Editor’s note: This is a monumental day in the life of MultipleNonWinner. We have our first ever guest post, and it comes from none other than my friend and frequent golf sparring partner “Mike.” Regular readers will recognize him from previous rounds. I told him some time ago that he absolutely could contribute a blog post to MNW, but that it had to be something special. Not just some rinky-dink course down the street. Well, you could say he called my bluff. (I think you’ll also agree that his pictures are gorgeous.) Enjoy!
July 21, 2012
“I’m doing cartwheels in your dome, baby!” I heard this all too often back in the day from my college buddy/wiffle ball rival after he’d again struck me out on a knee-buckling 12-to-6 curve (strike 1), cut fastball (strike 2), knee-buckling 12-to-6 curve (strike 3) series of pitches. It’s a statement meant to assert psychological superiority over one’s opponent. And it’s exactly the statement made by the sign behind the first tee at Bethpage Black.
You read the sign, look down the long par 4 first hole, see the rough lining the fairway, notice the stands being erected that appear reachable (which is confirmed by the group teeing off before you when one of the players clangs his drive off of them, eliciting snickers from the twenty or so golfers watching the tee), and the cartwheels begin.
Before taking the club back for the first time on this famed course, you’re already two over.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The tee time process for getting on the Black is legendary. Or, at least, it has become legendary leading up to and since the U.S. Open was first hosted at Bethpage in 2002. Pre-Open, as one of the members of my foursome who grew up in the area informed me, it was easy to walk up and play. The course was rundown and in terrible condition. It was only through a deal worked out by the State of New York and the USGA in anticipation of hosting the Open that the Black was restored to its former beauty. (For more information about how the U.S. Open was brought to Bethpage, check out “The Open,” by John Feinstein.)
Post-Open it has become extremely difficult to get on the course, particularly if, as is the case for me, one is not a New York State resident. In-state residents can reserve a time one week out. If they’re able to get through the phone lines jammed with golfers all seeking the same thing. Non-residents can only get a time two days in advance. Of course, by then all the times are gone. That leaves only the first six tee times reserved each day, which, as is now well known, requires a slumber party in your car the night before.
Not having much interest in journeying up to the Empire State, spending an afternoon tailgating in the Bethpage parking lot, sleeping in my car, and running the risk of not even being there early enough (at least fourteen hours ahead of a potential time!!!) to get on the course, I instead contacted a buddy who contacted a buddy who is a New York resident and golfer to help secure a time. And secure a time he did. How? Let’s just say there are ways.
So it was that I found myself on a beautiful Saturday afternoon – pulse racing, palms sweating – preparing to tee off at one of the best and most difficult courses in the country. Rounding out the foursome is the buddy of a buddy of a buddy, Jim, and two of his regular golf pals, Ted and Ryan (names changed to protect the innocent), all of whom had strolled the fairways of the Black many times over the years.
Which brings us back to the sign, the tee, the rough, the stands, and the cartwheels.
Just before teeing off, (we wisely decided against playing from the 7,400 yard back tees) the match and stakes were set. Jim and I paired against Ted and Ryan in a best-ball Nassau with post-round beers on the line. Business properly in order, I begin my round at the Black with a well struck, but pulled drive. Jim goes right. Ted goes left. Ryan goes right. No one is in the fairway. But we’re off.
(Note: for anyone planning on playing the Black, Jim, Ryan, and Ted all informed me that it is a gross violation of the starter’s unwritten rules to place your bag on the tee box. Doing so will most certainly get you yelled at. Just one more obstacle to navigate before trying to hit the first fairway.)
My ball comes to rest just in the secondary rough, which is, throughout the course, wispy fescue, clumpy in spots, but forgiving enough that it is possible to get a decent lie. With 190 yards to a well-guarded green (no other kind of green at the Black), and hands still shaking, I opt to play smart golf and punch a 7 iron down the fairway. Once executed, 70 yards remain to a middle right pin. A three-quarter wedge to about ten feet and a putt sliding in the right side of the hole later, I have my first par. This is only good enough for a halve, (Ted and Ryan both made pars of their own, Ryan leaving a birdie putt hanging on the lip, center cut) but you better believe I am calling it a moral victory.
