What do you say about a 3,300-yard, nine-hole course in rural Tennessee with a prefabricated shed for a clubhouse, a port-a-john for a locker room, and a practice green the size of a coffee table? For starters, it’s the most enjoyable golf experience I’ve had in years.
Sweetens Cove isn’t the kind of course where you can say, “Well, it’s like a little bit of this course and that one put together.” It will never be called “a classic so-and-so design.” I’ve played everything from munis to tour stops all the way to the Old Course, and I can promise you it’s not like anything else you’ve ever played.
Picture a world-class, challenging, and ridiculously fun golf course. Now strip off the 15,000-square-foot clubhouse, the pro shop, the driving range, the short game area, and even the superfluous nine holes you can’t remember anyway. Now, go ahead and shave another 300 yards off the tips. That may sound sacrilegious, but once you’ve distilled the experience into only what is necessary, you’re left with something that takes you back to when you first fell in love with golf. Maybe even something that takes you back to the birth of golf itself.
Rob Collins is the man behind the course’s creation. When he started the project, it was May 2011 and golf was in a full recession. Courses were closing their doors, companies were struggling to make ends meet, and Rob was betting everything he had on his brand new company (King Collins Golf Course Design, a partnership with Tad King) and their first project of turning a forgettable muni called Sequatchie Valley G&CC into something memorable.
“I was inspired by my favorite courses in Great Britain and Ireland along with Pinehurst No. 2 and Tobacco Road, to name a few domestic courses that provided inspiration,” Rob said. “Additionally, the 1932 version of Augusta National was a huge inspiration for the architecture. The overall goal was to create a great strategic course that places a premium on approach and recovery shots. Hazards, angles, and green contours all work in concert with one another, laying the foundation for a course where there are no weak or indifferent shots during one’s round.”
Happily, Rob and Tad’s endeavor fared much better than many of their contemporaries’ projects in the wake of the 2008 recession, though it did have many twists and turns along the way. Chief among them was in 2013, roughly a year after construction was completed, when the ownership group disbanded and left the course for dead.
“I was desperate to do anything that I could to get the course open,” Rob said. “The course was my baby, and I believed that what we had created out there was architecturally significant and deserved to see the light of day. As it turned out, my client [the original ownership] approached me and asked if I would like to take the course over on a long-term lease. I said yes to that proposition and set about trying to find a partner for the venture. I was introduced to Ari Techner through the former superintendent at Lookout Mountain, Mark Stovall. Ari and I hit it off and partnered in a venture to take over operations of the course. Since that time, our partnership has expanded and includes Patrick Boyd as General Manager as well as a few others.”
Once securing new ownership, Sweetens Cove took off on a consistent upward trajectory that even has it ranked above some major championship venues in certain publications.
Admittedly, arriving at Sweetens Cove for the first time can be a disorienting experience for the recovering country clubber. Meandering through a town of 3,000 people in the East Tennessee foothills, you find a wooden sign marking the entrance that guides you to a gravel parking lot with no marked spaces. Stumbling out of the car, you find a curious hunter green shed for a clubhouse that might lead you to question all the buzz you’ve seen on social media. The walk from your car to the clubhouse, though, provides the perfect perch to gaze out on the King Collins creation… and you start to realize that maybe there’s really something to this place.
When you embark on your journey, you encounter absolutely no resemblance to the mechanical, formulaic assembly of a typical, rubber-stamped golf course design. Instead, you’ll find massive waste areas, perfectly placed pot bunkers, and a movement to the land that captures the imagination. The greens are equally receptive to flop shots and bump-and-runs, but they demand a precise execution of either choice.
The bermudagrass fairways are relatively firm and generously-sized, but uneven lies are a common occurrence. Should you find yourself outside those fairways, prepare to take your medicine. Waiting for you there are those waste areas, as well as tall fescue and even clover and thistle in some areas. While some may scoff at such a notion, this is a microcosm of Sweetens Cove’s ethos. It’s a palace for the golfing purist: a minimalist, essential experience that harkens back to when golf geniuses like Old Tom Morris knew exactly where (and where not) to focus their energy. If something adds to the golfing experience, Sweetens Cove has it in spades. If it doesn’t add to the golfing experience, the folks at Sweetens Cove don’t bother.
