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Bethpage Black: How hard is it?

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I had the thrill of playing the Bethpage Black with my “A” foursome just before the 2009 U.S. Open. Lucky for us the very back tees were covered for protection, but to get the full experience we played as far back as allowed. Our low single-digit handicap group finished beaten and battered by one of the most relentlessly difficult courses that WE had ever played. No one broke 80, but thankfully no one broke into the 90s either.

One of my mates summed it up perfectly: “I have never played so many par-5 holes in my life!” he said. 

Bethpage Black is rated as the 12th most difficult of the 47 courses played by the PGA Tour so far in 2016. This rating is based upon the average score relative to par. Oakmont is 1st at 3.56 strokes over par, while Bethpage was a mere +0.749 strokes over its par of 71. For perspective, only 21 PGA Tour courses had a scoring average over par. Nos. 22-47 all gave up something to par and the Plantation Course at Kapalua, the easiest, had an average score of -3.195 strokes below its par of 73.

The 4th hole at Bethpage Black. (David W. Leindecker/Shutterstock.com)

The 4th hole at Bethpage Black (David W. Leindecker/Shutterstock.com)

The Black was not a lost ball kind of hard for the Tour. The long fescue grass makes it a lost-ball course for the rest of us, but Tour players enjoy a cadre of volunteers carefully watching errant drives and quickly marking their position with small flags. There is also very little water at Bethpage Black.

So what is so hard about it?

To illustrate my points, I will compare the recent performance for the field of the 2016 Barclays to the average of all the 2016 PGA Tour events to date in the graph below. This comparison is not exactly apples to apples, as the Barclays field — the first of the FedExCup Playoffs events — is the best 125 players on Tour.

How_hard_is_Bethpage_Black

Length

At 7,468 yards, Bethpage Black is 227 yards longer than the average course played on Tour this year. This naturally caused the length of the average approach shot to be greater. Note in the graph the decrease in the percentage of 151-175 yard approach attempts and the increase in the ranges outside 176 yards.

Design

The A. W. Tillinghast signature cross bunkers require a decision off every tee as to how much to bite off. Then precise execution is needed to avoid them. The best players in the world found the fairway sand 30 percent more frequently than is usual on Tour, and their scores from these bunkers were 50 percent higher (+0.3 strokes vs. +0.2 strokes).

Fescue

A ball in the fescue was in many cases a driving error requiring an advancement to return to normal play. In ShotByShot.com terminology, this is referred to as a No Shot Driving Error. These unfortunate results were 77 percent more frequent than the 2016 Tour average, but the resulting score was only 3 percent higher.

Rough

The length of the rough, combined with the longer average distance of the shots, saw the approach accuracy fall by 25 percent (31.5 percent of shots successfully hit greens vs. the 41.5 percent average of the 2016 season) and the resulting score from the rough doubled (+0.21 strokes vs. +0.11 strokes). This difference was no doubt exacerbated by the number of elevated greens. It is much more difficult to hit and hold an elevated target from the rough.

While the short-game shots were slightly more difficult and the putting results slightly worse than the 2016 Tour averages to date, the real teeth of Bethpage Black is in the long game. This course should be on every single digit’s bucket list, and I highly recommend it. When you get the opportunity, I also recommend that you bring your A game, carefully choose the appropriate tees, bring an extra dose of patience and a capable and eager forecaddie.

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In 1989, Peter Sanders founded Golf Research Associates, LP, creating what is now referred to as Strokes Gained Analysis. His goal was to design and market a new standard of statistically based performance analysis programs using proprietary computer models. A departure from “traditional stats,” the program provided analysis with answers, supported by comparative data. In 2006, the company’s website, ShotByShot.com, was launched. It provides interactive, Strokes Gained analysis for individual golfers and more than 150 instructors and coaches that use the program to build and monitor their player groups. Peter has written, or contributed to, more than 60 articles in major golf publications including Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golf for Women. From 2007 through 2013, Peter was an exclusive contributor and Professional Advisor to Golf Digest and GolfDigest.com. Peter also works with PGA Tour players and their coaches to interpret the often confusing ShotLink data. Zach Johnson has been a client for nearly five years. More recently, Peter has teamed up with Smylie Kaufman’s swing coach, Tony Ruggiero, to help guide Smylie’s fast-rising career.

