Early championship at Bethpage. Photo courtesy of Tillinghast Association

by R. John Burnes

It is safe to say that given my challenged vertical abilities, I’m not dunking a basketball at the Wells Fargo center. And unless I can pick up a fastball from 60 feet, 6 inches, I’m not hitting one out of Citizens Bank Park either. But when it comes to golf, I can hit a tee ball, approach, or putt on the only publicly owned golf course to host major championships: Bethpage Black.

This week, Bethpage hosts the PGA Championship, one of the four majors in men’s professional golf, and, despite how busy it was last week, with a little persistence (and luck), you too can play the very same course the best in the world play.

Bethpage Black is a mecca for public golf and is part of New York’s state park system – Bethpage State Park. The Park was developed from an estate owned by the Yoakum family, who leased their estate to the Lenox Hills Corporation, which subsequently used the property to build the Lenox Hills Country Club. In the early 1930s, in a rare moment of government entrepreneurism, the Bethpage Park Authority purchased the Lenox Hills Country Club and other adjacent properties to build what we now know as Bethpage State Park.

Chestnut Hill area native Albert Warren Tillinghast was hired to design and oversee construction of three new golf courses (Black, Red and Blue) as well as modify the Lenox Hills Course, which became the Green Course. Due to the increased demand for golf, the Yellow Course designed by Alfred Tull was opened in 1958. Today, approximately 300,000 rounds are played annually on the five courses at Bethpage.

The Wissahickon course of the Philadelphia Cricket Club’s Flourtown location was also designed by Tillinghast.
“It’s a real tribute to Tillinghast and New York golf, what important place Bethpage has become for the public golfer, architecture and the professional game,” said Stuart Wolfe of the Tillinghast Association.

Historically always a terrific and challenging test of golf, Bethpage for decades hosted area Long Islanders and those brave enough to be challenged at the highest level. But it wasn’t until the late 90s when area business, civic and USGA leaders got together with an idea: to restore Bethpage Black back to its original luster, removing the years of neglect with a new inspiration. And so, about 17 years and millions of dollars later, Bethpage is the only public course to host the US Open, PGA Championship and (scheduled) the Ryder Cup.

So with access being a critical component of this special course, I have determined only four known ways to tee it up on the same venue as the best in the world: (1) Find a New York friend who can dial the special number and reserve a tee time (2) Call the number yourself, realizing state residents have preference, (3) Utilize the online registration (click and hope) or (4) pursue the “camping” option.

I’ve had little success securing this coveted tee time online or through an Empire State native, and, despite The Black being one a few favorite numbers I consistently dial, option four remains my consistent avenue to the first tee.

There isn’t a proper camp site at Bethpage per se, but tradition reserves a guaranteed tee time during the first hour of the next morning for those who are willing to get in line the night before. So, the several brave golfing diehards park in designated number spots the day before, and sleep over in the parking lot of Bethpage every day of the week.

I typically make the journey up mid-week in late spring or in the height of autumn. The golf is great, but the overnight “stay” in my car isn’t too hot or cold. I deviate from this schedule only if three different weather apps indicate the overnight weather forecast to be in the 50- to 60-degree range.

I typically bring one set of clothes for the next morning, two pairs of socks (the early morning dew can be very wet), and a case of my favorite Dock Street brew. The latter, a peace offering of sorts, as you can imagine the camp site is predominantly made up of Giants and Jets fans. If you can withstand their jabs about the Eagles for 40 minutes, they eventually settle down with hops and barley, and we collectively direct our energies to a more sinister foe: The New England Patriots fans (there’s always one of them there, too).

Tiger Woods at Bethpage. Photo courtesy of PGA of America.

Typically, you’ll make friends, conduct a putting contest on the practice green, enjoy the crisp park air and get a photo of the famous Bethpage warning sign. Around 1 a.m., the camp site gets quiet as everyone retreats to their four-wheeled tents.

At approximately 4:40 a.m., a park attendant begins knocking on windows and affixes a plastic hospital bracelet to your wrist. This is the golden ticket to the Golf Digest Top 50 classic. I usually get paired with random players from all walks of life seeking out the championship experience: lawyers, students, carpenters, you name it. I’ve probably played the Black with them at least once.

The winner on Sunday will hoist the Wanamaker Trophy, which weighs 27 pounds and is 28 inches tall, making it the largest of the four major championship trophies. It is named after Rodman Wanamaker, the founder of the Professional Golfers’ Association of America, who paid for the first tournament and donated the first trophy. The PGA champions also receives the largest share of the winner’s purse. In 2018, the purse was $11 million, and Brooks Koepka got $1,980,000 for his win.

But whoever wins, a few days later, you too can experience the Black at her finest and be tested by the great golden age architecture of Philadelphia’s own Tillinghast, without any initiation fee or club dues. Just a pillow, blanket and an extra pair of socks.

R. John Burnes is president of Dormie Partners, a consulting group specializing in digital transformation, organizational development and legislative services. He can be reached at rjburnes@yahoo.com

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