The opening hole (pictured to the far left of the above image) is a par-5 of 563 yards. It’s a three-shot hole for most mortals, but your best chance of getting home in two is to start by carrying the bunker on the left about 270 yards off the tee. Be very careful about how you approach the green. It’s guarded by a gnarly pot bunker bordered by vertical railroad ties. The green on this hole is a foreshadowing of what’s to come on the next eight with bounding ridges and multiple potential pin locations that each provide a totally different perspective.
The second hole is a par-4 of 375 yards, and the star of the show is the nastiest little pot bunker. It’s placed squarely in the middle of the fairway about 260 yards from the tee. If you miss it, you’re likely fine, but if you don’t… well, good luck. The smart play is hybrid off the tee to stay short of the bunker, leaving yourself a short iron into the green.
No. 3 is a par-5 of 582 yards. Feel free to let fly with the driver off the tee, but beware how you approach the green. The green is perched high above the fairway and guarded by a massive tree in front and a waste area to the left. If the pin is located on the left side of the green, you’re in for a surprise when you walk up to the flag. The ideal landing area isn’t much larger than a couple hundred square feet.
No. 4, King, is the only hole with a name. It’s a 169-yard par-3 according to the card, but the green is 90 yards long. The shot can play anywhere from 120-200 yards depending on pin location and the direction of the swirling winds. And did I mention the tee shot is blind from the tips?
No. 5 is a 293-yard par-4. For longer hitters, it’s reachable from the tee with the right wind, but be careful where you miss. Short right of the green is all waste area that is relatively escapable, though your second shot will likely be to a blind pin. Short left is another nasty pot bunker.
No. 6 is a massive 456-yard par-4 with a sweeping dogleg left that tempts you to hit a hard draw. What you are likely to find out after the fact is that a good portion of the fairway slopes to the left and into a water hazard that runs the length of the hole. This will be one of the hardest holes on the course for most golfers. The only way to miss this green and still be in play is to be short and/or right of it, but getting up and down from there will definitely test your nerves, skill, and imagination.
No. 7 is a 328-yard par-4. It’s all about what club you select off the tee. Driver straight at the flag (which must carry a bunker on the right) is aggressive but likely safe. A driver left will leave you with that dreaded 60-yard bunker shot, and driver right could be behind a tree. Be smart and hit a hybrid. If you miss the green left or right, you may waste a shot or two going back and forth due to the steep drop off on either side.
No. 8 was my personal nemesis. It’s a 387-yard par-4 that, in retrospect, places an emphasis on an accurately planned tee shot (notice a theme here?). By that I mean at the tee, you need to evaluate where the pin is and pick the club and line that will give you the best angle — while keeping in mind the location of the bunkers and trees that could impact your intended path.
No. 9 is an uphill, 148-yard par-3 with a massive waste area in front, another bunker beyond, and a back-right to front-left sloping green. Matt Cardis’ photo below from his @golfinyourstate Instagram account is taken from the No. 9 tee box.
A course with virtually no excess is a challenging proposition. Everything has to be in exactly the right place, as there’s nothing to divert your attention away from anything that doesn’t meet expectations. Sweetens Cove is definitely up to the task, forcing you to constantly zoom in and out mentally to evaluate the macro and micro of every single shot. There are no less than three shots that can be played from any given situation on the course, but you had better commit to the strategy you’ve chosen and execute or you will pay the price.
The entire journey is spent on the razor-thin edge between heroism and disappointment. Sure, there are elements of this designer and that designer; of links golf and American golf, but Sweetens Cove is truly a golf course without a parallel. It’s a place that serves as a refreshing counter-culture to the vast majority of 21st-century golf courses and, frankly, to the American lifestyle in general. In a world with so much excess, Sweetens Cove will remind you that if all you had left was just a fantastic golf course, all would still be very much right with the world.
The Pinehurst Experience
We have all heard stories about Pinehurst. Friends have returned home to talk about its greatness. The Ryder Cup history, the U.S. Open tournaments, the cradle of American golf, and Payne Stewart’s fist held high in the air. And while the Village of Pinehurst and the ten golf courses that complete it are the primary reason to make the trip to North Carolina, we really go for the stories. To hear them and to create them. And eventually, to be able to tell them ourselves.
The story of my family’s Pinehurst Experience is one we will remember forever.
