PGA Championship 2.0 starts at Bethpage Black
New May date brings fresh look, feel to major championship
May 15, 2019
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Bethpage Black flyover: Nos. 1 through 18
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – With its new May date, leaving August to the FedExCup Playoffs, the PGA Championship represents the exact mid-way point in golf’s new Season of Championships, five big tournaments over five months. PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh spoke of how the new schedule improves the “cadence” of the season. PGA of America President Suzy Whaley said the PGA Championship’s new date coincides nicely with the start of the golf season.
All of these things, while positives, have required a certain adaptability and good cheer. Then there’s PGA of America Chief Championships Officer Kerry Haigh, whose job has changed most of all. He laughed about waiting for spring, and wondering nervously if it would ever come.
“Thankfully for all of our lives,” Haigh said, “that's happened.”
Bethpage features 25 acres of fairway, 35 acres of primary rough, and 78 bunkers, approximately eight acres of sand. There’s just one water hazard, at the 210-yard, par-3 eighth hole. The tees and fairways are poa annua and ryegrass, the greens a mix of poa annua and bentgrass. Fans who tune into CBS’s coverage will get to see all of that in living color, mostly green.
What they won’t see is the behind-the-scenes race to make it that way.
The MVPs here are mostly Bethpage Director of Agronomy Andrew Wilson, Black Course Superintendent Mike Hadley, and Haigh. Those three and their staffs had a growing season of only about four weeks in which to make this vaunted, A.W. Tillinghast design tournament-ready.
That’s not a lot of time, but they seem to have pulled it off.
“It’s in beautiful shape,” said Jordan Spieth. “The greens are just immaculate.”
That’s been a common sentiment. But how did that happen?
Planning was the key. In preparation for spring 2019, Haigh, Wilson and Hadley began in spring 2018. When would the grass come in? When could they aerate and top-dress? Could they skip any steps? What could be done in order to get the course ready as fast as possible?
“We knew sort of what happened, when it happened,” Haigh said. “We adjusted our agronomic plans that normally are done in the spring, moved some of those to the fall and didn't do some of the things you normally do in the spring knowing that it was such a short period.”
Case in point, agronomist Wilson said he noticed during last year’s “practice run” (his words) that some of the grass on the course was still straw-colored or dormant on May 1. To accelerate the greening process, he brought the soil moisture up, which better retained the heat.
“A little trick,” he said.A look at the fifth green at Bethpage Black. (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Moisture has been plentiful this week, but with its sandy soil, Bethpage has drained well. Haigh and company, with additional manpower from volunteer superintendents from 16 states and six countries, were able to do little more than mow and roll the greens with the heavy rain Sunday and Monday. They planned to “top” or cut the rough on Wednesday.
Players have emphasized the importance of hitting fairways while not sacrificing distance on a course that measures 7,459 yards but may in fact play even longer than that in the damp cold.
“I think it's going to be interesting for everyone, definitely the course this week, but maybe going forward, as well,” said Italy’s Francesco Molinari. “… If you think about the last few U.S. PGAs, it was seriously warm, and we haven't got any of that this week.”
Defending champion Brooks Koepka called Bethpage a sort of PGA/U.S. Open mashup.
To take it further, the Black will have not just elements of the U.S. Open (the first major to come here, in 2002), but also The Open Championship (weather) and THE PLAYERS Championship (date). But Haigh, whom Rory McIlroy called the best course set-up man in the business, will give it the PGA imprimatur. That means keeping it fair, and not becoming the story.
“Our number one aim is not to get in the way of the best players,” he said. “Let them showcase their skills, make it tough, make it fair, make it challenging, hopefully at times make it exciting, and hopefully make the players think because I think if any golfer is given the ability to think, then they enjoy their game more and they enjoy the challenge of that golf course more.”
Waugh conceded that certain courses in the Northeast may need to be reevaluated, while others in the Southeast might be brought back into the fold. In the end, he anticipated a net gain.
“We think we’re great here,” he said of Bethpage.
The course is ready. Now it’s just a matter of which of the 156 players are.