Course Preview: Back To The Black



November 18, 2008

By Ken Klavon, USGA

Farmingdale, N.Y. – As the golf cart dipped and darted across the swath of land, Craig Currier drove like a man on a mission. Suddenly he stopped just short of a fairway bunker on No. 12.

 


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"See," he said, his right hand slicing through the balmy October air, "this is partly what we've been doing."

The 37-year-old superintendent of Bethpage State Park knew well enough why his audience was here this day, and the question on the minds of avid followers of the U.S. Open Championship: What's changed since 2002?

As Currier stood outside the fairway bunker, which was moved closer to the fairway and recently received fresh sand, he said one of the changes this year included bringing the fairway bunkering more into play. "In general," said Currier, "most of the fairways got re-contoured."

"The architecture of the Black Course is essentially the same," said 44-year-old Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions, who will have a lead in the U.S. Open setup. "Structurally the course is pretty much the same."

With the Bethpage Black Course next up on the U.S. Open calendar, seven years will have passed since the magnificent venue on eastern Long Island put its stamp on history as the first true municipally-owned facility to host the illustrious national championship. USGA officials were so pleased with how the 2002 championship went that it took them a little less than a year to sign a contract for 2009 with New York State officials.

A brief look back at 2002, starting with the views of those who matter most: the consensus then among the U.S. Open contestants was that the setup, while stern, was arguably the best they had ever played. The layout was the longest U.S. Open course at 7,214 yards (since surpassed). Sergio Garcia had an infamous run-in with fans. The torrential rain that came during the second round was shrugged off by the Black like a passing shower. A throaty New York gallery treated Phil Mickelson like one of the four Beatles, trying to inspire him to his first major victory (something he has since attained). And Tiger Woods would have none of the melodramatics while walking away with his second U.S. Open title after registering the lone under-par score.

Currier, who has been the superintendent of the five Bethpage State Park courses for 11½ years, would have to consult original designer A.W. Tillinghast's designs. In 1934-35, Tillinghast completed the Black, Red and Blue courses, as they're known today. He also modified the Green course. The fifth track, the Yellow, designed by Alfred Tull, opened in 1958. In the case of the Black, much of it was constructed on sand, allowing for drainage of near links-like quality.

Natural blessings aside, Currier and his crew have been gate-keeping 2002's creation. That's not to suggest there aren't any new additions or tweaks. But the enhancements are certainly not the same as it was when the USGA poured more than $2.7 million into renovating the Black beginning in 1997. Back then the every-busy muni badly needed refurbishment. In stepped famed architect Rees Jones, well-known for his renovation work.

It was decided then that the greens needed to be transformed. Currier did so through an extended series of aerations and frequent topdressings to firm up the Poa annua putting surfaces. They ran 14 on the Stimpmeter by June, 2002, and will be close to that next year, too, said Davis.

There will be slight divergence this time around. The greens in 2002 gradually slicked up to 14, whereas they'll be around that speed beginning with the practice rounds. To the naked eye the greens seem flat, but add in subtly deceptive undulations and it offers a recipe for potential three-putts.

"They are the best greens I've ever seen anywhere," said Davis Love III, who finished T-24th in 2002.

Added Garcia, who placed fourth, during the 2002 edition: "I think these greens are the slopiest, flattest greens I've ever seen in my life."

The 12th-hole fairway on the Black course was widened to bring the bunkers more into play. (John Mummert/USGA)
The biggest change, bar none, will be flexibility in course setup that Davis and Jim Hyler, chairman of the Championship Committee, will have in creating options and challenges for the players. In 2002 under the now-retired Tom Meeks, the setup deviated only slightly from a four-day blueprint of strategy and stamina that got increasingly harder as the championship progressed.

""If you look at the two Open setups, we believe there will be more risk-and-reward shots than in 2002," said Davis, who was involved in the setup then, too. "If you look at it and say, 'OK, what's going to really be different this time?' You'll see things like graduated rough, lots of flexibility on the teeing grounds, which will give players a chance to really think about what they're going to do, which we didn't have in 2002."

When Davis expands about the brutal course's new-found suppleness, he cites the par 3s. Take No. 8, for instance, a scenic 210-yard hole guarded by a pond and bunkers. The Black now offers three different teeing grounds for Davis to salivate over, ranging from a mere 135 yards to a stout 230. On No. 14, another par 3, Jones enlarged the putting green in the back and in the front left, creating a smallish front lobe. This was done solely for agronomic reasons to give more square footage for daily play, said Davis. Moreover, it will create three new hole locations – two on the new back tier and one on the front-left lobe.