We left Texas for North Carolina with no real expectations. My wife, Shannon, and our 11-month-old baby boy William joined me. As did my mom, Tammy, and my dad, John. None of us had been before. And, quite honestly, none of us were expecting such a perfect weekend. I wasn’t sure if this type of golf intensive trip would be a good fit for my wife and mom, both non-golfers. But there was plenty for them to do each day. I was so excited to hear how much they enjoyed their time.
We flew into Raleigh and took a rental car the remaining 70-minute drive to the Pinehurst resort. Pinehurst offers several different hotel options, but we booked our rooms in the historic Carolina Hotel. It’s the one you see in all the pictures. Built in 1901, the hotel is the definition of Carolina class. The wood floors under elegant carpet creak every few steps, reminding you that this place has held the weight of the best golfers the world has ever seen for over a century. And of course, the Ryder Cup Bar just off the hotel lobby is an immediate hat tip to the history of Pinehurst.
We arrived just after 1:30 in the afternoon, giving us enough time to check into our rooms and then head out to our first round of golf. The front desk provides you with a personalized Pinehurst bag tag which lists every tee time you have scheduled for the week. This allows for your clubs to be sent from course to course ahead of your round so you aren’t having to deal with carrying your bag around the resort. It’s seamless and convenient.
My dad and I had four rounds scheduled. First at the par-3 track, The Cradle, followed by Pinehurst No. 4, Pinehurst No. 2, and the Pinehurst No.8.
Shuttle buses run like clockwork all over the resort town and their affable drivers are willing to take you just about anywhere. The longest we ever had to wait for one was probably five minutes. Our clubs were waiting for us at the Clubhouse, the hub of the Pinehurst golfing community. The Clubhouse features an enormous pro-shop, locker rooms, caddie shack, The Deuce Restaurant (which overlooks the 18th green at Pinehurst No.2) and is the headquarters for courses one through five.
It’s approximately a three-minute shuttle ride from the Carolina Hotel and could easily be a nice walk if you’ve got time and good weather. It also backs up to the Thistle Dhu putting course, a 15,000 square foot putting green, complete with 18 marked holes, scorecard and beer holders on every tee. It’s a great place to spend 30 minutes. And it’s kid friendly, too.
We didn’t have much time but we were hungry. The bartender at the Deuce told us to make a quick burger, hot dog or sandwich at their buffet, which was perfect. We were able to get a hardy meal for $15 and give us a boost for the rest of the day. The view overlooking 18 green on No. 2 was incredible and I could’ve been just fine staying there to watch the golfers come off one of the best tracks in golf.
But we headed to the Cradle, a nine-hole par three course designed by Gil Hanse in 2017. The longest hole tops out at 127 yards downhill, so a full bag is not necessary. I carried my putter and my pitching, sand and gap wedge to the first tee. The starter provided me with a carry bag and scorecard. The Cradle has been described as “the most fun 10 acres in golf” and that might be true. There are 16 speakers disguised as rocks playing music throughout the course, blasting Steve Winwood, Garth Brooks, the Rolling Stones and everything in between. Green fees at the Cradle are $50 and that gets you all day access. Kids under 17 play for free. In fact, we ended up being joined by four other golfers, one of whom was a 4 1/2 year old named Parker who had a better swing than me. We still got around the course in about an hour, including a couple of stops for drinks.
Positioned on a high part of the course behind the 3rd and 8th green sits the Pine Cone, a teardrop style camper that has been converted into a full bar. It has to be one of the coolest places to have a drink in all of golf. And with the music playing and a wedge in your hand on every shot, it’s impossible to have a bad time. Play the Cradle a couple of rounds. Have a few beers. Be happy.
The family met us for a drink back at the Deuce patio overlooking 18 of No. 2 and then we headed into town for dinner. The Village of Pinehurst itself is a cute little community, full of cafes, pubs, inns and shops. We were told to check out the Pine Crest Inn and to eat at Mr. B’s Lounge, a dark old bar full of golf history. Payne Stewart’s name is still prominently displayed on the wall where he signed it back in 1999. It was just yet another cool glimpse into the history of the golf town.
Breakfast the next morning (and then every morning thereafter) was at the Carolina Dining Room within our hotel. The family enjoyed a full breakfast buffet in an elegant dining room setting. The biscuits and gravy were out-of-this-world good. And the service, like everything else at the Carolina Hotel, was exquisite.
