A championship course owned by the common golfer

Jun 13, 2009 - 7:13 AM By DOUG FERGUSON AP Golf Writer

FARMINGDALE, N.Y.(AP) -- They sat on the trunk of their car to change shoes, slung their golf bags over their shoulders and walked across the parking lot toward the golf shop to pay the $55 fee.

This is how it typically works at a public golf course, and Bethpage State Park is no different.

The golf shop doesn't have a view overlooking the 18th green, or apparel on display like a boutique, or even racks of the latest and best equipment for sale. Golfers stand in lines framed by wooden handrails leading to each window, making them feel like they're in a county tax office instead of a waiting to play golf.

"When you walk in to pay, that's when you know you're on a public golf course, because there is no customer service," said Jason Andriano, a food service consultant from Albany. "And I don't have a problem with that. They act like you need them a lot more than they need you, which is true."

Still, not all public courses have a framed picture of Tiger Woods holding the U.S. Open trophy as he poses with the maintenance crew.

Nor is there a sign on the first tee of the fearsome Black Course that says, "Warning. The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers."

Matt Crudo, who works in construction management, hooked his opening drive into wet grass up to his shins on this rainy Wednesday. He found one ball that wasn't his, tossed it back and continued his search.

"Dude, keep every ball you find," Andriano pleaded from across the fairway.

"I've got three dozen in my bag," Crudo shot back.

During this six-hour walk in the park, they heard one player in a group behind him scream out a four-letter word after missing a shot. That's typical in golf, only this time, the word wasn't "Fore!" Ahead of them, a teenager wore his New York Yankees cap backward as he putted, not the kind of attire one finds at a country club.

Scott Brennan, a club pro at Orchard Creek in upstate New York, hit one shot over the green and under the grandstands. Even as he looked for his ball, it was a reminder why this day was so special.

"Just seeing the bleachers, that was money," Brennan said. "That means the best in the world will be here in a few weeks."

That is when public golfers at Bethpage turn their course over to Woods, Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and a host of others for the 109th U.S. Open.

The U.S. Open is billed as the toughest test in golf.

Bethpage offers that every day.

It was the first golf course owned by taxpayers to host the U.S. Open in 2002, starting a trend of the USGA mixing in public courses with such tony clubs as Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont, Congressional and Merion.

Woods won last year at Torrey Pines, the public course in San Diego he had played since he was a kid. Both have reasonable rates that are even lower for state (Bethpage) or county (Torrey Pines) residents.

"There are four U.S. Open courses I can play, and I can't afford two of them," Andriano said.

Those would be Pebble Beach and Pinehurst No. 2, resort courses. Another public course, Chambers Bay just outside of Tacoma, Wash., is on the docket for 2015, and the USGA is likely to announce Erin Hills in Wisconsin for a U.S. Open within the next 10 years.

The oldest is Bethpage, with the Black Course opening in 1936. And long before anyone conceived of this beastly course staging a national championship, it was the place to go. And it still is.

"When I review our attendance records, we've been sold out since 1958," said David Catalano, the director of Bethpage State Park, a sprawling, 50,000-acre property on Long Island that includes five golf courses - Black, Red, Green, Blue and Yellow.

Catalano has been hanging around Bethpage since he got a job cleaning toilets in 1967. He has been the park director since 1995.

"This is a special place," he said. "It always has been."

David Fay, the executive director of the USGA who was largely responsible for Bethpage landing a successful U.S. Open, first played the Black Course in the mid-60s. More than anything, he remembers it being big, busy and "pretty damn cool."

"For anybody growing up in the New York area, we always knew about Bethpage Black," he said.

What makes Bethpage unique among U.S. Open venues are the "members" in attendance. Some of the regulars who have been getting beat up by the Black Course all these years might just be standing behind the ropes to watch the best try to tame their course.

John Wood was caddying for Kevin Sutherland in 2002 and recalled a practice round with Neal Lancaster, who was sizing up his approach to the second green when an obnoxious, booming voice came from the gallery.

"It was this big Italian guy, chest out, New York accent," he said. "The guy says, 'It's an 8-iron. I play here every day.' So Neal made him come out there and hit the shot. He skulled it over the green."

The Torrey Pines crowd played the course, too, but most of them are used to seeing Woods & Co. at the Buick Invitational each year. There is a far greater feeling of pride at Bethpage, and Justin Leonard couldn't help but notice.

"Bethpage, being a public course, it seems like all you hear there is, 'How do you like our course?"' said Leonard, a Texan doing his best to deliver a New York accent. "They take a lot of pride in hosting the U.S. Open. It's like you've got 50,000 owners out there, all wanting to see you play on their course. It's fun."

Bethpage didn't always look this good.

Fay recalls it being shaggy, and part of him misses that gruff appearance. The USGA paid for the renovations, in which bunkers were rebuilt and replenished with 9,000 tons of sand, tees were rebuilt, the course lengthened and irrigation was installed.

Catalano bristles at the notion that Bethpage Black is only pristine when the U.S. Open comes to town. About the only difference is the firmness and speed of the greens, which requires USGA nurturing to keep that way for a week. The grass would die if it were kept that short the rest of the year.

"That's not true. Whoever said that doesn't know what he's talking about," Catalano said. "If you ask anyone who plays frequently, they would tell you the U.S. Open could have been conducted in any year since 2002 with a month or two notice. The course is maintained almost as well as it's done for the U.S. Open."

The tough part is finding those who get to play frequently, because getting a tee time is a chore.

Bethpage is famous for people sleeping in their cars overnight in a "The Car Line" with hopes of getting one of the few spots available on the Black each day, although far more common is registered golfers booking a tee time over the phone. For his group, Andriano worked his magic on speed dial seven days in advance, as only New York residents can do.

"I don't imagine myself sleeping in a car to go play a round of golf," former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk said. "But I think it tells you how special that place is to the people that live there, and how good a golf course it is."

How tough is it to get a tee time? The USGA couldn't even negotiate a spot for pop star Justin Timberlake, who wanted a practice round on the Black Course ahead of his made-for-TV exhibition the weekend before the U.S. Open. Catalano couldn't make it happen.

"He can't cut anybody any deals," Fay said. "That would fly around that place in a New York minute."

Catalano said the peak of Bethpage came in the 1960s, when an average of 300,000 rounds were played on all five courses. They sent them out in seven-minute intervals back then, when golfers played faster.

The courses will be closed, not only the Black for the U.S. Open, but adjacent courses for corporate hospitality, practice ranges and merchandise tents.

It will be back in business a week later. The demand figures to be just as high, with fees a mere $50 during the week and $60 on the weekend for residents, double the price for out-of-state golfers. Using the telephone means an extra $5.

The Black will be as tough as ever.

The foursome from Albany finished their round in six hours, tired and satisfied, then stepped into the Oak Room for a burger and beer. It was the second time they had played a match on the Black, with Andriano and Crudo winning this time.

The appeal of the Black goes beyond it hosting a U.S. Open, although that doesn't hurt. Steve Lemon, who runs a car dealership in Albany, headed out to the parking lot after his long day and couldn't wait for a chance to return.

He spoke for his foursome, if not thousands of others who want to experience big-time golf without paying big money.

"It's one of the best golf courses in the world," Lemon said. "And we can play it."

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