News & ToursJune 18, 2009

Why the greens at Bethpage Black are particularly problematic

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Blame the greens.

At least that's what the USGA's Mike Davis said in explaining the decision to call play for the first time in five years.

No, there is nothing wrong with the surface conditions. Davis praises the grooming work done by Bethpage course super Craig Currier and his team. The problem lies underneath.

Bethpage Black has old "pushup" greens, not the the USGA's high-tech sand-based subsurface system.

As part of the celebrated 1998 Black Course rejuvenation by Rees Jones, funds were limited. While the USGA helped pay for the project, the cost of a "USGA green" can add upwards of $2 million to a project cost depending on material costs. Without a U.S. Open having been awarded to Bethpage, the decision was made to focus on refurbishing a run-down design, not to install the USGA Green Section-developed subsurface drainage system found on U.S. Open venues such as Pinehurst #2, Congressional, Olympic Club and Merion.

Though Bethpage's fairways are soaked and the 18th hole's landing area is presenting a potentially problematic embedded ball concern, Davis confirmed that the greens would not drain in time even if rain subsided enough to warrant keeping players around for some late afternoon golf.

"I think the key thing here at Bethpage is that it's been the putting greens that has really stopped play," he said after play had been called. "That's why we stopped play today. It was not the 18th fairway. It was the putting greens that just became unplayable."

This week's de facto championship agronomist, Dave Oatis confirmed that after even heavy rains, the normal dry out time for a USGA spec green runs from 15-20 minutes. He would not speculate on how long it will take Bethpage's green complexes to dry out, but the USGA's decision to end the round and not start play until 7:30 a.m. Friday suggests that the lack of drainage is certainly not helping.

Since this is the second straight Bethpage Black U.S. Open with wet conditions and this weekend's forecast may bring more delays, many will wonder if Bethpage could face an ultimatum from the USGA to rebuild. Current USGA President  Jim Vernon says no way.

"This is such an unusual situation and they're at the mercy of the luck of the draw," he said. "We're happy with the greens overall."

There is also the USGA's repulsion at telling courses how to manage their designs. Sure, they will request new tees and hint that they'd like to see this bunker or that collection area tweaked, but the Championship Committee will not suggest that a course commit to an expensive USGA green reconstruction even though the organization believes strongly in its performance benefits.

"That's just not something we do," Vernon said. "Especially since Craig Currier, who does a fantastic job, tells us these are good greens and that he can manage them."

Couple sound growing conditions with the Bethpage's affordable public fee structure, and a rebuilding would be tough to justify. Then again, if you want to host the U.S. Open every seven to 10 years, such sacrifices sometimes come with hosting America's national championship.

-- *Geoff Shackelford

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