Okay, I don’t think New York and/or New Jersey are technically considered part of “New England” (upstate NY maybe), but that’s what I’m calling my trip. As they’d say around these parts, “You got a problem wit’ dat?”
Originally, I didn’t have New York as part of my trip plans, but the temptation to play this next course was too much to pass up. I shifted some things around and built the day around it.
Last night, I rolled into Long Island before a storm hit. I found a pretty good pizza-by-the-slice place near my hotel (Phil & Sons). I’m not sure where it fits in the pantheon of great, authentic New York pies, but I got a couple slices and they were delicious!
Anyway, on to the golf…
Bethpage State Park (Black Course) • Old Bethpage, NY • 7/4/14
With the rain and thunder last night and more projected to be on the way at some point today, I figured that would help my chances of getting on this famously tough-to-get-on course. It’s the East Coast version of Torrey Pines, catering to the locals (NY state residents in this case) with favorable pricing and preferred tee times. Us out-of-towners are subject to a more rigorous process due to its popularity.
I went ahead and set my alarm for 3:00am, figuring I’d get up, check the latest weather forecasts and make my decision. I got up and did just that. The overnight weather had calmed significantly and the forecast (though a little dicey) looked promising enough to get me down to the course.
There’s a time-honored tradition at Bethpage for walk-on players, On good days, people will camp out in the parking lot overnight for their spot. Otherwise, cars line up in the far end of the parking lot. I was there a little before 4:00 and ended up the fifth car in line, so I knew getting on would not be a problem, especially as a single player. At 4:30am, the ranger comes out to hand out tickets for each passenger in each car.
Then, everybody drives up to the main lot in a rush to get into the check-in window. The guy running that part of the show (letting us in based on our ticket numbers) was a gruff old New Yorker with a “Soup Nazi” approach to check-in. There are five TV screens behind the tellers inside, displaying all open tee times on all five of the color-coded Bethpage courses (Black, Red, Blue, Green and Yellow). People pick what time they want, pay their green fees and are given a bracelet (like you get at a concert) that you must have on when checking in with your course’s starter.
A few things worked in my favor this morning, but none more than the ominous weather. Another thing that really helped is that the “other” four courses not named Black begin play this time of year at 5:30, while Black doesn’t open until 6:30. People wanted to get ahead of the weather as much as possible, so I was the only one looking at the Black Course. I got 6:33—first group off!
I did have to wait around for a couple hours, though I was free to leave the premises once I had my official bracelet. Had I known that, I wouldn’t have checked out of my hotel before coming to the course. I might have gone back to get a little extra sleep. Oh well, it was kind of cool wandering around the grounds in the foggy early morning in anticipation. The price as a non-resident was $150. Black is a walking-only course (the other ones you can rent carts for), so that fee was it.
When the starter shack finally opened, another single had come out to join me. As we were teeing off a little before 6:30, another single came up to make us the lead threesome. They were both locals who just showed up after 6:00. They confirmed it’s basically unheard of at Bethpage to get out so easily on the Black Course. There were scattered groups that ultimately went off behind us, but it was far from the Bethpage Black bonanza you always hear about.
The golf gods were looking down upon us today and the weather held up just fine enough. It was pretty gloomy and we did get rained on for a short stretch on the back nine. Also, the winds picked up quite a bit as the round went on, but the thunderstorms stayed away and we enjoyed an ideal pace of 3.5 hours. That kind of pace of play is quite unheard of, as well, because it’s a brutal walk and one of the toughest courses in the country. Slow play is almost mandatory here.
I wanted the full Bethpage Black experience, so I played the back blue tees. One of the guys joined me for the “torture.” He plays here a lot, so he shared a lot of local knowledge to help me on some of the toughest holes. The blues weren’t playing at the full “tip” tee boxes on every hole. Those are reserved for big tournaments, but the course was still well over 7,200 yards as it played today. For me and my lack of power, that’s a monster of a course, especially considering how wet things were.
I went in with a plan to play “slow and steady.” My goal was to stay out of trouble as much as possible and play the long par-4s as three-shot holes. The plan worked for the most part, but I couldn’t seem to make any par putts and I struggled on short approach shots for some odd reason. There were a lot of bogeys on the card today, along with three dreadful triple-bogeys. Big numbers can easily sneak up on you here as things get out of hand real quick once you hit a bad shot or two.
Beyond the length, this is just a tough course at any distance. There are big-time doglegs, lots of hills (many uphill, semi-blind approach shots) and some of the most intimidating bunker complexes you’ll ever see. I really like the unique combination of bunker looks on the Black Course. Some are very rugged looking with deep fescue around the edges (mostly the fairway bunkers) and others are very “clean” looking with beautifully cut edges (mostly the greenside bunkers). All are to be avoided, but you will ultimately find yourself in one or two (or many more). If you see your ball headed toward a bunker, you want it to go in the sand. The bottoms are pretty flat and much easier to recover from than the thick, mounded rough around them.