Two and 3 are, as the Black goes, relatively benign holes. No. 2 is a short, dogleg left, uphill par 4. Even so, standing on the tee, Ryan, no stranger to the Black, makes me feel much better about my case of nerves when he admits he can’t get his heart rate down, and then proceeds to top his tee shot. Ted wins the second hole with a routine par while I double bogey after tree trouble, two chips, and two putts.
No. 3 is a short par 3 with a bunker protecting the left side. Nothing to write home about until you approach the green, look to your left, and through a clearing see one of the holes you’ve been waiting for. The par 5 fourth.
Having trouble staying in the present, I manage to make a par and halve the hole with Ted who, at this point, is even through three.
“This is where the Black starts,” Jim says as we make our way from No. 3 green to No. 4 tee.
And he is right.
The first three holes are plenty challenging for a mediocre golfer choking up his or her breakfast, but starting on No. 4 is where the genius of “Tillie the Terror” begins to reveal itself.
The double-dogleg fourth is one of the best known holes at the Black. It brings to mind a beautiful woman; great to look at, a ton of trouble to be found, a couple different options to avoid the trouble, but all of them very difficult to execute. And, per my usual experience with beautiful women, I find trouble immediately, pulling my tee ball into the large bunker on the left.
The second shot presents the golfer with several options: an aggressive line at the green requiring an uphill carry of about 230+ yards over cross and greenside bunkers; carrying the cross bunkers with a short iron, leaving another short club, but all uphill and over the greenside bunkers; or playing farther to the right over the cross bunkers with a longer club, leaving a slightly longer shot into the green, but taking the greenside traps out of play.
Unfortunately, with the ball significantly above my feet in the massive fairway bunker, I have limited options. I try to carry the cross bunkers with a 5 iron, but chunk it so badly I end up well short of them in the fairway. Still harboring hopes of a par, I pull a hybrid with 190 to carry up the hill over 26,000 bunkers.
I promptly top my Pro-V1 right into one of them, and kiss par goodbye.
I blast a wedge to the fairway from a steep side hill lie in the trap, hit another wedge to the green, and two-putt for my second double bogey in four holes. Ted makes another par to remain even and Jim and I go 2 down.
No. 5 is one of the best holes on the course and another double-dogleg. 423 from our tees (478 from the tips), a long, Rorschach-like trap (I see……a double bogey) parallels the right side of the narrow fairway, which angles left-to-right from the tee.
Challenging the trap leaves a shorter shot into the green, but…well….requires a longer carry over the sand. Play to the left, and you run the risk of being blocked out from the green complex, which angles right-to-left.
All four of us hit our tee shots right of the trap. Ryan’s is long enough to kick into the fairway. I manage to draw a decent lie in the fescue and have 190 uphill, but Jim and Ted aren’t as lucky and have to lay up. I pull hybrid, doing my best to block out the mess I made with it on the previous hole, and absolutely stripe one over the front right trap, settling just shy of the green, but sitting down in some thick rough.
Ryan chunks his approach, opening the door ever so slightly. Jim and Ted are on in three, but not close enough to be threatening a four. I chop a wedge out of the bad lie to about nine feet and drain the putt for a par. Ryan three-putts for a double, Ted makes his first bogey of the day, and Jim and I are back to 1 down. For those keeping score at home, I am off to a par-double-par-double-par start.
The sixth hole, a medium-length par 4, welcomes Jim to the match as he makes a scrambling par, capped by a seven-footer to halve the hole with Ryan and keep us 1 down.
Another angled trap paralleling a left-to-right fairway highlights the seventh hole, a short par 5. In the greenside bunker in three, I fluff an easy sand shot, fluff an easy chip, and two-putt for my third double on the front. Ted, Jim, and Ryan all make bogey sixes, and we go to the eighth.
The only water hazard on the Black can be found on No. 8, a downhill par 3.
Playing about 175 to a front left pin, all four of us miss the green. Ted and Jim fail to get up and down from the fescue and bunker. Ryan three-putts from just off the fringe to the right. I miss left off the tee, but have an easy chip, which I play to gimme range and win the hole with a par. Jim and I are back to all square with one hole left to play on the front.
