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

1Length

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.

2Design

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).

3Fescue

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.

4Rough

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

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  1. 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. 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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.

  4. 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

      • 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

    • 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!

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