The girls had a couple of trips to the spa planned while the boys played golf. Shannon had a massage in the early afternoon while my mom watched baby Will. The next day, they flipped and my mom enjoyed some time relaxing herself. The pool at the Carolina hotel was also a huge hit with the family (especially William). They also loved going into town and shopping at the boutiques, which was only a 6 minute walk from our hotel.
I’ve experienced places like Bandon Dunes, which is a fantastic buddy golf trip location. And make no mistake, Pinehurst can be that, too. I saw countless groups of guys having a great time. But I realized that Pinehurst is an absolutely wonderful place to visit for entire families, whether they all play golf or not. And everywhere we went was kid friendly and welcoming. Just an absolute pleasure.
Pinehurst offers several options that include meal plans/stay and play packages. And I am telling you right now, it’s an experience you and your entire family will cherish.
Pinehurst No. 4
Back at the clubhouse on day two, our clubs were yet again waiting for our arrival, this time on a cart pointed towards the driving range. We hit a few balls on the spacious practice, large enough to handle the type of traffic for all five courses the clubhouse facilitates.
Pinehurst No. 4 is a new renovation from Gil Hanse and, quite honestly, a great introduction to Pinehurst golf. The fairways are lined with “waste hazard” bunkers and pine needles, which both allow for grounding of the club and removing loose impediments. Whatever you are imagining in your head when you think of Pinehurst….that’s likely Pinehurst No. 4.
No. 4 plays 6,961 yards from the men’s blue tees. There is a tee box further back that plays at 7,227 yards, but the markers are not typically set up for regular play. Honestly, that’s a shame because standing on a few of those back tee boxes, I could tell the course would be even better from back there. It’s still a tough course from the blue tees, playing to a par 72. The elevation changes make some holes play much longer than the scorecard indicates.
The property interweaves with Pinehurst No. 2, so the landscapes are similar. But the features of No. 4 seem grander in comparison. The exposed sand areas are full of native wire grass blend, making fairway misses playable but unpredictable. And the land-forms are much more dramatic on No. 4. I was a bit surprised to see the types of elevation changes out on this course. There is a body of water that sits low in the center of the property around holes 4, 13 and 14 which provides some incredible views. When you stand on the 6th green, you can actually see parts of 15 other golf holes. It’s arguably the most beautiful view in Pinehurst.
We teed off at 9:50 on what was an unseasonably warm day for May in North Carolina. We took a cart, though the entire course was path only to preserve the pristine conditions. If the course is cart path only still when you decide to visit, I would consider hiring a caddie for this round as we ended up walking a ton anyway.
The fairways are wide and accessible and the greens are large, though they don’t play easy at all. A little local knowledge can go a long way on the greens at Pinehurst. Holes 13 and 14, in my opinion, is the best two hole stretch on the course. The first is a short par 5 but with a narrow fairway landing area off the tee between the water on the left and waste area on the right. Longer hitters can reach the green in two but the entire shot will be over water to a diagonal sloped green. It’s a wonderful risk/reward shot that I, of course, attempted with the help of some liquid courage.
The next hole stays water with a 200-yard par three to a slightly downhill green. Miss short and left and you are wet. It’s just a wonderful hole. Plenty of room right to approach the green from the front.
All in all, Gil Hanse made his mark on Pinehurst No. 4 and created a sensational companion course for the famed No. 2. If you only have a couple of rounds at Pinehurst, make sure to include both courses.
After our round, we headed out to the newly opened Pinehurst Brewery, just around the corner from our hotel. The restaurant is housed in the old Pinehurst steam power plant, which supplied the entire town their power beginning in 1895. Now it supplies the entire town with Carolina style BBQ and great local beer.
I ordered the combo platter, which came with pulled pork, chicken, sausage, and brisket. The beer was cold and the food was tasty. The pulled pork, when paired with the vinegar based East North Carolina BBQ sauce was my favorite. And this Texan actually thought the brisket was a happy substitute for what I am used to back home. My wife had a pint of the Hawaiian Delight brew, a pineapple infused beer that gave it a cider type kick. She highly recommends.
