May 18, 2009

Bethpage Gray (market)

Getting on this year's U.S. Open venue is just a phone call away, but it's going to cost you

Editor's Note: With professional golf returning to Bethpage Black for the 2012 Barclays, we look back at a 2009 expose of a New York-based tee-time service in which golfers can pay as much as $850 to circumvent the standard practice of camping in the parking lot. The service is still up and running. We called, and were told reservations are available after Labor Day.

People sleep in cars knowing their chance of getting on is precisely that, a chance. More legendary than Tiger Woods' win in the 2002 U.S. Open -- the first ever held on a muny -- is the human grit on display daily at Bethpage (N.Y.) State Park. Each gear of the tee-time allocation system -- from the way cars line up in the parking lot, to the random hour park officials distribute wristbands pre-dawn, to the minutiae of rules surrounding the nearly impenetrable telephone reservation line -- has had to evolve, growing more stringent, since the USGA invested $3 million to renovate the Black Course in the late 1990s and demand spiked. When a major championship venue is situated just outside the most populated area of the country, available for a modest rate ($60 for state residents, $120 for non-residents), is the rush any surprise? It's the best chance most ever have to play a U.S. Open course. It's a lot cheaper than Pebble Beach or Pinehurst, and easier to get on than nearby Winged Foot and Shinnecock Hills, which are private.

And is it also any surprise, given the insatiable demand for a supply held constant by daylight, that somebody has found a way to make some money off it? Economics, shmeconomics ... this is New York, baby.

The first return of a Google search for the phrase "get on bethpage black" is This company, which boldly accepts all major credit cards, states, "If camping out is not an option, the civilized way to tee up at this course is to let NY Golf Shuttle handle all the necessary arrangements to secure your tee time." Service is provided for a number of metropolitan area layouts, including all five Bethpage courses, but prices are most shocking for the Black, ranging from $850 for a single to $450 per person for a foursome. This includes black car transportation to and from New York City. Oh, and tack on a $50 surcharge for non-New York State residents.

"Of course we know about it," says Carol Ash, commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. "It's awful."

"One of the greatest frustrations of my career," says Bernadette Castro, Ash's predecessor from 1995-2006. "It's so unfair for people to be basically scalping the tee times."

"We've had the state inspector general, the state attorney general and the state police all investigate it. Unfortunately, nothing the outfit does is technically illegal."

Allegedly a man known only as "Phil" operates a large cadre of people who flood the telephone system each night by speed-dialing precisely at 7 p.m., the moment tee times seven days ahead become available. To book a time, a golfer's driver's license must be registered in the park reservation system. So for New York State clients, NY Golf Shuttle will register their driver's license (or if the client is already registered, simply use their pre-existing number) and book the time under the client's name. With so many people calling in a coordinated effort, the business model works: A few are bound to get through. For non-residents, who can only book times two days in advance, it's a little trickier, especially if it's a foursome that can't be spearheaded by a resident ID number. But Dave Catalano, operations manager at Bethpage State Park, knows how it is done. NY Golf Shuttle will book the time under a resident ID number, then cancel five days later and rebook it immediately under the out-of-state client's name.

"A couple of years ago we changed it so that when you canceled a tee time, the time would go back to the end of the queue and be released randomly between one and three hours later. Before that, you could literally cancel a time with one phone in one hand and rebook it with the phone in your other hand," says Catalano. "Still, someone seeking to scam the system can operate at odd hours, like 2 a.m., when regular golfers won't be calling."

People falsely identifying themselves on the telephone, then making huge profits off a state-funded facility by creating a secondary market -- isn't that illegal? Ron Foley, the Long Island Parks regional director, wishes it were.

"It's been a long and colorful history with [NY Golf Shuttle]," says Foley. "We've had the state inspector general, the state attorney general, and the state police all investigate it. Unfortunately, nothing the outfit does is technically illegal. We were told the difference between this and say, scalping tickets to a Broadway show, which is illegal, is that golf is a participatory event, as opposed to a spectator event. There's no law that says you can't book a tee time for somebody else. It may be a violation of our policy, but the problem is, there's no way we can know when it's happening."

Says Castro: "We worked inside with the phone companies to see if there was a way to thwart such behavior." But little came of those efforts.

"If someone's going to pay me $100 to dial my telephone, what's the downside?" says Catalano. "Plus they can argue their clients are paying for the limousine ride. Though you know as well as me that's not really the case."

At present, Catalano and his staff say they are trying to remain as wary as possible. If they discover a New York State resident involved with such activity, they suspend that golfer from the course for a year. Recently there have been four to five such suspensions, according to Catalano.

How does he find out? "People talk," he says. "We sniff it out. People drop us tips if they suspect someone abusing it."

"It's unfortunate that [Catalano] has been forced to think like a scam-artist," says Castro. But despite Catalano's hawkish nature and the changes he has implemented to the booking system, NY Golf Shuttle has also shown an ability to adapt.

Listen to Anthony Accetta, a financial industry worker (9.0 Handicap Index) who remembers seeing a posting for the service at Chelsea Piers driving range in 1999. An avid golfer who had just moved to the metropolitan area, Accetta felt daunted by what he had heard about the difficulty of getting on the Black. Working hard and making a good living, he was willing to pay the $300 (oh inflation!) NY Golf Shuttle was then asking.