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Joey5Picks

    Sep 28, 2016 at 3:49 pm

    Score relative to par isn’t a good way to measure a course’s difficulty. Average score is. Take two courses with similar hazards, green speeds, etc. Course A is 6500 yards, par 72, the average score in a tournament was 73.5. Course B is also 6500 yards, par 71, average score of 73.5. Which is more difficult? They’re the same. It took an average of 73.5 strokes to complete 18 holes. The only difference between these two courses is a 480-yard hole is called a “par 5” on course A, but a “par 4” on course B.

    It’s always hysterical when players complain about 500-yard “par 4s” in the US Open. What’s the difference? It’s the same hole. Lowest score wins.

    Here’s a good read on the subject: http://www.golfdigest.com/story/when-an-easy-par-5-is-a-hard-par-4-and-its-the-same-hole

  2. Steven

    Sep 14, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    The Black is on my bucket list. Thanks for preparing me for a tough day. Maybe I should play some easier resort courses first . . .

  3. Smizzle troll

    Sep 13, 2016 at 7:41 am

    Please go away. You are only funny to yourself and your comments are distracting for these articles that people have taken time to post. I am sure that you will love that I commented about you because that is what trolls like you feed on but again, go find something else to do.

  4. Ronald Montesano

    Sep 11, 2016 at 9:51 pm

    That’s a bizarre angle in the first photo, of the 4th hole. No one would take that line. The hole is so different than portrayed by that image. Plus, it’s just a little bit lime, no? Dude went Photoshop-crazy on that one!

  5. 518TitleistX

    Sep 10, 2016 at 7:09 pm

    I played the black from the whites which played about 6850 yds on 7/31/16. I birdied 7,10,12,17 and 18 and shot 78. I’m currently a 4.7 cap trending to a 4.2. Not bad when considering I doubled 6 and tripled 13. I played 14 through 18 one under.

    • wheres the beef

      Sep 12, 2016 at 3:44 pm

      Play it from the blues and your 78 turns into a 87. 78 is respectable, but 6850 yds is not terribly long and that’s when the Black is not for the faint hearted.

  6. MD

    Sep 10, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    They need to restore the fairways to where they were before the US Open. There are bunkers now 10 yards in the rough. It would be a better course.

  7. Mac

    Sep 9, 2016 at 11:38 am

    Try playing the course in the rain or in the colder seasons. It’s almost impossible to play.
    It’s easier for the Tour Pros as they play in the summer time when it’s drier and they also cut the fairways way shorter than for the public, and as rightly pointed out, spotters find their deep rough balls

    • devilsadvocate

      Sep 10, 2016 at 9:57 am

      It rained when tiger won the US open there… Also tighter fairways are harder to hit because the ball rolls out into the rough more frequently

      • Mac

        Sep 10, 2016 at 11:52 am

        I think you got that mixed up with 2009 when Glover won, when they stopped play numerous times.
        But, if you look at the average scores for the Pros for both tournaments you’ll see the tremendously high scores.
        Eldrick just did what Eldrick was able to do back then

    • Jerry

      Sep 11, 2016 at 11:10 am

      I played at the end of April in 50* temps with rain and wind from the tees one set forward of the tips. Shooting an 85 that day made me feel like I robbed a bank! Early in the season the fatigue of walking without a caddy took its toll on me. I sincerely hope to play there again soon because at $130 for an out of state player for this level of a course is one of the best values in golf, if not the very best. Thanks to my work and the amount of travel that I do, I play at the best courses wherever I am, and I can stress enough how great of a course this is for any amount of money, let alone $130. The only way the value was better was that I expensed my round and my partners round because he is one of my best customers, and he had the time of his life!

  8. Greg V

    Sep 9, 2016 at 9:04 am

    The forward (Red) tees are listed at 6,223 yards. That’s all the Black that I need.

    • Michael Scott

      Sep 9, 2016 at 9:27 am

      THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!!!

    • Smizzled

      Sep 9, 2016 at 10:23 am

      Greg, you should maybe work on hitting the ball farther.

      • gvogelsang

        Sep 9, 2016 at 7:35 pm

        For my age, I hit the ball far enough.

