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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.