"As soon as I got out of the limo someone handed me a bracelet and told me what time I was teeing off," recalls Accetta. "I had zero contact with the inside ticket office window. I can't say with certainty, but my impression was that my money had gone to pay someone to wait in line overnight."

To combat this, Bethpage declared all wristbands had to be fastened at the moment obtained, with a park official overseeing. The language concerning the camping-out rules of the parking lot, tightened with iron-hand specificity.

Tee times at Bethpage Black

It is written: At a random time each night, a supervisor will distribute numbered bracelets to patrons parked in the designated numbered spaces located in our overflow parking lot. The bracelets will be issued to one person in each car. The vehicle's parking spot must be continually occupied. If vehicle is not occupied for more than one hour, the patron(s) will be asked to move to the end of the line. The patron who was initially issued the bracelet must be present the following morning when bakery tickets are issued. At that time all individuals in each car will receive bracelets and bakery tickets. At no time will more then [sic] four bakery tickets or bracelets be issued per vehicle. This process will be followed for golfers in the first twenty cars. Thereafter, only bakery tickets will be issued.

Whew. A set of rules born from necessity, no doubt. But in this dance with park officials, the perpetrators have managed to remain one step ahead, their advantage stemming from the state's hesitance to tweak the reservation system lest it become even more annoying and difficult to navigate.

As current parks commissioner Ash says succinctly, "Any time you govern against a specific action there's a fine line before penalizing those we don't want to penalize."

To throw another curve at the opportunists, Bethpage could, for example, require each golfer's name and ID to hold a booking. But then they offend the taxpayer that likes to get a time and call around to his friends and see who's available. A nice way to be able to live, even if you don't belong to a private club.

Says Catalano, "It's not the greatest system in the world, but it's an equilibrium. If you really want to play that badly, you can sleep out."

"We think the majority of people are getting out legitimately," adds Foley.

I coughed up the $850 to play Bethpage Black. Was it worth it? My perception of the value is skewed given the circumstances, but also by a belief that the experience of playing a storied championship course resists designation by money. That said, $850 is definitely way more than anyone should be paying.

My transaction with the "shuttle" was very extended. On May 1, I called their 800 number and after a minute of rings the guy who answered said simply, as if caught off-guard, "Hello." I inquired if I had reached NY Golf Shuttle. I had. I was looking for a tee time, the weekend of May 9 or 10, preferably Saturday, as early as possible. Silence on the line as he investigated. "Tough then," he said, almost compassionately. "How about May 12? We'll try for morning, but we can't guarantee." Green light, I told him.

I was e-mailed a contract form to return by fax, and on it I listed my credit card details and the standard supporting information. On May 4 I received a call from a different, more urgent, agent. I had failed to include in the fax a photo of my driver's license, he informed me. Could I do that right now? Tomorrow morning would be too late.

Driving, crouched in my shameful habit of not using a hands-free device, I answered I could not. Could I read the details of my license to him now, he posed. Wallet on my dash, I could, and did. I was made to understand there existed some sort of template.

On May 5 I called to see if there had been success in my booking. "Yes, probably. That'll go through tonight. We'll call you tomorrow," the voice said. They didn't, but on May 7 I received an e-mail confirming I had the 12:12 p.m. time. Good, not ideal, likely a five-hour-plus round, but, of course, I'd take it.

Then, on May 8, I was offered a different time, 9:15 a.m. I responded agreeably. Then, on May 11, my tee- time eve, my time was again inexplicably switched to 9:48 a.m. In the end, promises were delivered. The chauffeur showed up on time, there was no confusion at the ticket window, I had a day of a lifetime, and all went well. If any conclusion is to be drawn, it's that NY Golf Shuttle is enjoying room to shuffle and work the system. They've even expanded to San Francisco to provide similar access to famous public courses there, such as Presidio.

One policy Catalano and his staff are considering is to make it so people can't cancel a reservation more than once a month. A further encroachment on the real-life schedules of everyday golfers, Catalano acknowledges, but perhaps worth it. An online system, he predicts, would be equally prone to abuse, if not more so.

"It's a horrible success story," says Catalano. "Our state has made a facility so great that everyone wants to come play golf and enjoy themselves. Then people make money off the backs of these people."

Of my foursome, two had, like me, booked their time through "Phil." One was entertaining the other, a business client, by taking care of the day. The fourth, Rob, a man in track pants, a T-shirt and a Yankees hat, expressed to me his disbelief, in a thick Long Island accent, that he had finally gotten through the phone system after two years of trying. "I like, couldn't [bleeping] believe it."

Perhaps the equilibrium isn't as balanced as estimated. It's impossible to know for sure. There are more than 70,000 members in the Bethpage State Park reservation system. The course can accommodate 35,000 rounds per year. The phone system books up completely by 7:03 p.m. every night. People want to play golf. Until there is a greater supply of affordable, quality options, NY Golf Shuttle will continue to play the market. And if you want to get on Bethpage, remember this outfit is the cause of, and solution to, your problem.