Five new teeing grounds – holes three, five, seven, nine and 13 - were built by Jones' firm as well to add more variety in the setup. The only other teeing ground amended was one that played an important role in 2002. The Black's 492-yard, par-4 10th that was maligned by Garcia, Nick Price and others in the field for its 240-yard carry over fescue to the fairway, had its back teeing ground enlarged and slightly lengthened.

All of these modifications add up to a course that will play 212 yards longer than in 2002. (As an aside, players need not worry about the 10th-hole carry again. The hole was lengthened by 13 yards, though the fairway has been mercifully brought back some 40 yards, reducing the carry to 224 yards).

Introduced at Winged Foot in 2005 and an increasing focus at Opens since then, the USGA's "make them think" course setup philosophy holds that the farther offline the shot, the more difficult the play to the green. "We don't believe that a player who just misses the fairway should be left with nothing but a wedge back out," said Davis. "We wanted to make players really have to think about the shot to hit, and to demonstrate their shot-making skills."

Though subject to change due to the vagaries of spring rain and June weather, Davis and Currier have forecast the rough to be 1½ inches high through the first cut, 2 3/4 inches for the next 15 feet out and 5-plus inches thereafter, extending to the spectator rope line. The more challenging issues players will face, similar to 2002, is the fact that balls will sink down into the rough combination of bluegrass, Poa annua, fine fescue and ryegrass.

Another subtle yet important adjustment occurred to the fairway bunkering. After the 2002 Open, USGA officials, along with Jones, thought the hazards were relative non-factors. Half of the holes underwent such amendments, namely on the first, fourth, ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 16th and 18th holes. The alterations actually helped widen many landing zones.

No, that's not a misprint.

For years, when it comes to narrow fairways, the USGA has been accused of being the untenable tailor who tightens the inseams too much. As it goes, perception is reality. Or is it?

"We're always criticized for narrowing down the fairways," said Davis. "We didn't do that at Torrey Pines. However, you certainly wouldn't characterize the fairways as wide. About a half dozen next year are going to be wider. Not substantially. They'll be about 5 to 7 yards wider."

Case in point: on the 12th hole, a 504-yard par 4, according to Davis, the fairway was widened on the right side to give drives a bit more room for roll-out on this dog-leg right to left. The left drive zone features a cross-bunker that was made slightly smaller on the right portion to give the player more fairway on the right.

The player now has a choice of playing to the right or attempting to carry the cross-bunker, which shortens the hole dramatically. The carry from the tee sign over this bunker is roughly 260 yards, depending on the angle. Rough was also replaced with fairway over the cross-bunker, so a drive played over the cross-bunker will land in fairway, versus rough in 2002. That is, a drive that carries at least 260 yards. "That should be rewarded," said Davis.

Currier and Davis both feel the Black is right where they want it to be heading into the winter months.

"Ice is the No. 1 fear," said Currier, recalling a harsh winter in 2004. "In 2004, if we had the Open then, we would have been done."

Ice would present problems because the Poa annua greens need oxygen. Ice works as a sealant. If Poa annua sits under ice for more than 30 days with little oxygen, it simply dies.

Because of the historically good vibes still emanating from 2002, there seems to be a quiet optimism instead of fretting about hypothetical scenarios.

"I can't even tell you how much more intense it was then because it was intense every day," said 61-year-old Dave Catalano, director of Bethpage State Park. "In '02 we were providing the public with a U.S. Open course. Because we were the first [truly] public facility to host one, it generated a lot of attention. We can't have 'firsts' again this time around."

By the same token, it's not lost on Davis that the USGA is in the middle of a three-year run of taking the Open to sites that can be played by the public. Next year Pebble Beach Golf Links will host the championship for the fifth time.

"It's interesting," said Davis. "It shows what used to be a stigma between a private and municipal courses and how good they can be. That's gone by the wayside."

Gone by the wayside, too, is 2002.

The Open then was affectionately labeled 'The People's Open.' No doubt next year's version could be tagged 'A Public Affair: Back to Black.'

Bethpage Black closed for the winter on Nov. 16 and will reopen on April 14, before closing for the U.S. Open preparation and practice on June 2. For a chance to play Bethpage Black under U.S. Open conditions the Friday before the championship begins, sign up for the U.S. Open Challenge.

Ken Klavon is the USGA's Editor of Digital Media. E-mail him with questions or comments at kklavon@usga.org.

  
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