FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – If you’ve ever camped out for tickets to a big event, you know the drill: Take off work, grab a few friends, cram in the back of an SUV and just go. Fanatics do it for Duke-North Carolina, 'Star Wars,' the Rolling Stones, and on Long Island they’ll even do it for golf.
Welcome to the Walk-Up Car Line at Bethpage State Park, host of the 109th U.S. Open this week. Known by many as the People’s Country Club, Bethpage Black is hosting the People’s Championship for the second time, but when it’s not hosting the Open, it’s a place where locals and out-of-towners alike come together for one reason: To tailgate all night with the hopes of playing the toughest damn golf course they’ve ever seen.
The car line has been in existence since the late 1980s when, after the state government allocated more funds to the facility, course conditions improved, as did the demand for tee times. While there are five courses at Bethpage – Black, Red, Blue, Green and Yellow – the car line is for those who want to play the Black Course.
Tapping the investigative journalist in me, I decided to take my chances with Long Island’s rainiest spring in recent history and participate in the walk-up car line experience.
It’s the night before I head to Bethpage, so I decide to do a little research on the walk-up car line and, specifically, if spending the night even guarantees me a round at the Black Course. Here’s how it works:
At any of the five Bethpage courses, New York residents have the opportunity to make a tee time up to a week in advance using an automated phone reservation system. Those residing outside the Empire State have to wait until two days out before they get their chance. Translation: Only after the entire state of New York has their chance to book a time is everyone else allowed to reserve theirs. Most days, non-New-Yorkers would have a better chance getting a tee time at Augusta National than Bethpage Black via this route.
Those who try their hand at the car line have less competition, but also less inventory. Only the first hour of tee times is dedicated to walk-ups. With roughly seven groups per hour that’s 28 golfers who are guaranteed a walk-up tee time. The rest are left scrapping for open times freed by last-minute cancellations and no-shows.
Arrival at Bethpage State Park. It’s 54 degrees and raining. Sounds like perfect tailgating weather to me!
As I pull into the Car Waiting Line adjacent to the main parking lot, the 9-foot-tall Rules and Regulations sign stares me in the face. I’m in New York, a place where you follow the rules or pay the price. I read every word carefully, though a few rules stand out as the most important:
Editorial note: ON line is interchangeable with IN line. Once again, it’s New York. Just follow the rules and no one gets hurt.
Spot No. 1 is the only spot taken, and the guys inside the car are sleeping (must have driven all night to get here). Otherwise, the parking lot is empty. Before committing to this experience, I decide to take my chances and play Bethpage Red first.
Walk-up tee time at Bethpage Red. While Black gets all the attention, it turns out that Red is no slouch. Call it the Phil Mickelson of Bethpage State Park – its No. 2 ranking is more a reflection of just how good No. 1 is.
(Click here for more on Bethpage Red, and the other courses at Bethpage State Park in our Destination: Long Island story.)
After finishing my round the rain has stopped and the sun is out. I get back in my rented Ford Escape and drive across the parking lot to the car waiting line. Two more spots have filled up so I pull into spot No. 4. My new neighbor immediately reminds me I’m not allowed to park that way.
“You gotta turn around,” he says, motioning toward the sign.
I’ve been on line for all of four seconds and I’m already breaking the rules.
I fix my mistake, get out of the car and open up the back as if to say, ‘And so it begins.’ The SUV in spot No. 3 is a threesome from Indianapolis that just arrived after making the 13-hour drive to Long Island. As I change out of my golf shoes and into my Bethpage tailgating shoes they get up from their camping chairs and introduce themselves. They offer me a seat on their cooler and a spot in their foursome. I oblige.
Here's the skinny on the rest of my foursome:
As the number of filled spaces increases, I do some quick math: 28 golfers from this line are a lock to play Bethpage Black (barring a rainout), while the rest will have to rely on no-shows. I count 14 vehicles on the line. The people at the end have to be wondering about their chances.
I’d imagine the only thing tougher than spending the night in the parking lot is to do so and end up not getting to play.
Using a plastic milk crate as the target, eight of us throw a buck on the cooler and begin a chipping contest. First one to sink it wins the pot. Chipping from 30 yards on a hardpan lie, across the road, nothing but net? As Beau skulls his fourth chip in a row over the road, we share a supportive laugh. “I’m just glad to be here among friends,” he says with a smile.
We’re in way over our heads, but staying humble. We figure it’s fitting for Bethpage Black.
Beau, Jim, Kevin and I debate the ultimate golf destination. Names like TPC Sawgrass, Pebble Beach, Bandon Dunes and St. Andrews are tossed around between puffs on cigars.
