaway Warbird driver. I can keep it straight, but don't hit it more than 280, ever.
The characteristics of the course were very pleasant: native fescue grasses, ever-present wind and the yawning thick-fingered bunkers of A.W. Tillinghast. The parallel fairways of 10 and 11 had an ancient links feel to them, but treachery lay just off the short grass. The rough has been groomed, not only to choke the fairways into slivers of their former selves, but to be the thick brutish tangle which is only seen at a U.S. Open. While not yet at championship length when I played, the density was staggering. Any drive that wandered off the fairway would settle down into the rough. Usually the best play was to just advance the ball however possible, and play for a bogey.
The problem with this strategy was the havoc the thick grass would play with the clubface. Being twisted to awkward angles made finding the fairway from the rough an uncertain proposition and an interesting adventure.
By the time I'd reached 15, with its awesome blind green elevated five stories above the fairway, I was a beaten man. Rough, bunkers and sheer length had humbled me. If this was an examination, I needed to ask the teacher for a mulligan. The closing three holes were as challenging and varied as the 15 that preceded them. The elevated tee shot of 16, the infinite number of hole locations on the wide, but shallow par-3 17th and the elevated tee and green of the home hole are characteristics I'm looking forward to watching on NBC's telecasts.
I walked away wondering how the world's best would fare this June. It's the longest U.S. Open course in history, with some huge par-4s. Today's professionals hit the ball so much farther than good amateurs, I'm not sure they'll struggle with the length. U.S. Open rough is always penal. Players will have to be accurate with their length. The USGA also likes to get that stimpmeter running a little, so look for hard and fast greens. Even speedy greens will be defenseless, however. Nicely sized and pretty much devoid of undulation, there will be a ton of long putts made this year.
In the final analysis, a player who is long and straight off of the tee and can hit high approaches to stop on hard greens, should have the advantage. If it rains early in the week and the greens are soft for competition, the scores should be pretty low. But, look out if it's dry and windy. The USGA would love those conditions. In the wind, players will have trouble judging distances and will also struggle to keep the ball in the fairway. Dry greens will remain hard and fast, and would have an added element of intrigue as wind gusts affect balls on the putting surface.
A championship set-up, the vagaries of Mother Nature, a classic design, the top players in the world, a course too long and demanding for 99 percent of the world's golfers, the 102nd United States Open is upon us. Will the world's best players hit it a mile and feast on the flattest greens of any national championship in recent memory? Or will Mother Nature throw in her two cents and help A.W. Tillinghast leave the cream of the crop bruised, just like yours truly. We will soon have our answer.
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