FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Brawny is not a word typically used to describe golf courses, but it’s a favorite among the locals when asked what they think of the Black Course at Bethpage State Park. And not without reason. The A.W. Tillinghast-design sits on an undulating piece of property, one of five courses that covers an intimidating 1,400-plus acres of land. Just walking the Black’s 18 holes is a physical challenge. Never mind trying to post a score on the 7,459-yard track.
“Part of the golf course mystique is it’s just so big and it’s grand,” said Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s chief championships officer. He noted with amazement that the course, with all its bunkers, has eight acres of sand alone, and how impressed he’s been by the sheer “grandeur” of the place. “There’s six stout par 4s out there, at least six, that play really tough and really difficult. All those factors combined make it a beautiful test of golf.”
As the course hosts this week’s PGA Championship, after absorbing more than two inches of rain already this week, the Black will only be playing longer and, well, more brawny. It’s a major, so players are already on guard over every shot, but they’ll need to be particularly mindful of their course strategy as they work their way around the property. Several shots will pose stern challenges, including these seven, as captured by Golf Digest drones, that can create turning-point moments in every competitor’s round.
3rd hole, tee shot
Players are looking at a shallow green angled from right front to back left, with deep bunkers on either side. The PGA Championship program notes there is a “severe drop-off behind the green” on this 230-yard par 3. “Severe” should be in all caps and fluorescent ink. A golfer who goes long might need a rescue crew to get them back to the putting surface. Repeat: Don’t go long.
4th hole, second shot
This 517-yard par 5 is as close as they come to a breather on the Black course, but you can still make a big number if you’re not careful. A good drive leaves players the chance to reach the green in two from roughly 200 yards out. The shot will play 20 yards longer since it’s uphill. Tillinghast’s grass-hill bunkers just in front of the players aren’t anything to worry about unless they’ve missed the fairway. They are the visual, however, that will help determine player’s line since it’s unlikely they can see anything more than the tippity top of the flagstick. They’re aiming at a small green (just 22 yards deep), that slopes toward the back and is protected in front by deep bunkers. Any shot, then, with no spin will roll to the back of the green—or off the putting surface. If the ball is cooking, it will run through the green and a shaved down collection area into thick grass that will make saving par a challenge. The miss is the front bunker, where you can still get up-and-down for a much appreciated birdie.
5th hole, tee shot
Are you feelin’ lucky? That’s what players have to ask as they decide what line to take off the tee on the 478-yard par 4, where a gaggle of cross bunkers line the right side of the fairway. The aggressive play is to go right and try to carry as many as possible, leaving a shorter approach coming in. But missing the fairway makes finding the green on the uphill second shot virtually impossible, so many will aim slightly more left off the tee. Go too far left, though, and you’ll drive through the fairway and leave yourself in even worse shape.
10th hole, tee shot
Cold, damp weather greeted players on Day 1 of the 2002 U.S. Open, and those who started their round on the 10th hole had a rude awakening on their very first shot of the championship. The breeze was into their faces, and several struggled just to reach the fairway on this 502-yard par 4. Even under calmer conditions, the tee shot here is no bargain, yet it’s a critical shot for those staring on No. 10 to get the round off to a good start; missing the fairway has been nearly a full one-shot penalty in both Opens. The hole played third hardest in 2002 and fifth hardest in 2009.
11th hole, second shot
This par 4 is just 435 yards, so players’ approach shots, if they find the fairway that’s blind off the tee, shouldn’t be more than a wedge. But they’ll be hitting at arguably the trickiest green on the course. A false front requires precision, least the ball fail to stay on the putting surface. But go long, and players are looking at a tricky chip back. Oh, and bunkers surrounding the green make it even more visually intimidating.
15th hole, second shot
The par-4 15th ranked the most difficult hole at Bethpage for the 2002 and 2009 Opens (4.599 and 4.471 scoring average, respectively), largely because of what players face with this uphill approach. Most will have between 150 and 175 yards, and they’re staring at a green that’s 50 feet above the fairway. It’s a wide green, but there’s a premium on carrying the menacing front bunker, and you’re only likely to have a small glimpse of the flag stick. If you’re not in the fairway off the tee, good luck trying to put enough spin on the ball to hold the putting surface. The saving grace is that they’ve flattened the green slightly in recent years. Players who make 4 on this hole will do so with a smile.
17th hole, tee shot
Listed as 207 yards and with a slightly elevated green as a target that’s a generous 43 yards wide, the tee shot on this par 3 looks fairly benign. But Bethpage Black’s ever-present sand become a visual distraction once more as five large, deep bunkers guard the putting surface, constricting it like a boa. Meanwhile, the tiered greens means the effect target size is much smaller than it looks. The tee box is also exposed to the wind, and if a northwest breeze comes through, the club selection gets even more tricky. Oh, and it’s the second to last hole on the course, so the pressure of closing out a round—or a major championship—makes the shot all that more intimidating.