August 3, 2010

A Flat Finish

For all of Bethpage Black's strengths, the final hole isn't one of them. So much so that the USGA considered using the Red Course for a finishing hole.

The USGA considered playing from the Black Course's 18th (from the tee) to the Red's first fairway (near right) and then to the Red's 18th green (upper right Shadow). The 207-yard 17th is a natural spectator area. Sand, sand and more sand on the 435-yard 11th hole. The 517-yard, par-5 fourth hole is guarded by a classic cross bunker.

The USGA considered playing from the Black Course's 18th (from the tee) to the Red's first fairway (near right) and then to the Red's 18th green (upper right Shadow). The 207-yard 17th is a natural spectator area. Sand, sand and more sand on the 435-yard 11th hole. The 517-yard, par-5 fourth hole is guarded by a classic cross bunker.

A golf course, particularly one hosting a U.S. Open, ought to build to a climax. It can be gentle at the start, should increase the pace and the pulse as it goes, mix in a couple of interludes and finish with a crescendo.

Bethpage Black, site of the 109th U.S. Open June 18-21, almost achieves those movements but fails to sustain a flourish in its final stanza. Certainly the 15th and 16th holes, side-by-side par 4s running 459 yards up a hill and 490 yards back down it, crash like giant cymbals, and the volume and pressure can be relentless on the 207-yard 17th, where bleachers and a vast hillside for spectators transform it into a rocking, raucous Yankee Stadium.

Bethpage Black

The 18th hole at Bethpage Black was a challenge to architects from the beginning. Original plans included a fairway water hazard -- never built -- on the Black's 18th, then only 373 yards. The USGA considered revamping the redesigned 411-yard 18th for the 2009 Open -- even contemplating playing from the Black's 18th tee to the Red's first fairway, then to the Red's 18th green for a par 4 of at least 500 yards.

But then there's the 18th, a cacophonous finale, discordant in its demands, dissonant in its drama. It's 411 yards off an elevated tee to an elevated green, but all downhill in terms of excitement; a long iron off the tee to a flat fairway, a middle iron or less from there into a flat green. It's adagio where brio is desired.

The 18th has always been Bethpage Black's black mark, originally a short, straight par 4 with a wide fairway flanked by oddly disjointed bunkers and a huge, mostly wide-open green. Mike Davis, now the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions, remembers walking the site in 1997, wondering if there was any way to swap the Black's 18th with that of Bethpage's adjacent Red Course, a 463-yard par 4 with a heavily bunkered green nestled in a tree-dotted hollow. But the 300-yard walk from the Black's 17th green to the Red's 18th tee was just too long, and a switch would have other ramifications.

Last fall, Davis, still enamored with the amphitheater setting of the Red Course's 18th green, mulled the possibility of gerrymandering a finishing hole that would have competitors play from the Black's 18th tee to the first fairway of the Red Course and from there into the Red's 18th green. It would have created a closing par 4 of at least 500 yards, with natural gallery positions around three sides of the green.

There's a precedent: For the 1963 and 1988 U.S. Opens at The Country Club near Boston, the USGA played over one green to another on the far side of a pond to make the par-4 11th a decent challenge. But Davis recognized that re-routing Bethpage's 18th posed the same dilemma he faced in 1997 when he considered switching the finishing hole.

Bethpage Black

"There was the feeling that the change would have to be permanent," Davis says. "Players want to play Bethpage's U.S. Open course thereafter. They can't do that when you piece together a golf hole."

The state-owned Black is 29th among America's 100 Greatest Courses and fifth on our public list, continuing to prompt players to sleep in their cars for tee times at a cost of $50 during the week and $60 on weekends for New York residents ($100 and $120 for out-of-staters).

When Rees Jones was brought in to remodel the Black for the 2002 Open, everyone agreed the closing hole needed the most improvement.

"It just wasn't a finishing hole worthy of the rest of the course, or of a major championship," recalls USGA executive director David B. Fay. "I told Rees to just have at it."

Jones doesn't recall being given carte blanche. He lengthened the hole about 40 yards with a new back tee and pinched in the landing area with acres of sand left and right, the same bunkering method his father, Robert Trent Jones, used for decades.

Players want to play Bethpage's U.S. Open course thereafter. They can't do that when you piece together a golf hole.' -- Mike Davis, USGA

Why not relocate the fairway and twist it around a stretch of diagonal bunkers, a style displayed on the Black's fourth, fifth and seventh holes?

"There were already flanking bunkers there," Rees says. "They weren't very effective, but they were there."

Did he consider adding a pond instead of bunkers?

"Too artificial," he says. (Curiously, the earliest Bethpage plan shows the 18th flanked by two ponds and a moat across the fairway that presumably could be easily carried from the tee. The same configuration was also planned for the Black's opening hole. The water hazards, intended perhaps for drainage, were quickly erased from subsequent blueprints, replaced by bunkers.)

