At the catacombs of Paris, where you can view the skulls and femurs of about six million dead Frenchmen whose bones were moved to the cool, damp underground ossuary by covered wagon when cemeteries across the city began collapsing in the late 1700s, there’s a sign carved in stone above the doorway leading to the macabre displays:
“Arrete! C’est Ici L’Empire De La Mort”
It means, “Stop! This is the empire of the dead,” and it sets the mood immediately. Passing through that threshold, you are a little bit scared, a little bit titillated. And when I hear the name “Bethpage Black,” site of this weekend’s PGA Championship, my mind always goes back to the catacombs, because Bethpage has a menacing sign too. It’s slightly more understated, but it conveys a similar message:
“WARNING,” it begins, in bold red font. “The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers.”
Not quite “empire of the dead” material, but reading those words, you half expect to see the desiccated skeletons of amateur golfers lining the fairways. It’s wonderfully ominous in the same way, and its origins are appropriately mysterious. Call me a little bleak if you want, but this is exactly the feeling I want from my major championships—a little bit of fear and loathing from the players goes a long way. (It’s also why I will never stop supporting the USGA in its efforts to introduce difficulty and chaos and anger into our national championship.)
Unlike many courses that hold a stern reputation right up until the moment when someone like Brooks Koepka demolishes it piece by piece, Bethpage Black lives up to its warning—at the 2002 U.S. Open, Tiger Woods was the only player under par. At the 2009 U.S. Open, Lucas Glover’s winning score was four under, and only five players were in red numbers. Things were a little bit easier at the two FedEx Cup events held this decade, and 2012 winner Nick Watney even made it to double digits at 10 under, but it’s clear that when the set-up artists want the place to show its teeth, the place shows its teeth. Needless to say, I’m rooting for bad weather and monstrous rough and narrow fairways this week.
But frankly, one week isn’t enough. When you think about the emotions evoked by the various golf courses of the PGA Tour and beyond, you think of reverence (Augusta National), awe (Pebble) and, I don’t know, eucalyptus (Riviera). The Spanish moss lends a nice southern gothic vibe to Sea Island, and saguaro cacti in the rough give the desert courses an otherworldly aura, but none of them quite reach the standard of “existential terror” that I crave. Professional golfers should be sent not just on physical and linear journeys every day, but on emotional odysseys that test the limits of their sanity. If you’re going to cut somebody a million dollar check on Sunday, shouldn’t he have to slay some psychological demons along the way?
It should be pointed out, too, that golf is one of the few sports where venue-based intimidation is even possible. Sure, it’s hard to play in the freezing snow at Lambeau Field, or to win a basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but that has more to do with the elements and the fans than the arenas themselves. In the end, Lambeau Field is a 120-yard expanse of grass, and Cameron Indoor Stadium is a hard court with two regulation basketball hoops at either end. Bethpage Black is its own special animal, unlike any other golf course in existence, and so laden with snares, intentional and otherwise, that even experts can’t begin to identify them all. There are holes on this course where the average scores in the ’02 U.S. Open were closer to bogey than par, and whoever emerges as a winner on Sunday will have survived rather than conquered.
Professional golfers should be sent not just on physical and linear journeys every day, but on emotional odysseys that test the limits of their sanity. If you’re going to cut somebody a million dollar check on Sunday, shouldn’t he have to slay some psychological demons along the way?
And if on some level golf is a metaphor for life, that’s a truer story anyway. No one makes it through this existence unscathed, and for all our dreams of triumph, avoiding the really big error probably matters more. It follows, too, that committing that big error is much easier, and in the end more likely, than moving from success to success. Our golf courses should reflect that—resilience and endurance and adaptability are the qualities we should be rewarding, especially at the majors, and when those conditions are met, the winner who emerges is inevitably one of the best in the game.
Since we’re talking about famous warnings, there’s a fictional inscription on the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno that reads: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” That’s a little harsh for my taste, but if we lead with that sentiment in golf and lay down an unnerving gauntlet for the best players in the world, the eventual winners will be distinguished by their ability to find hope anyway. Because that’s ultimately what we want—not to see golfers suffer, but to see what their suffering can yield.
There will be carnage at Bethpage Black, but the course will show us who suffers best. That’s the quality of a real champion, and any course that can elicit such a performance should be a model for all others. They are the empires of legends.