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Bethpage Black

Is Bethpage Black REALLY as tough as they say?

Steve Carroll is your tour guide as he gives you an inside look at the host of the PGA Championship
 

Alexander Bjork is taking a hybrid out of his bag for his approach to the green. A hybrid. On a par 4.

It’s the 478-yard 5th – a monster to most of us – but a meat and drink driver and short iron week in and week out on the PGA Tour.

This is not a normal week.

The famous sign that guards the 1st, warning everyone of the ordeal they are about to experience on AW Tillinghast’s famed design, is just hyperbole for the very best in the world.

PGA Championship move to May

But watching the Swede flail about with a graphite-shafted club in his hands illustrates the difficulty that Bethpage Black will present to everyone who can’t boast Rory McIlroy’s insane distance off the tee.

It hammered down on Tuesday night in New York – making an already sodden golf course even softer.

That’s manna from heaven for the likes of Rory and Tiger Woods, who reckons the wet conditions actually makes the usually narrow fairways even wider, but a big concern for any player who can’t – as Phil Mickelson likes to say – “hit bombs”.

So what will the field face on this 7,432-yard brute? With the start of proceedings just hours away, I took a wander around to see whether the PGA Championship host is really as hard as they say…

Bethpage Black: First impressions

bethpage black

It’s not a surprise many of the leading contenders have taken a careful approach to practice. Woods didn’t play a hole on Tuesday and easing through nine has been pretty standard fare.

The Black is a long, and not an easy, walk. Frequent changes in elevation, including some steep approaches to greens, takes it out of the legs and this feels as much an endurance as a tactical battle.

A fast start will be a great help. The first hole, despite a small copse of trees that block out any approaches that leak right, is not the most difficult of openers and the third feels like a birdie opportunity despite being a 230-yard par 3.

It starts to toughen up considerably from the 4th, which is blocked halfway down by one of the biggest cross bunkers you will ever see on a course, and the test merely ratchets up the further you go along.

The tee shot at 12 – where the right line is taking on the cross bunkers to avoid the straight drive running out of room – should come with a health warning, while the 15th green is perched so high there’s probably some snow on it.

The heavy rain that has battered Bethpage for a month will undoubtedly make conditions easier for scoring but it would still be a big surprise to see the players going massively under par.

Bethpage Black: The rough

“You have to hit the ball in the fairway,” McIlroy said in his pre-tournament press conference and Matt Fitzpatrick, in a very educating tweet, illustrated exactly what happens if you don’t.

He showed the extreme but the players will not have to be massively wide to be in trouble.

The rumours emanating before the championship were that a cool winter had failed to produce the kind of club-tangling stuff that is this course’s speciality.

But even if the ball appears to sit invitingly the grass is wet, and thick, enough to start slowing down clubhead speeds considerably as soon as iron meets turf.

bethpage black

Some of the spectator walkways, which are pretty sodden and trampled down, lie relatively close to the fairways – as the picture above from the 2nd illustrates – and I don’t think anyone would guarantee a clean strike from there.

And as you can see just off the right side of the 9th, a wider fairway in comparison with some, real difficulty awaits those stray only a little off the short stuff.

bethpage black

“If you start to miss these fairways you’re not going to be able to get to the greens out of the rough with a 4- or 5-iron,” McIlroy added. “I think fairways are very much a premium this week.”

He’s not the only one with that warning.

Bethpage Black: The greens

bethpage black

They’re not the most undulating but they’ve still got plenty of speed in them and will only dry out further as better weather prevails across the championship.

The issue for many of the players, as Woods has succinctly pointed out, is that many of these greens are raised.

Getting it there will be enough of an issue – depending on the length of the approach. Keeping it on the green will be quite another.

And yet you’ve got to keep it on the green. There are steep run offs front, back, or both, on some holes – the 6th is a notable example – and those that don’t have that puzzle to solve simply have more of the kind of grass that likes nothing better than grabbing a wedge.

Bethpage Black: The bunkers

bethpage black

I hope the players like them on the large side. The cross bunkers previously mentioned on the 4th shouldn’t come into play but they dominate the eye off the tee, as does the similar sized beast on the 7th.

A lot of the sand feels like it is part of a MacKenzie-style optical illusion. They’re designed to scare and trick you. Most of the bunkers that fill the eye on the short 17th should never come into play but you can’t help but focus on them off a tee that’s 207 yards away.

Greenside bunkers are infinitely more fearsome. It seemed impossible not to find them from the fairway at the 5th and the green looks merely a silver at 15 in the midst of all that white stuff.

That said, they do appear to give you a chance and it’s infinitely better to be there then in the thick grasses that protect many of the lips.

Bethpage Black: What the players are saying

Bethpage Black: How tough is it?

So… all you have to do is drive it into the middle of the fairway – every fairway – and make sure you hit the centre of the green. Easy game golf, isn’t it?

This is a very difficult golf course. I know this because I failed to break 90 round there from the middle tees.

What’s so punishing is that it is a relentlessly rigorous test. The margins for error are tiny. Miss this fairway and you can’t hit the green with a long iron. Par then becomes a massive challenge.

Get the wrong bounce, or come in from the wrong angle, when trying to reach one of those raised greens and you can be in a patch of deep trouble.

Length will definitely be a huge factor here, and that will put big grins of the faces of Tiger, Brooks and Rory. But discipline and focus will be just as important and that could mean some surprise names in contention come Sunday.

Keep up to date with all the action from Bethpage with NCG’s dedicated PGA Championship website as well as on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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