FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Tiger Woods’ smile widened when he was asked earlier this week his thoughts on the upcoming PGA Championship.
“It's going to be just a boatload of fun for all of us,” he beamed.
Given Bethpage Black’s well-earned reputation as a brute some might have figured Woods was referring to his opulent “dinghy,” which is how he once described his $20 million yacht that’s docked just a few miles from the most public of major championship venues.
Perhaps it was just wishful thinking on the part of the 15-time major champion or maybe he truly enjoys a punishing challenge the way some folks savor tax season and trips to the dentist.
There will likely be more scathing and colorful descriptions of the Black Course before the end of the week. Even those who won’t have to navigate the 7,459-yard layout recognize Bethpage for what it is.
“Stout,” figured Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s chief championships officer, when asked to describe the course in one word.
“It's tackle football, both playing it and walking it,” added PGA chief executive officer Seth Waugh.
Bethpage is all of these things and more. In 2002, when the layout hosted the U.S. Open, it ranked as the toughest course on the PGA Tour and seven years later when the national championship returned to Bethpage, it was again the year’s most demanding layout by nearly a half stroke. The two winners of those championships, Woods in ’02 and Lucas Glover in ’09, were a combined 7 under.
For all those who imagined a different Bethpage for the first May PGA in 70 years, think again. Heavy rains this week will assure a long and demanding layout plays even longer with the only difference so far being the temperatures, which might top out in the 60s if the forecast holds.
“You lose a shot or two out there, and you don't feel like you're going to get it back. I think that's the intimidation factor of Bethpage Black. They're just big, solid golf holes,” Padraig Harrington said. “It doesn't give you anything.”
If it sounds as if Harrington is channeling Leonidas, the king of Sparta, in the movie “300” – “Give them nothing but take from them everything” – it’s a reputation the pride of Long Island has earned, honestly.
A few weeks ago, Rory McIlroy suggested that Bethpage would be set up more like the course that hosted the 2012 and ’16 playoff events on the PGA Tour than the rugged layout that beat up the world’s best players during its U.S. Opens. It seemed like a safe bet at the time given the PGA of America’s tendency to err on the side of playability, but if early reviews are any indication, that view might have been misguided.
“It sounds a lot like a U.S. Open,” Steve Stricker said on Wednesday.
It looks a lot like a U.S. Open, as well, with five par 4s of 480 yards or more and the type of rough that many believed wouldn’t be possible at a spring PGA Championship in the Northeast.
Put another way, the sprawling ballpark is exactly what we thought it would be – a grueling test that will suit a player with a particular set of skills. The modern bombers of the game always enjoy a competitive advantage – it’s the way it’s always been – but particularly so at Bethpage.
Unlike last month’s Masters, and perhaps even next month’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the list of potential champions begins and ends with driving distance. Although every player allows for the footnote that distance can’t be sacrificed for accuracy, they all agree that length will factor into the final equation.
“With the rain we've had the last couple of days, the length will definitely help,” said Rory McIlroy, whose resume already includes a pair of PGA Championship victories. “I mean, 7,500 yards, par 70, it's a long golf course, and it plays even longer with the cold and wet conditions. Length is definitely going to be a big factor this week.”
McIlroy would top that list of players with the prerequisite pop and precision with a Tour-leading 1.326 strokes gained: off-the-tee this season. As would defending champion Brooks Koepka and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
Despite a perceived lack of respect for Koepka, his major record needs no justification. In his last 10 major starts, he has three victories and has finished outside the top 15 just once during that span. For Koepka, winning majors has quickly become a science.
“It's pretty simple. With my length being what it is, you've really got to take advantage of the par 5s,” Koepka said. “It's a tough golf course. You're not going to make too many birdies, and when you can, you really need to take advantage of it because there's not too many holes where you step up on the tee and you're like, man, this is an easy hole, I can really take advantage of it.”
There is, however, one player who doesn’t fit neatly into this long-ball category who can’t be ignored.
Woods is 66th on Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee, 52nd in driving distance and 42nd in clubhead speed, which has become professional golf’s version of exit velocity. Yet he shows up on nearly every list of would-be champions at Bethpage.
Fresh off his victory at the Masters, Woods no longer is an unknown commodity in the Grand Slam universe and his record at Bethpage, which includes his victory in ’02 and a tie for sixth at the ’09 U.S. Open, is a testament to the unquantifiable demands of the Black Course.
At the 2002 U.S. Open, he led the field in greens in regulation and his iron play has only improved despite his bouts with injury in recent years. But while Woods leads the Tour in greens in regulation this season, he acknowledged the shaggy green elephant in the room this week is distance.
“Driving is going to be at the forefront. With the rough as lush as it is, it has grown up a little bit,” Woods said. “You've got to hit it not only straight but you've got to hit it far because, as the week goes on and the greens dry out, the majority of the greens are elevated, and so trying to get enough spin, hitting the ball up to elevation with the greens firming up, you have to be in the fairway to do that.”
Even with the PGA Championship’s transition to May, it’s a familiar story and one that will again dictate if this week’s championship will be a “boatload of fun” or a sinking ship.