The final hole on the outward nine provides two options off the tee. A large, steep trap (added by Rees Jones in preparation for the Open) extends into the fairway from the left side of the hole and promises at least a bogey if you find it. But it can be carried with a decent tee ball. Doing so provides you not only with a shorter shot, but also a flatter lie, into the well-guarded green. The other option is to play out to the right, away from the trap, making it a more difficult approach, but safer off the tee.
I choose a third option, setting up to challenge the bunker, and reconsidering that choice milliseconds before impact and hitting a block cut that starts right of the trap and goes right…….er. Ryan and Jim also hit poor drives, but Ted rips his ball right over the bunker to the right side of the fairway, hits the green in regulation, and leaves himself about twenty-five feet for birdie. After nailing a 5 iron out of the fescue, but coming up short, I hit a mediocre shot out of the front bunker to fifteen feet, miss the putt, and tap in for bogey. Jim and Ryan make doubles, and Ted taps in for a routine four, winning both the hole and the front nine.
The inward nine kicks off with three straight long par 4s (Nos. 10 and 12 both play over 500 yards from the tips). Jim and I win No. 10 on my bogey since he, Ryan, and Ted all make messes of it.
We take our first lead of the day with a pair of pars on No. 11 (best up-and-down of the day in my round after I hit a long flop shot over a greenside bunker and bury a nine foot slider, center cut)……….
………..Only to give it back immediately on the par 4 twelfth, a similar, but longer, version of No. 9.
And, similar to No. 9, I again hit a block slice into fescue. Playing the smart golf that I am known for (pause), I punch out to about 110 yards and hit a wedge to the green, which is sloped back-to-front with a ridge running through the center of it with the pin on the top tier. (The first green of the day with any real personality. If there is one consistent criticism of the Black it is that the greens are flat and uninteresting.)
By this point Jim is already out of the hole, while Ted and Ryan are scrambling for bogey. Ted gets up-and-down from just in front of the green for a five, and Ryan drains a fifty-foot bomb (Yeah, I called him a name when it went down. So what?? Take off the white wig.) from below the ridge to save his. I give the hole away by three-jacking for a double-bogey six.
The par 5 thirteenth is the longest hole on the course, stretching to 608 from the tips, but playing to just over 540 yards for us. Although not overly difficult, each of us proceeds to make an absolute mess of it. Our methods vary, but they end in double-bogey sevens (mine comes via a second straight three-putt).
Following the longest hole on the Black, the fourteenth is the shortest, playing to about 152. The pin sits atop the second of two tiers, but it makes little difference to me as I top a 7 iron into the fescue that stretches from tee to green.
I manage to find my ball and am able to get enough club on it to reach the front tier only to…………yep, you guessed it……….three-putt for a double bogey. Thankfully my partner manages to make a bogey out of the greenside bunker on the left, which is one better than either Jim or Ryan, and puts us back in control of the second nine at 2 up, and back in the lead of the overall match.
Walking to the fifteenth tee I take solace in the fact that despite three straight three-putt double bogeys, Jim and I have lost no ground. But I am not pleased. And No. 15 is not going to provide one bit of relief.
Arguably the most difficult hole on the course, No. 15 is a 430-yard (478 from the back tees) par 4. A narrow, fescue-lined fairway crawls slightly left and uphill until you near the green complex at which point the gradual climb becomes steep. The two-tiered green sits roughly fifty feet above the fairway and is well-guarded by several foreboding bunkers.
Ryan is the only one in our group who hits the fairway, pounding one down the right side. Jim, Ted, and I all hit our balls right to varying degrees. Jim blows one over the fence and has to reload. Ted is in the fescue and takes two to get it back to the fairway, while my ball is in the first cut down the right side. I lay up in the fairway, leaving myself about 100 yards up the hill. Ryan follows his beautiful drive with an equally pretty approach, roping a hybrid up the hill and onto the green. Advantage team Ryan.
Jim and Ted are out of the hole. Needing to do something special to make four, I leave my gap wedge twenty-five feet short and on the wrong tier. After missing the par putt, Ryan burns the edge for birdie, rolling it about four feet by, but brings the difficult hole to its knees by sinking the comeback for par. The lead Jim and I earned on the previous hole was once again short-lived, and once again gone.