To improve the approach, Jones reduced the size of the green nearly in half, reconfigured a right-front bunker and added one to the left front of the green. Filling in two big bunkers beyond the green left more than 40 yards of empty space between the back collar and the clubhouse veranda. Did he consider moving the entire green farther back to gain additional length?

"We didn't have the money," says Jones, who donated his time to the project. "It was a very tight budget. We had to replace the entire irrigation system and rebuild every bunker. We couldn't afford to build any new greens."

By Jones' measurement, his improved 18th was 420 yards, but a laser measured it at 411. That's the length it played for the 2002 Open, when it was the fourth-easiest par 4 and the eighth-easiest hole overall. The field averaged 4.22 strokes on 18, but many of the top-20 finishers fared better: Winner Tiger Woods birdied it his first two rounds, parred it the third day and made a meaningless three-putt bogey in Sunday's twilight. Billy Mayfair (tied for fifth) was three under for the week. Among the top 20, only Padraig Harrington, with a 6 in the final round, took worse than a bogey at 18 during any round.

Bethpage Black

"Obviously I'm not going to join in any discussion on whether that hole is too blah or too easy," says Harrington. "I certainly did not find it that way." Adds Woods: "There's not one hole out there that was easy."

OK, it wasn't like Torrey Pines last year, when the 573-yard, par-5 18th was the easiest hole in the Open, but Torrey's finish was designed to create risk and reward. Davis was able to push the tees forward to induce players to challenge the water hazard fronting the green. Still, the Black's 18th can't match other recent Open finishing par 4s. Oakmont's 484-yard 18th was the toughest hole in the 2007 Open, and Winged Foot West's 450-yarder was the toughest hole in 2006. Several alterations have occurred at Bethpage Black in preparation for this year's Open. There's a vastly modified par-3 14th green; a new carry bunker on the ninth; new back tees on the third, fifth, seventh, ninth, 10th, 12th 13th, 14th and 16th holes -- pushing the par-70 course to 7,426 yards -- and an extended fairway on the par-4 10th so it can be reached from the tee by shorter hitters (and by the amateurs competing in the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge). But except for widening the fairway short and between the bunkers, there has been no work done on Bethpage's closing hole.

Jones defends his redesign of the 18th. He calls it "mentally tortuous."

Its fairway bunkers, he says, aren't conventional "because of all the noses, fingers and islands. Your ball could be in the rough or on a sideslope. You could have a horrible stance; you might have to get down on one knee. There are a lot of lips and faces to contend with. . . . The players hate this stuff. That's what makes these bunkers truly hazards."

"Sure, it can be a breather hole if you're standing on the tee with a four-shot lead [as Woods did in 2002]," Jones says, "but it's not if you've got just a one-shot lead. Or are tied, or one behind. Then it can be a birdie hole, if you're brave enough to use driver, challenge the bunkers, split the fairway.

The 18th did play considerably harder in the final round of the 2002 Open, the third-toughest hole that day, mainly because of a back-right pin position. This time around, Davis says, "I think on the weekend we'll make it play fairly easy. Let's face it, it's a birdie hole. We've widened the fairway short of the bunkers to nearly 40 yards, so anyone hitting an iron off the tee shouldn't end up in the rough, and we've widened the fairway between the bunkers to 24 yards [compared to 19 in 2002]. But there won't be much rough along the edges to keep a ball from rolling into a bunker if it's off line, so there's still a choice to be made off the tee."

Bethpage Black

The 18th likely won't be the easiest par 4 in this year's Open. The 408-yard sixth probably will be, in part because Davis plans on moving its tee markers way up during the third or fourth round to encourage players to drive the green (which is blind from the tee), the same way he made Torrey Pines' 14th so tantalizing in last year's Open.

That's about the only way to really instill some pizazz into Bethpage's 18th. If only Davis would move the markers to the forward tee one day. From there, the green is 345 yards away, tempting to at least a handful of players, and the rest would have to challenge the bunkers or hit a middle iron off the tee to the fat portion of the fairway.

Sure, [the 18th] can be a breather hole if you're standing on the tee with a four-shot lead, but it's not if you've got just a one-shot lead. Or are tied, or one behind.' -- Rees Jones, Architect

"I actually have thought about making 18 drivable," Davis says, "but I'm just not sure there's enough risk involved [to justify the reward of an eagle putt]. Now, the fairway just short of the green isn't that wide, and if they came up short, the little pitch shot could be interesting. I guess I wouldn't totally rule out the possibility, but we'd have to find the perfect hole location."

Let's hope he does. It's the sort of forte finale Bethpage needs. Otherwise, what we'll get from the closing hole at this year's Open is something a lot more lentissimo.