A Public Course The Pros Can’t Lick

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Bethpage Black comes into its own

Bethpage State Park has been the home of the unforgivably challenging Bethpage Black since 1936. (Photo courtesy of Gary Kellner/PGA of America)

Prior to the rise of the suburbia that characterized postwar Long Island, Nassau County was home to golf courses galore for city folk to find refuge on weekends. This is still the case.

The legendary Bethpage Black first opened in 1936, constructed on the site of an estate owned by the Yoakum family. A product also of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, the golf course was designed by A.W. Tillinghast, a man who also designed the red and blue courses at Bethpage, and Joseph Burbeck, the park’s superintendent.

For the next 66 years, Bethpage Black reigned as one of Long Island’s most popular—and challenging—public golf courses. Day in and day out, determined duffers took on this 7,468-ft. beast only to be frustrated by its unforgiving ways and with some luck, to be exhilarated when nailing a good shot.

Beginning in 2002, it was now the turn of the world’s best golfers to stand in awe of the Bethpage challenge. That year, in an unprecedented move, the Professional Golfer’s Association (PGA) announced that they had selected Bethpage Black as the site for its 2002 U.S. Open. This was the first time a public golf course would host the Open. Beginning with Arnold Palmer in the 1950s and continuing with Lee Trevino in the 1970s, the sport had acquired a more egalitarian image, and the selection of Bethpage Black only confirmed that trend.

The 2002 U.S. Open was a huge success. The four-day event set attendance records and to top it off, the tournament was won by Tiger Woods, then playing at the peak of his career. Woods, in fact, was the only player to break par over the 72-hole competition.

Seven years later, the PGA came back to Bethpage for the 2009 U.S. Open. This time, Luke Glover took the crown. The tournament also marked a love affair between Phil Mickelson and Long Island golf fans. Before the competition began, Mickelson announced that he would be taking time off the tour to tend to his wife, Amy, who was battling breast cancer. The fans cheered Mickelson’s every move and after the event, the legendary golfer declared that Bethpage Black could serve as an ideal location for a future Ryder Cup competition.

On it went. In both 2012 and 2016, Barclays hosted the FedEx Cup Playoffs. This year, it comes back to Bethpage for the PGA tournament, the final leg of the Grand Slam circuit. In 2021 and 2027, Bethpage will host The Northern Trust FedEx playoffs. In between, in 2024, Mickelson will see his wish come true as Bethpage will be home for the Ryder Cup showdown between the top golfers in the United States and those from the European continent.

The least-kept secret among Long Island’s many challenging golf courses, Bethpage Black has come into its own to rival Augusta National, Pebble Beach and the Baltusrol Golf Club as one of the most majestic links in the United States.

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