With the match again all square and tensions rising in the titanic struggle, we march to No. 16. Another long par 4, measuring 457 from our tees, but playing downhill from the tee to fairway, Ryan and Ted open the door by both hitting drives short and right. Jim hits his well left and I manage to find my fourth and final fairway of the day, but can do no better than five after missing the green and failing to get up and down. Ted halves with a bogey of his own and we go to the penultimate hole with the match still in the balance.
Retaining honors from their win on No. 15, Ryan and Ted take the seventeenth tee, a 195-yard uphill par 3. The amphitheater created by the bleachers for the thousands of Barclay’s spectators who will soon be cheering on Tiger, Phil, and Ernie added to the drama of the match.
Perhaps visualizing the masses hanging on the result of his tee shot, Ted chunks a long iron into the enormous front bunker. Ryan follows by ripping a hybrid just left of the flagstick. Jim takes us off the tee by hitting his shot into the same bunker that held Ted’s ball, and I hit a bullet of a 3 iron on the same line as Ryan’s.
The angle from tee to green is such that we are unable to see the putting surface until we crest the front bunkers. Ryan’s ball is on the back fringe about twenty-five feet away, five feet outside of my ball, which is on the green. As we line up our putts and repair divots, Ted blasts out of the trap to thirty feet. Jim skulls his bunker shot, banging it off the bleachers behind the green, effectively taking him out of the hole. Ted misses his par attempt, but Ryan lags his putt close enough to tap-in for his three. I do the same and we go to the final hole with the overall match all square.
While certainly a good finisher for our epic match, the eighteenth received a fair share of criticism as a closing hole for the pros even after Rees Jones lengthened it, narrowed the fairway at the landing point, shrunk the size of the green, and added bunkers to both the green and fairway.
Ted and Ryan both flirt with the traps on the right, managing to just carry them, and finishing in the first cut of rough. Jim is not as fortunate, catching the last trap on the right, and I pull my tee shot into the last bunker on the left.
Arriving at my ball, my heart initially sinks. Although I only have 100 yards up the hill, I have to contend with an uphill, side hill lie. I have some time to consider my options while the other three play. Jim has to lay up from the trap and try to make four from the fairway. Ryan and Ted both hit the green with their approach shots leaving me no choice but to go for the green and give myself a chance for birdie.
Pulling a gap wedge, I dig into the trap, adjust my shoulders to parallel the slope, and manage to catch it flush. “Yes! That’s MY partner!!” Jim shouts to the three of us and the thousands we imagine surrounding the green in the stands. Again, hitting to an uphill green, there is no way to see where the three shots landed.
Tipping our caps to the adoring and roaring spectators, we approach the green and survey the situation. I am just short of pin high in the fringe about thirty-five feet away. Ryan is on the left fringe looking at twenty-five feet. Ted is twenty feet away, slightly above the hole, and Jim is on in four having come up short after his lay-up.
Playing first I know a good putt can apply some pressure on Ted and Ryan. Instead, a pusillanimous (h/t Jonny Slator) effort leaves me staring at a pressure-filled eight-footer.
I put my Irish Euro marker down and pocket my ball. As Jim, Ryan, and Ted each play their shots, I have just enough time for my mind to wander to all the three-putts on the previous seventeen holes. I think about the fact that I am standing on the eighteenth green at Bethpage Black, a course I have been dreaming about playing for years.
While the negative thoughts swirl, Ryan and Ted both hit putts to tap-in distance, and are in with their fours. Jim gets his out of the way for a double-bogey six.
It all comes down to my eight-footer. A make means a halved hole, a 1 up win on the back nine, and a halve of the overall match. A miss? A long ride back to DC thinking about the choke job.
I replace my ball. Slip the Euro in my pocket and follow my normal routine. Practice stroke. Practice stroke. Deep breath. Low and slow on the takeaway………..
The thousands in the packed bleachers groan.
Ryan and Ted high-five.
Jim consoles me with a pat on the back.
And I wander off the eighteenth green. The Black still turning cartwheels in my dome.
- Posted with pride by “Mike.”
You can follow this MNW guest poster on twitter at @mcollins9.