Growing up on Bethpage Black
August 22, 2016
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- While Bethpage Black may invoke a sense of nostalgia for Johnson Wagner, there is no doubting the challenge that will be facing the field this week at The Barclays. (Kevin Cox/Getty Images)
Johnson Wagner used to sleep in his 1987 Saab for the opportunity to play Bethpage’s Black Course. The small car wasn’t exactly a comfortable fit for his 6-foot-3 frame, but the sacrifice was worthwhile.
Such drastic measures won’t be necessary this week.
Wagner is among the 125 PGA TOUR players who qualified to play Bethpage Black in this week’s The Barclays, the first of four FedExCup Playoffs events. Wagner finished fifth in the past two PGA TOUR events to earn a trip back to the site of several fond memories.
“I probably spent the night in that parking lot six or seven times. We’d always get there early, get a deli sandwich and just play cards all night,” he said. “We’d maybe get a couple hours of sleep and get that first tee time and just get after it.”
Wagner was still an amateur when he won the 2001 Met Open at Bethpage Black. He shot a final-round 66 one year before the course hosted its first U.S. Open.
Wagner has played many of the world’s best courses as a PGA TOUR player, but Bethpage Black remains among his favorite courses, he said. He remembers playing there for less than $10 thanks to a junior rate for in-state residents.
Bethpage Black’s accessibility and affordability make it a source of civic pride. It’s located on Long Island, near exclusive clubs like Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links of America. Bethpage Black, on the other hand, is a U.S. Open site that anyone can play.
The Barclays was first held at Bethpage Black in 2012. Nick Watney won by three shots with a 10-under 274 total; only eight players broke 280. Tiger Woods was the only player to break par in the 2002 U.S. Open there. Lucas Glover shot 4 under to win the 2009 U.S. Open at the Black course. He’ll return to the site of his lone major title after finishing 96th in the FedExCup.
The Black is known for being a difficult test even when it’s not hosting a prestigious tournament, though.
“It likes to be known as one of the hardest courses you’ve ever played. It’s always been like that,” said one local. “It wants you to walk off there out of breath.”
The course that the PGA TOUR’s top 125 players will face this week isn’t much different than what the public sees on a daily basis.
“This is the same golf course the public will play,” said PGA TOUR rules official John Mutch. “There’s very little difference from what we play to what they play in the summer and the fall. The rough and fescue is pretty much the same. Our green speeds will be very similar to year-round here, within 1 ½ to 2 feet of what we play.”
Bethpage Black may be best known for the sign near the first tee that warns of the course’s difficulty and advises only low-handicappers to accept its challenge. The course has a reputation to uphold.
The Black’s difficulty lies in its length – it will play 7,468 yards this week – hilly terrain and deep bunkers. There’s just one water hazard on the course, a pond in front of the par-3 eighth hole. Mutch said he put down 75 out-of-bounds stakes, though almost all of them are out of sight.
Some weeks on the PGA TOUR, rules officials spend four days marking a course’s hazards and out-of-bounds. Not at Bethpage Black.
“There’s really nothing you need to do here except show up,” Mutch said.
Keegan Bradley, No. 106 in the FedExCup, played college golf at St. John’s University in New York City. The course superintendent allowed the team to play Mondays, when the course is closed.
“It was probably our favorite day of the week,” Bradley said. “We were the only people on the course.”
There was one stipulation: the Johnnies were supposed to stay on Nos. 3-14, which are on the opposite side of Round Swamp Road from the clubhouse.
Of course, temptation got the best of the college students one day.
“We got in so much trouble,” Bradley said.
That’s easy to do at Bethpage Black.
“It’s always tough because it’s a big course,” Bradley said. “It’s big, it’s long, it has huge bunkers. It’s just tough. It’s right-in-front-of-you difficult.”
2016 Barclays returns to Bethpage Black