Probably the only real “respite” on this course is the greens. They are big, but the slopes aren’t very severe. When they are running super fast, they will break a bit more than they did today. However, with the dampness there weren’t any huge amounts of break on most greens.
The hole that stands out most in my mind is the par-5 4th, which is one of the real signature holes of this old A.W. Tillinghast design. This hole has three distinct levels from tee to green as you work your way up shot by shot. It zig-zags violently around some massive bunker complexes, making each shot (especially your second) very uncomfortable.
The next hole is a real beast with a double-dogleg fairway that requires a perfect bomb of a drive over the furthest point of the big fairway bunker area to even have a look at the green up and around the corner to the left. There are many other memorable holes here as you know, so I won’t go on as much as I want to.
I wasn’t sure how Bethpage would feel in person. I’ve seen it on TV as host to the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens and the 2012 Barclays FedEx Cup Playoff event, but it’s one that almost doesn’t translate on television or in pictures. It really is one you have to experience in person to get the full flavor.
Conditions were very good. The fairways, tee boxes, rough and greens were all in excellent condition. The deeper fescue areas were somewhat cut down, so you could find your ball and hit a reasonable recovery in most places. I can only imagine how much nastier (yet beautiful) this course is when that stuff is really deep. The bunkers were wet and compacted, but manageable.
Though it probably doesn’t make my personal top 10, I can understand why Bethpage’s Black Course garners so much attention and respect from the golf world. It’s a monster of a course that lives up to its hype. I’m so glad got to play it (or should I say “survive” it?) and check it off my own bucket list. The experiences with the easy check-in and quick pace of play were indeed rarities, but it sure worked out for me!
From what I could see of the other courses, they all looked pretty nice. I’m told the Red is definitely the second-best option here, but the Black is the star, especially for us visiting to take on the ultimate challenge it presents.
Some pictures from Bethpage State Park (Black Course) (7/4/14):
I was finished at Bethpage way earlier than I ever expected. I was prepared to devote the entire day to getting on the course if needed, so I was left with plenty of daylight despite storms still looming on the horizon. I figured if things did go reasonably well at Bethpage, I would probably try to squeeze in one extra state on this little trip.
So that’s exactly what I did…
Neshanic Valley Golf Course • Neshanic Station, NJ • 7/4/14
I had researched a few north New Jersey options just in case and Neshanic Valley was definitely one of the top picks. It was also the closest of the few that were in the running.
I got out there a little before 1pm and the place was pretty quiet. There were some groups out on the courses, but I could tell it would be a relatively quick and easy round for me. They have three full nines here (Meadow, Lake and Ridge), along with a shorter 9-hole “Academy” course. Meadow and Ridge are the two older layouts with Lake being a later addition.
I ended up playing Meadow and Lake. The price was a bit steep at $90 (cart included), but expensive golf is pretty much the name of the game on the East Coast. The staff here was very friendly and nice, which is worth noting.
I played through a couple groups along the way, but otherwise had the place to myself. The ugly weather definitely kept people away here today, as well. It was windy and blustery with off-and-on drizzle throughout my round, but the coolness felt rather nice after I’ve been sweating so much because of this dang humidity.
Neshanic Valley is a very nice farmland links style course. There are even a couple of farms next door complete with grain silos. The stately colonial style clubhouse overlooks the whole course, which is a cool backdrop as you look back up the hill. Overall, there are nice contours throughout the course with relatively forgiving fairways and generous rough areas to keep your ball from going into major trouble. Here, it is also in the form of deep fescue, which frames the course beautifully, but should be avoided at all costs.
The best description I would have is it’s a very “pleasant” course. It’s pleasing to the eye and is a fair layout. It won’t beat you up, but it certainly doesn’t give anything away. The conditions were excellent, as well, definitely the best I’ve seen so far this week. It was also pretty soggy, though, but that was to be expected.
I very much enjoyed my visit to Neshanic Valley and would recommend it to anyone looking to play in Jersey. It’s not a “destination” level course, but it’s well worth checking out while there. It’s less than an hour from the city.
Some pictures from Neshanic Valley Golf Course (7/4/14):
I’m staying in Stamford, CT tonight, with rounds planned in Connecticut and Rhode Island tomorrow as I work my way back up toward Boston. Not many restaurants around my hotel were open on the holiday, but I ended up going to a tiny little Thai place called Little Buddha. I’m slowly becoming addicted to pad thai, and this was probably the best I’ve ever had. Really delicious!
Days 1 & 2: Okemo Valley (VT) & Taconic (MA)