“I’ve played Sawgrass and Crooked Stick,” Kevin proclaims. “But I can’t explain the excitement I have knowing I’m only a few hours away from playing the Black Course. I mean, it’s the U.S. Open!”
Time for a little shuteye, because everyone’s aware that at 4:30 a.m. sharp, bakery tickets will be handed out. These simple tickets are the key to the Bethpage castle. Sleep through this, and all is lost. Get this ticket and lose it, and my trip is a waste. No pressure.
I open the back door, throw all my luggage in front, and fold down the seats. I climb inside, shut the door and assume the fetal position. It’s my unsuccessful attempt to stay warm. The low tonight is 47 degrees. I consider turning the car on and running the heat. I’m no Eagle Scout but I know that breathing exhaust fumes all night certainly won’t help me make birdies at Bethpage Black. I empty my suitcase on top of me, dirty undies and all. It’s Bethpage. You do what it takes to survive.
A word to the wise – from the unwise: No matter how tough you think you are, bring a blanket and a pillow with you to the walk-up car line. I thought I’d get through the night on adrenaline, with rain pants as a pillow. Boy, was I wrong! Spending the night freezing your butt off in a car is no way to prep for the challenge of a U.S. Open course.
I awake from my half-slumber to a furious tapping on the window. “He’s here! Get up! He’s here!” Beau sounds like a kid on Christmas morning.
An official from the Bethpage pro shop has emerged from the darkness to begin dispersing bakery tickets, which work just like those at your neighborhood bakery. The line at the pro shop to pay for your greens fee is ordered by the number on your ticket.
I drive away from spot No. 4 and head for the pro shop, bakery ticket in hand. If I somehow manage to lose it between here and there, everything I’ve invested up to this point goes to waste.
As we wait in the bakery line, I notice a man in front of us pay $35 for his greens fee. Senior resident rate. Thirty-five measly dollars wouldn’t get you a parking spot in New York City and this guy just paid that to play a U.S. Open course.
It’s my turn to pay and I’m still nervous that I’m somehow going to mess this up. Maybe the anxiety comes because I haven’t slept all night…
After each of us gladly pays the $120 out-of-state price, our date with destiny is set: 8:16 off the first tee. We’re given a wristband which will be cut off when we get to the first tee.
We have a couple hours to kill. I think I’ll take a nap.
After a few stiff swings at the driving range I feel like… Well, I feel like I slept in a car last night. Those around me have a similar running-on-fumes look about them. This is as close to playing in the U.S. Open as any of us will ever come. Now is no time for excuses.
At 8:16 on the dot, our group is called to the tee. As our wristbands are sliced off I feel like a Labrador set free at a dog park. But this isn’t just any dog park. This is a freaking U.S. Open dog park!
I take a practice swing and look down the first fairway. I’ve done it! I’ve made it to Bethpage Black! Little did I know the journey was just beginning…
On the first hole Jim and I both hit our tee shots in the right rough. From the tee we all saw exactly where the balls disappeared into the 6' rough – at least we thought we did. We search for almost 10 minutes before finally finding them. I'd heard people talk about how severe the rough is at the Black course, but this borders on insanity.
From personal experience I've learned that in order to get your ball out of the rough you need to either pick it up and throw it back in the fairway (best option), or hit it with a downswing that's steep and aggressive. Hybrids and long irons? Forget about it.
As we make the turn the rain has started to come down more heavily. Wet grips don't help you hit fairways, and wet rough means advancing the ball up the fairway is next to impossible. Our group begins pondering what the winning score will be if it rains all U.S. Open week.
We share a good laugh.
No. 15 is the toughest par-4 I've ever played. The most amazing part: No water, no trees, no fairway bunkers and no out-of-bounds.
I hit my tee shot in the left rough. Dead.
I try to chunk a wedge out to 150 yards so I can have a chance to hit the severely elevated, heavily bunkered green. It comes out hot and skips into the right rough. Typical of most holes at the Black course, there is no option for a run-up shot; you have to fly it all the way there. So for my third shot, I lay up – again.
I hit my next shot from 80 yards onto the green, which is the most severe on the course. Luckily it stays below the hole. I make the putt and walk away with one of the best bogeys of my life.
Toughest par-4 I've ever played.
As the four of us trudge up the hill to the 18th green I look over at Jim, who's soaking wet, looking less like a leisurely golfer and more like a boxer who's just gone 12 rounds.
'What would it take for you to walk over to the first tee and play another 18 holes right now?' I ask him.
'Erik, there's no amount of money because I just wouldn't be able to do it, physically. My body wouldn't let me.'
Mercy, Bethpage! Mercy! She's chewed us up and spit us out, and we couldn't be happier about our experience. It was Man vs. Bethpage, and Bethpage won in a landslide.