At Bethpage Black, the definition of par is open for debate

May 04, 2009

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Having introduced graduated rough and glamorized drivable par-4s at the U.S. Open in recent years, the folks at the USGA will debut their latest "innovation" in course set-up when Bethpage Black hosts the national championship next month.

A par 4 that measures longer than a par 5.

Indeed, it's not a misprint that the championship score card showcased Monday at U.S. Open media day lists the par-4 seventh hole at 525 yards, making it the longest par-4 in U.S. Open history, while the par-5 fourth comes in at just 517 yards.

"You might say, 'What is the USGA thinking?' " noted Mike Davis, USGA senior director of rules and competitions. "It all goes back to really what the definition of par is, how many strokes does it take for an expert player to get to the green and two putt. We just don't think many of the players will end up on that fourth green in two shots. That's the reason."

Two years ago at Oakmont, Davis nearly had the par-3 eighth hole play longer than the par-4 17th, but kept the former one yard shorter than the later rather than open the USGA up to questions. With a little more goodwill stored up after a highly successful championship a year ago, similar concerns apparently have vanished.

Since Bethpage Black last hosted the Open in 2002, more than 200 yards have been added to the course, with five new tees helping stretching it to 7,426 yards. Davis said Bethpage Black will play longer than Torrey Pines did a year ago -- "The average player will use driver a minimum of eight times" -- yet he thinks players will be satisfied with alterations made from the set-up they played here seven years ago.

For instance, complaints about not being able to reach the fairway on the 508-yard par-4 10th hole have been address with the landing area moved back 35 yards. On the 504-yard, par-4 12th hole, the area beyond the cross-bunker will no longer be left as rough but instead cut to fairway length, letting players do more than lay-up in front of the bunker off the tee.

Another sign that this isn't your father's USGA? Fairways at Bethpage Black will be an average of three to five years wider overall compared to the 2002. Indeed, on the seventh hole, the fairway actually will be double the width in hopes of encouraging players to use driver off the tee and play the hole more aggressively.

Jim Hyler, chairman of the championship committee, says that the added width isn't simple a measure of generosity, but also a way to bring more fairway bunkers into play, per the original design intentions of course architect A.W. Tillinghast.

Other notes from media day:

The sagging economy has had a significant impact on corporate hospitality tent sales. A USGA source told Golf DIgest Digital that while 79 tents were sold in 2002, the number is expected to be only in the mid-40s this year.

The good news regarding the decline in corporate tent sales is that it means additional tickets will now be made available to the general public. Between 1,000 and 1,500 tickets for each of the three practice days ($40/day) and all four championship rounds ($100/day) will be sold on a first-come, first-serve basis at Bethpage Black's Will Call facility from June 11 to 14, the week preceding the championship. A weekly grounds ticket can be purchased for $400.

Tiger Woods, both the defending U.S. Open champion and the winner when Bethpage hosted the Open in 2002, says he will make a visit to the course prior to this year's tournament to get a first-hand look at the changes made.

While there is no par-4 hole with a green that can be made reachable from the tee, Davis said that doesn't mean he won't be setting up risk/reward opportunities for players. For instance on the par-3 eighth hole, the green has been brought right to the edge of a pond fronting the putting surface. This allows the USGA to put the hole location close to the water during at least one round. Set-up in conjunction with a front tee location, the hole could play only 135 yards. Still while golfers will have a wedge in their hands and can try to hit the ball close to the hole, they must decide if that's the right play knowing if they spin the ball too much it will role back into the water. "Otherwise, you can play conservative back to the center of the green," Davis said, "but then you're going to face a difficult two putt."

In the same vein, on the par-4 sixth hole, rough that was once in the landing zone will be cut to fairway length, but will be shaped to provide a narrow landing area the close you get to the green. Players will to take the risk and are successful will have only a wedge into the green from a flat lie. Otherwise, players will have a long approach shot that will no doubt yield fewer birdie opportunities.

"You're simply giving choices and letting the players figure it out for themselves," Davis said.

-- Ryan Herrington