The grand old club that's completely down to earth
Rolling up to the counter, I remind myself this is one of America’s best courses and not a council office.
I’ve collected unemployment cheques in a room like this but the teller behind this barrier is the gateway to an experience far greater than a couple of weeks of being able to pay the bills.
If TPC Sawgrass is all Mediterranean deco and Wentworth’s mock castle paves the way to solid marble, then the interior of Bethpage’s clubhouse is more the wood panelling your dad installed above the fireplace in the 1970s and has never quite found the inclination to remove.
When New Yorkers say municipal, that’s exactly what they mean – the home of Bethpage State Park’s five courses is a building without any pretence at pomposity.
I’m not sure whether I’m going to take half the floor with me as I gingerly walk round the pro shop, and the clubhouse bar isn’t massively illuminated aside for a gaping window that tantalisingly looks out upon the AW Tillinghast classic design. But it’s brilliant.
Pebble Beach pretends to be pay and play – it is as long as you’ve got upwards of $500 to splash about – but Bethpage is as open as you’d like.
Live in the state and it’ll cost you just $65 during the week. But it was still only $130 for an outsider like me.
You can still try your luck by camping in the car park and taking your chance for an early tee times. Have a go online too.
Or try your luck, as I did, with several increasingly pleading emails to those near the top of the State Park food chain.
Bethpage is wonderfully down to earth and no one is more a symbol of that than the man who holds the keys to the hire clubs.
He’s every New York stereotype wrapped up in a five-foot-something frame – gruff, demanding, but genuinely entertaining.
Bedecked in a bomber jacket, he very clearly instructs me to ensure every club is returned at the conclusion of the round. I listen in a state of half admiration, half fear.
I like to think I’ve played some difficult tracks, but the Black needs to come with a government health warning for anyone who plays it regularly. I blithely ignore the warning sign before stepping on the 1st and go through the absolute mill.
It’s the hire clubs. It’s the weather. Really, though, it’s just a ridiculously hard golf course.
The fairways feel like landing strips and the rough is deceptively thick. It looks like you can advance your ball, then your club gets stuck and you chunk it no more than 50 yards.
The greens don’t slope like Augusta but they’re slick and their gradients are consistently taxing. They’re also pretty small. The bunkers give you a chance but it’s better not to be in them at all. Some, such as those that dominate the 4th and 5th fairways, are cavernous.
But none of these things – and particularly the difficulty – can prevent you from enjoying an inspirational day here. If ever you get the chance, get in the queue.
The lowdown on Bethpage Black
One of five 18-hole courses at Bethpage State Park – a “Mecca for public golf” – the Black is renowned as one of the toughest layouts in America.
It was designed by AW Tillinghast after the Lenox Hills Country Club was bought by the Bethpage Park Authority in the early 1930s.
Consistently ranked as one of the greatest courses in America, the Black course hosted the US Open in 2002 and 2009 and also staged the Barclays in 2012 and 2016. This month, it will stage the PGA Championship and it will host the Ryder Cup in 2024.