Pinehurst No. 2
Waking up the morning of your first ever round at Pinehurst No. 2 is a pretty special experience. I watched a couple youtube videos of Payne Stewart’s final holes in 1999 to get my mind in the right place. The first tee is tucked in a corner of hedgerows and the starter house is an exact replica of the Old Course Starters Box in Scotland, built to symbolize a bond of shared ideals and common values. St. Andrews is the home of golf and Pinehurst is the guardian of its traditions in the United States. Pretty cool.
No. 2, a Donald Ross build, opened in 1907 and Ross himself describes it as “the fairest test of championship golf I have ever designed.” It has been the host site for more single golf championships than any course in America, including U.S. Opens in 1999, 2005 and 2014.
My dad has never used a caddie in his entire life. Golf has never been his passion and, quite frankly, he was a bit self-conscious about a player of his skill set using a caddie for a round of golf. However, we shared one for Pinehurst No. 2 and his mind was changed completely. We got lucky, too, because our caddie, Andy Kurasz, was first class. Andy, or AK, has lived in Pinehurst since 1994 and has been a caddie for 15 years. With a bag on each shoulder, he was incredibly personable and friendly the entire round. Just as important, he knew this course like the back of his hand. If you get to play Pinehurst, ask for AK.
The greens at No. 2 might be the toughest I’ve ever played. Each one crowned like an upside down saucer, if you miss slightly on your approach in any direction, your ball will not likely hold the putting surface. No. 2 is most certainly a second shot golf course, forcing you to think about your approach shot before you tee off on each hole. And while the par 72 track plays at less than 7,000 yards from the men’s tees, it can be tipped out to nearly 7,600 yards for its Championships. With the complex approach shots and difficult greens, I can’t even imagine how tough this course would be at that length.
But the course is fair. Most fairways are lined with those famous sandy waste areas and the pine trees even wider still allow for punch outs off the pine needles. Our caddie Andy said this is the hardest course we will ever play without losing a golf ball. And he was right. We both got through it without a lost ball penalty. Andy also saved us each several strokes per side, always giving us the right target, right line, proper encouragement and reminding us to slow down our tempo and “enjoy your backswing.”
Donald Ross, who also built his home on the course, was brilliant in his routing. The course evolves naturally and uses the contours of the land to play tricks in your mind. If the fairway slopes hard right to left, like it does on the par 4 fourth, the green will slope the opposite direction, which makes putts feel like they will break a completely different way from the actual line. You need a caddie.
Home of Donald Ross
In 2010, the design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw worked to restore No. 2 to the original design. Dozens of acres of turf was removed to reintroduce the hardpan natural bunkers and native grasses to the course. The No. 2 of today is essentially the course as it was in 1907. And it’s perfect.
Walking up 18 fairway is one of those special moments in golf. The clubhouse is behind the green, full of people enjoying food and drink from the Deuce, sitting on rocking chairs and enjoying the golfers approach shots. Also in view is the Payne Stewart statue, striking that famous pose after his winning putt poured in to win the U.S. Open. I hit my drive right and had to escape short of the green. My caddie simply said “That’s okay, let’s go get up and down just like Payne did.” What an incredible feeling to play a course with so much history.
Our family was waiting for us just off the back of the green. The fitting end to a perfect day on Pinehurst No. 2.
We had dinner that night at the Carolina Room in our hotel, which, as usual, was first class. A traditional steak and fish menu with an impressive wine list to accompany. But after a long day of strategic golf on one of the world’s toughest courses, I went to sleep early and dreamed of true approach shots at waving flags.
Pinehurst No. 8
My final round at Pinehurst was on the Centennial Course, Pinehurst No. 8. The Tom Fazio design was built to celebrate Pinehurst’s 100th anniversary and it has a different style and feel to both No. 2 and No. 4. Interestingly, the course was built on the site of the old Pinehurst Gun Club, where Annie Oakley used to give shooting lessons and exhibitions.
The shuttle ride takes a few extra minutes to get to No. 8’s stand alone clubhouse. And those extra minutes change the landscape dramatically. The fairways at No. 8 are lined with a cut of rough on most holes, as opposed to the natural sand areas seen on the other courses I played. And the course is tucked in to a more heavily populated forest of trees, giving this course a more secluded feel. The par 72 plays at 6694 yards, but there are many more opportunities for lost balls here. Water and marsh land comes in to play on several holes, giving off a low country course vibe.
