PGA Championship 2019: The golfers of Bethpage
It all started in the early 1990s, in the wee small hours of weekend mornings, in the parking lot of Bethpage State Park. Before the age of online registration, golfers drove from across Long Island and all the way from New York City to camp out in the dark, sometimes all night, to be the first in line to sign up for tee times at Bethpage's five public courses. In those days, the shortest line was for the Black course, because it was so notoriously difficult but also in such atrocious shape, with lumpy greens, scruffy fairways and thin layers of gravelly sand dumped over black plastic liners that barely qualified as bunkers.
Yet a group of game weekend warriors regularly lined up to pay green fees for the Black, started playing together and became 19th-hole drinking and poker buddies. They ranged from Long Island cops, firemen and small-business owners to Jon Silverberg, a back-office city-government manager who drove out every weekend from his home in Brooklyn. They began to think of themselves as a club, and in 1993 one of them, Sean McGowan, an industrial salesman from Williston Park, became determined to make it official. He invited seven of the guys over to his mother's house for a meeting around her kitchen table to discuss how they could apply to the USGA and Metropolitan Golf Association for designation as a “club without real estate.” They named themselves the Nassau Players Club—after the county where many of them lived, and the betting game they played on the course—chipped in $20 apiece for membership and memorialized the founding by signing their names on one of the bills.
In the early years, they were as far from the private country-club set as you could get. One of the first presidents was a retired police officer named Mike Finnegan, which came in handy when two members got into such a savage fistfight that the cops were called. Finnegan talked them out of making disorderly conduct arrests. (“We had police officers, and we had guys who had been in jail,” jokes Seth Cummins, a Brooklyn attorney.) Although members were always sticklers for the Rules of Golf—“We played it down all the time, even if your ball was in an unraked footprint,” one recalls—they weren't above bribing starters to move up their tee times. In the third year, they invited their first female member, Patty Ellis, to join the club after they discovered how she got out so early.
“They were impressed that I was a woman carrying my own bag on the Black, but even more impressed that I paid off the starter,” Ellis recalls (adding that Bethpage would never allow such a thing to happen today).
Then, less than a decade into its existence, two events shook the club's happy-go-lucky spirit. On the bright, sunny morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Ken Eichele, a member from Queens, was taking the day off from his job at the Engine 22/Ladder 13 fire station in Manhattan to play in a U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier in Bedford, N.Y. As Eichele made the turn, Dave Segot, a fellow firefighter and club member, told him that a plane had struck the World Trade Center, but that initial reports suggested it was a Piper Cub. Figuring the damage would be limited, Eichele played four more holes before another golfer in the tournament delivered the awful news: “The Twin Towers are gone.” Eichele rushed off the course and found a locker-room TV where he watched footage of the towers imploding in a mushroom cloud of smoke and ashes. He raced home to change and check with loved ones, then began searching for a way to get into Manhattan even though all its bridges and tunnels were officially closed.
Eichele finally found a bridge connecting the Bronx and Manhattan that had been left open for fleeing pedestrians, and inched his car through the throng in the opposite direction. Arriving at Ground Zero at 11 p.m., he spent all night and morning crawling through smoking debris and under teetering steel beams, searching for survivors. Finally, at 2 p.m. the next day, with the help of rescue dogs, Eichele's crew found a woman trapped in the rubble: Genelle Guzman-McMillan, a Port Authority employee who was the last victim to make it out alive.
Weeks passed before Eichele had the time or the appetite to play golf again, but when he did it was with a new appreciation. The game helped him cope with his painful memories and with the grief of losing nine fire-station buddies who died at Ground Zero. Eichele's family even stopped teasing him about all the time he spent on the links. “I'll never give you a hard time about playing golf again,” his sister said, “because it's what saved you.”
Photo by Walter Iooss Jr.
Just as the trauma from Sept. 11 was starting to subside, the USGA moved in to take over Bethpage Black for the 2002 U.S. Open. With all the improvements and publicity its home track was receiving, the club decided it needed to “gentrify” too, recalls Peter Cardasis, a Merrick, N.Y., accountant who served as club president from 2002 to 2012. It instituted a formal application process that required candidates to have a sponsor and four other members who would vouch for their seriousness about golf. Although the club never imposed a handicap ceiling, it began to attract more and more scratch-level golfers, drawn by the chance to play on the Black and Bethpage's other challenging courses, which were also renovated in the years before and after 2002, as well as the kick of competing against one another.
By 2008, the Nassau Players had the lowest average Handicap Index—6.8—of any club, public or private, in the nation. Today, a quarter of the 106 members carry Indexes of 2.6 or lower, and past and present club champions Jonathan Jeter, a New York City consultant, and Gerard Connolly, an Irishman from Garden City, are among the top amateur competitors in the region. All this, members point out, even though Bethpage has a tiny practice range where hitting driver isn't allowed, no short-game facility and a practice green without cups and surrounded by menacing “No Chipping” signs.
“These are 100 of the most competitive golfers I've ever met, but also 100 of the nicest at the end of the day, when we're all at the bar,” says Ellis, who serves as club secretary and says she has always been treated respectfully by the men. So much so that several years ago, Ellis persuaded one of the area's most avid female golfers to join the club: Patrice Franco, a Wall Street executive and 6-handicapper who sits on the board of the Long Island Golf Association and oversees civilian volunteers for pro tournaments from Bethpage to Shinnecock. “I belonged to a private club that was 15 minutes from my house,” Franco says, “but they wouldn't let women play on weekend mornings, and I discovered that I would rather drive an hour to play with these guys.”
Ken Eichele retired to Pinehurst, N.C., where at 67 he still competes in senior tournaments and plays the No. 2 course whenever he can. But Dave Segot, who was with Eichele during Sept. 11, is still a member and still on the job at the Engine 37/Ladder 40 fire station in Harlem. Segot doesn't want to relive that day, or talk about all the funerals he has attended for first responders and firefighters who developed health problems after they joined him and Eichele in searching the Ground Zero wreckage. But he remains a loyal Nassau Players Club member and has resisted offers to join private clubs near his home in Oyster Bay, in large part because of the comfort of playing with “regular guys” who have a unique appreciation of the escape and sense of community that golf offers.
“Being on a golf course is therapeutic,” Segot says, but particularly with buddies who “understand the horrors you see. We know we can't wait until we're old and gray to have a good time, because we know how quickly it can all be taken away.”