The Mecca of Public Golf. The Peoples Country Club. The Beast.
There are many ways to describe the Black Course, found in Bethpage on New York’s Long Island. Bethpage State Park and the world-renowned Black Course have hosted the United States Open in 2002 and 2009 and the Barclays in 2012 and 2016. This week, the Black Beast takes center stage again as the 2019 PGA Championship converges on the holiest of Public Golf Courses.
Frist a little course history before I get into my personal history. The Bethpage State Park was developed from an estate owned by the Yoakum family. The Yoakum family leased the property out to the Lennox Hills corporation who created Lennox Hills Golf Course.
Sometime in the 1930’s, the Bethpage Park Authority purchased the Lenox Hills Country Club and created what Long Islanders now know as Bethpage State Park. A.W. Tillinghast created the Black, Blue and Red courses at the park. For those who live out there or have played the Red course, they know how vastly underrated the Red is. Tillinghast modified the Lenox Hills Course which he turned into the Green Course. Due to the increased demand for golf and population boom of the island following WW2 the Yellow Course designed by Alfred Tull was opened in 1958. Approximately 300,000 rounds are played annually on the five courses at Bethpage.
Nassau County residents know Bethpage State Park simply as Bethpage. I grew up there. I went to picnics there, I would sleigh ride the hills of the Black Course as child and play its fairways as a teenager. Growing up in the area you take things for granted. When people find out I grew up on Long Island they inevitably ask if I know Bethpage. I always tell them the same thing “Of course, my Aunt and Uncle live there”. Nothing ever seemed special about the place until 1996 when the USGA decided to award the 2002 U.S open to the Black Course. Suddenly things changed. The Black went from being an amazing secret to the Peoples Country Club. The bakery ticket lines (Line of cars that people slept in overnight to get a “bakery” ticket ((now a wristband)) in order to reserve a tee time) got longer. The clubhouse was refurbished to its rightful glory. The media descended, the course was revamped and instantly everyone in the golf community knew of our secret.
This week the gallery will cheer for Phil and Tiger, heckle anyone that takes too long to play or is named Patrick Reed and probably imbibe in too much drinking. The course will play long and wet in May. The gallery roping for the fans is not the greatest and you will walk your butt off trying to follow a group through all 18 holes. New Yawkers will scream about the shot they hit better than the pros on number 3. The pros and the fans will walk side by side as they pass under Round Swamp Road to get to the other side of the course. The heckling will be nauseating at times and hilarious at others. For one week, the world will see what we have known for years.
Getting to see the Black on T.V and get its shine is bittersweet. She was our diamond in the rough. She was the girl you know had the beauty but didn’t need to show it. Then that girl got a television contract and was glammed up and put on national T.V during primetime and everyone else fell in love with her too. Underneath it all you knew she still loved you but she was too busy being a media darling to let you back into her life. Time passed and you held the memories fondly but it was never the same again. That’s the great thing about your memories…they’re yours.
I played the black course as one of the last few people before the course changes took place. I haven’t been back to play since the changes have grown in. I was at the ‘02 and ‘09 U.S opens as a spectator and I found the old girl different than I remembered. She was dolled up like she was going to Oscars. I remembered her as the cute girl next door. I remember the Black fondly in my head of how it was in years past, before the media stardom, the hype and the hyperbole. I remember where the “Warning” sign was before they had to move it due to the amount of people wanting to take pictures of it. I remember being asked by the starter the first time I played if I knew what course I was playing. I remember lying to him through my teeth about my handicap and I remember somehow striping one down the middle of the fairway despite my nerves and gathering gallery watching a small teenage boy tee off on the manliest of courses east of the Mississippi. I remember sleigh riding down the first fairway and getting hot chocolate in the pro shop later in the day. To me, regardless of the U.S Opens, the PGA’s, hell, even the future 2020 Ryder Cup, the Black will always be my playground.
When the PGA Tour leaves and the masses depart, NY residents are left with their beast. 6700 yards of punishment from the middle tees. I hope everyone that gets to play this beauty knows of the history behind it and the personal connection it creates between its residents and its fairways. If you’re going to be there this week for PGA do me a favor. Find a quiet spot somewhere off to the side and see if you can hear the laughter of kids playing and the nervous chatter of guys on the first tee before they embark on her fairways. See if you can picture the roughness she used to possess before the fame. Take a minute and look around and see if you can see my Bethpage.
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