I had a 9:00 am tee time but was able to get off at 7:30 in order to make sure we had enough time to get to the airport later that day. I played this round alone and was the first man off, which allowed me to get around the course in a little over 2 hours in a cart. It was an amazingly peaceful round. After playing No. 4 and No. 2, this was a pleasant contrast.
The par-3 8th hole is perhaps the most beautiful hole I played at Pinehurst. At 204 yards, the tee shot still requires accuracy to the left side in order to avoid the well placed natural marshland short and right. The greens at No. 8 are large but less severe than those found on No.4 and No. 2, to make up for the more difficult marshy hazards on the course.
I am glad I played No. 8. It’s a different style course than I expected to find at Pinehurst, but it complements the experience. I would recommend you include it as a part of your Pinehurst trip as well.
After the round, we had just enough time for a visit to the Village of Pinehurst for a quick bite to eat. Our rental car was already loaded up by the Carolina Hotel staff, proving once again that they do everything right at the resort. While in town, we stumbled across the Old Sport and Gallery boutique, owned and operated by former professional golfer Tom Stewart. It was an incredible collection of golf history, books, art and antiques. And speaking with Mr. Stewart for a few minutes made me wish I had another day in Pinehurst to hear his stories. This is a must visit for any golf fan.
And with that, our Pinehurst trip was over. We played incredible courses, ate wonderful food, received first-class hospitality everywhere we went and created those Pinehurst stories we’ve heard about all our lives. Now they are ours to keep and to share. I hope you visit one day soon so you can create your own stories, too.
Just remember to “enjoy your backswing.”
Brough Creek National: The backyard course you wish you’d built
Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted a golf course in your backyard.
Of course you have.
Now leave your hand raised if you actually rolled up your sleeves and made it happen.
Among the very few people left with their hands in the air are Ben Hotaling, Zach Brough, Evan Bissell, and Mark Robinson, the driving force behind Brough Creek National. That’s right. These guys are building a golf course in their backyard. From scratch.
The true beginnings of golf aren’t well-documented, but one thing’s for sure: people were playing golf at least 400 years before the first working internal combustion engine. Long before golf course architecture was a multi-million dollar investment before the first dime of revenue trickled in, courses were laid down largely by hand using the natural movement of the land. In that same spirit, Ben happened to notice that there was one particular shot in their backyard that reminded him of the Road Hole at St. Andrews, as it plays over their barn and to a green situated right in front of the road to the property.
Ben ultimately convinced his roommate Zach, whose family has owned the land for some time, that they should clear some trees and put in a makeshift green for their Road Hole. That was in 2015 and, while that’s technically the genesis of Brough Creek National, it was in 2018 when they started sharing their ideas in No Laying Up’s online forum section that things escalated rather quickly. Bouncing ideas off their fellow compatriots revealed great natural setups for a Biarritz/punch bowl combination, a Redan, and more. Before they knew it, they had a 630-yard, 7-hole golf course criss-crossing through the three-acre property in Kansas City, KS.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Brough Creek National is that it has operated solely off of donations, which started with a weed eater here and a can of herbicide there and has since grown to a recent GoFundMe campaign of $15,000. These donations have allowed them to purchase grass seed and other vital equipment to see the project through. The community aspect of Brough Creek National is so important to what they’re trying to achieve that anyone who provides their name and address on the website is sent a free new membership packet (I happen to be member #209). Included are some stickers, a ballmark, and a welcome letter that states (among other things),
“We are proud to have you as a lifetime national member at our exclusive, member-owned (and maintained) club…The vision of Brough Creek National is to have a place for community golf modeled around fun for members and guests from all golfing backgrounds…Your dues will be assessed at the rate of $0.00 annually.”
Ben further emphasizes the importance of the community aspect by saying:
“I think Brough Creek stands for community. It’s like-minded individuals coming together and supporting something they’re proud of. It’s a smart, intriguing golf course, but it’s ultimately about making friends and that’s what matters. The quality of the golf course is almost inconsequential because the real purpose is to assemble this brotherhood of people who are passionate about the game of golf. We think it’s done in a way that sheds the elitist stigma that golf has often struggled with and we’re almost mocking that in a playful way.”