      • devilsadvocate

        Sep 10, 2016 at 10:00 am

        Wow that’s a disgusting thing to post … Do u feel a little bit better about yourself?

      • Smizzled

        Sep 10, 2016 at 12:20 pm

        Troll

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Branson, Missouri Continues to Evolve as a Golf Destination

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If you think you know Branson, Mo., it’s time to think again. While the live music venues that put the bucolic Ozark Mountains town on the map continue to thrive, its reputation as a top notch golf destination has grown … and continues to evolve.

Heck, golfers who’ve visited just a few years ago will find the scene almost unrecognizable. Sure, the awe-inspiring Top of the Rock — designed by legendary Jack Nicklaus and holding the honor of being the first-ever par-3 course to be included in a professional PGA championship — is as striking as ever, but its sister course, Buffalo Ridge, has undergone a metamorphosis.

No. 15 at Buffalo Ridge

Designed by renowned architect Tom Fazio and originally opened in 1999, Buffalo Ridge has done the unthinkable – make its list of previous accolades pale in comparison to what now graces the land. In conjunction with owner and visionary conservationist Johnny Morris, Fazio has exposed massive limestone formations, enhanced approaches and added water features to make every hole more memorable than the last.

Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio masterpieces not enough? Gary Player has stamped his signature in the Ozarks with the recently opened Mountain Top Course. This 13-hole, walking-only short course is unlike anything you’ve ever played.

Strap your bag to a trolley and let your imagination dictate your round. There are stakes in the ground with yardage markers nearby, but they’re merely suggestions. Play it long or play it short. Play it from different angles. The only mandate is to enjoy the course, nature and camaraderie.

No. 10 at Mountain Top

The Mountain Top greens are huge and as smooth as putting on a pool table. Nearly as quick, too. And the bunkers are as pristine as the white sands of an isolated Caribbean beach. Capping off your experience, the finishing hole plays back to the clubhouse and the green boasts multiple hole locations that enhance golfers’ chances at carding an ace. Hard to imagine a better way the end an already unforgettable round.

It shouldn’t take you much longer than two hours to get around Mountain Top Course. If it does, you were likely admiring the stunning panoramas. One notable addition to those views is Tiger Woods’ (TGR Design) first public access design — Payne’s Valley (named to honor Missouri golfing legend Payne Stewart) — which is full speed ahead on construction and scheduled to open in 2019. As a treat, the 19th hole was designed by Morris. Named “The Rock,” it’s a short par-3 that promises to be amazing.

Payne’s Valley will be both family-friendly and challenging. It has wide fairways and ample landing areas along with creative angles and approaches that shotmakers love and expect from a championship course.

If two years is too long to wait for new golf, then Morris and his Big Cedar Lodge have you covered with the yet-to-be-named ridge-top course by the industry’s hottest design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. With all the heavy lifting complete, the Ozarks is scheduled to be unveiled in 2018.

The Ozark Mountains form the backdrop on No. 5 at Buffalo Ridge.

Once opened, this par-71 (36-35) track will play “firm and fast” and offer multiple avenues into each green. Both Coore and Crenshaw bristle at the notion that there’s only one way to approach the playing surface. Bring it in high or run it along the ground. Considering the exposed nature of the course and propensity for high winds, the latter may be your best option.

There’s more. Tiger won’t be finished with Branson when he wraps up Payne’s Valley. He’s also designing a family-friendly par-3 course on the grounds of Big Cedar Lodge. There isn’t a date attached to this project, so stay tuned.

These new tracks join the likes of Thousand Hills, Branson Hills and Pointe Royale Golf Village to make Branson a powerful player on the golf destination scene. Combine that with world-class fishing and camping, as well as countless museums, restaurants and points of interest and this bustling Ozarks town is a must-visit spot in Middle America.

Learn more or plan your trip at explorebranson.com.

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Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club

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Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own. 

Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.

All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.

A view from the ninth fairway

Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.

Trees, or no trees?

The 18th tee

The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.

The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.

Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.

A good variety

Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16.  What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14.  These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set.  The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.

A view of the ninth fairway from across the Pennsylvania Turnpike

The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s tempt the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.

Green complexes are…complex

The green on the 18th hole

Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world.  They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.

The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a decent lie.

Ari’s last word

All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.

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Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure

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My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.

Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.

Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.

I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.

First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.

Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.

Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”

Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!

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