“I’m not going to tell anyone they have to experience the game a certain way, but we try to go above and beyond to be approachable and welcoming because we think that’s more important than status. Golf’s not a money-making business. It’s just not. So, why don’t we just take that out of it, come together as a community, and create something we can all be proud of?”
If we’re all having an honest moment, not even Ben and Zach know exactly how this project is going to evolve, but one thing’s for sure: an emphasis on maximizing fun for the highest number of the golfing community is never a bad place to start. Those who believe par and total yardage are irrelevant in determining the amount of fun available to them should be in for a treat. To watch the project unfold, check out www.someguysbackyard.com and follow @someguysbackyrd on Twitter and @someguysbackyard on Instagram.
Below is an overview of the course, narrated by Ben Hotaling
Ari’s Course Reviews: Bethpage Black
Bethpage’s Black course was designed by A.W. Tillinghast and opened for play in 1936. It was immediately considered one of the best tests of golf in the world, and it has tested golfers coming from all over the world in its 83-year history. Bethpage State Park itself has five courses. The Green was the first course built and was originally called Lennox Hills Country Club. In the early 1930s, the Bethpage Park Authority purchased Lennox Hills CC and other adjacent property and turned the whole thing into what is now known as Bethpage State Park. Course architect A.W. Tillinghast was hired to remodel what would become the Green course as well as build the Blue, Red, and finally the Black. The Yellow Course was designed by Alfred Tull and opened in 1958.
Bethpage first hosted a major championship in 2002 when it hosted the U.S, Open. What is somewhat forgotten 17 years later as it hosts its third major, is how much the course had fallen into disrepair by the mid-1990s. Luckily, the USGA could see through all of that and helped fund a complete restoration that was overseen personally by Dave Catalano, the larger than life (in both stature and personality) head of Bethpage State Park. Dave had been working at Bethpage since he was a kid in 1967, picking up papers in the picnic area. It was his baby, and with Rees Jones by his side, they painstakingly restored the Black to its former greatness and into a true championship test of golf. After the PGA Championship, the Black will be back in the spotlight 2024 as host of the Ryder Cup, joining a very short list of courses to host a U.S. Open, a PGA Championship, and a Ryder Cup.
Playing the Black is one of the most unique experiences in the game because of what it takes to get a tee time. There are a very limited number of tee times. They are easier to get if you are a NY resident, but for most of us, it’s first come, first serve. Which in practical terms means they have a parking lot with numbered spaces and people start showing up the day before to sleep in their cars to play. In fact, I can proudly say that the last three times I slept in my car it was just to play at Bethpage. One of those times I didn’t even get out on the Black and had to settle for playing the Red! Should have eaten dinner in the car I guess….
Every time I have slept in the car I have had a great time. It’s a party in the lot with a bunch of golfers hanging out all excited to play the next day. There’s usually a few beers around and one of the times, someone called a cab and went and got 50 cheeseburgers from McDonald’s at 1 a.m. to show us all some top-notch NY hospitality! That’s definitely not an experience you will have going to play any other top courses!
Once you finally do get to sleep, the staff wakes you up around 4 a.m. to go get in line and get your tee time and course assignment. Then you can go back to sleep or go eat breakfast or hit balls or whatever you want until it’s your turn to tee off. On your way to the tee, you see the famous WARNING sign telling you that the Black Course is an extremely difficult course which they recommend only for highly skilled golfers. Hopefully, you didn’t lose your tee ticket because you will need that to get onto the tee and trust me, they aren’t messing around with the rules!
The golf course itself sits on a huge, sprawling, fantastic piece of land with abundant elevation change and lots of random contours. The bunkering is big and bold and not to be messed with. There is abundant long fescue and numerous trees off to the sides of the holes which combined with the beautiful bunkering makes for a very beautiful setting.
The first hole is a downhill, almost 90-degree dogleg right. The fairway is pretty flat and so is the well-bunkered green. The key for the player is to put their drive into the right place in the fairway to get a good angle to the hole location. From here you cross Round Swamp Rd and head to the second, which is a short, uphill par 4 of 389 yards. The fairway slants a little right to left and the green is elevated and can be a challenge to hold. The third is a par 3 that plays about 160 yards normally but has been brought back to 230 the PGA. This is one of the more interesting greens on the course; it’s wide on the right and falls away as it gets to the back and tapers to a smaller, more narrow section on the left. Bunkers flank the short left and right side of the green.
The fourth hole is vintage Bethpage Black and probably the most photographed on the course. A huge bunker flanks the left side of the fairway off the tee of the 517-yard par-5. Another, even more huge bunker looms at the end of the fairway cut into the from right to left. The tee shot is downhill but the rest of the hole is uphill. There is a second fairway to layup over the big bunker where you will have a partial view of the small, flattish green that falls away slightly and is protected by two more deep bunkers to the front and left. The fifth is a monster par 4 of almost 480 yards. A massive fairway bunker guards the right side of the fairway which is also the best angle to come into the small, elevated green guarded by two deep bunkers short and one over the green.
No. 6 gets back into the more open and less tree-lined part of the property. The tee shot is semi-blind and over a hill. The landing area is pinched by bunkers on both sides. The long hitter who can carry the hill should have a very short shot into the flattish, oval shaped green that’s open in front and protected by bunkers on both sides. No. 7 is a converted par 5 that plays as a par 4 for the PGA. At 524 yards, it’s very long and the tee shot requires a long poke over another large fairway bunker. The green is again pretty flat and protected by deep bunkers in front.
The eighth hole is unique for the Black as it’s the only hole with water in play. A 210-yard drop shot to a green with some slope from right to left and front to back and a ridge running on a diagonal angle through the middle of the green. The shot must carry the pond short of the green and there is a deep bunker left and a hillside right. Nine is a 460-yard hard dogleg left that drops down off the tee and back up to the green. Another very deep bunker guards the left side and can be carried by the longer hitter. The right side of the fairway is the safe play off the tee but leaves an awkward shot out of a gully up to the green. The green is heavily guarded in front again by deep bunkers.
As the players make the turn, they are confronted with another long, tight par 4 of just over 500 yards. Hitting the fairway is key here as the fairway is heavily guarded by bunkers and fescue. The green sits on the other side of a little gully and is guarded once again by a set of deep bunkers. The 11th hole is 435 yards and has probably the most interesting green on the course. It has a little false front and two distinct tiers with some nice internal movement. A really good green on any course it stands out on the Black amongst what is mostly a flatter set of greens. 12 forces the players to carry it 285 over a massive cross bunker on the 515-yard par 4. The green is back to the more typical flattish oval, and characteristically is guarded in the front on both sides by deep bunkers. 13 is a par 5 of over 600 yards. One of the least bunkered holes on the course, there are a few bunkers on the left and a great little cross bunker about 60 yards short of the green that obscures the view of the green and will make the players think twice about going for the green in two. 14 is the best chance for birdie on the course. A par 3 that plays only 160 yards over a valley to a narrow, long green.
After walking off the 14th green the players cross back over Round Swamp Road to the home stretch of the course. 15 is always the hardest hole on the course for me when I play the Black. The hole plays 460 yards. The tee shot is flat to a fairway that bends slightly right to left and has no bunkers. The second shot is massively uphill. Over a hillside set with bunkers and a small section of fairway to a green set into the top of the hill and guarded by the deepest bunkers on the course. A very hard hole to make par if you miss the fairway or miss the green. The 16th has a downhill tee shot that will test the player’s judgement of the wind if there is any present. The green is well guarded especially to the right and is small with a little slant to it. The 17th is an uphill brute of a 210-yard par 3. The green is 45 yards wide and is huge. However, it does not look big from the tee as it is set amongst a veritable minefield of bunkers waiting to swallow up any wayward shots. The players walk up a hill to the 18th tee and stare down at a fairway that gets severely pinched in the middle by the huge bunkers on both sides. The green is then back uphill, it’s medium sized with a slight kidney shape and two deep, artistically shaped bunkers set into the hillside short.
All of this adds up to a great test of championship golf. The course is pretty straightforward. There is not a ton of strategy other than hit it long and straight and make as many putts as you can. The greens are mostly pretty flat so there should be a lot of chances for birdie for those that can reach the greens in regulation. That said, the course has a ton of character when it comes to the land movement and elevation changes as well as the massive, artistic bunkers. New Yorkers are VERY proud of the Black and for a very good reason. It’s a fantastic golf course. Golf needs more top courses like the Black that are accessible to everyone and challenging to even the best players in the world.
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