State raises fees at Bethpage, but golfers don't seem to mind
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Two years have come and gone since the poisonous splendor that is Bethpage Black was on a worldwide stage. But neither time nor fame has tainted Rees Jones' major $3 million refurbishment to A.W. Tillinghast's venerable layout.
Mother Nature, on the other hand, did her best this past winter to freeze the course.
The place where players come to camp out in the parking lot is, for the most part, still the same adored public venue. All tee-to-green scenarios still demand focus to panoramic surroundings typically found at U.S. Open sites. And hosel-twisting fescue and abyss-like bunkers loom beyond tidy fairway borders.
Some alterations have been made post-Open. Handiwork was done to teeing areas on two par-4s, including stretching the already-difficult fifth hole by another 30 yards. Walking up the hill toward the green, players on the par-5 fourth will encounter an additional bunker.
"There is always room to improve," says Bethpage director Dave Catalano, whose facility's driving range recently transformed from an eyesore to a nice-looking hitting area. "I don't think you can ever finish, particularly in a complex like this. It's so huge - we've got five golf courses. There is always an adventure."
Rates the Biggest Change
Bethpage's most significant change since the 2002 U.S. Open involves green. Not the Bermuda or bent form, but the currency kind.
On June 21, the Black's local green fees increased from $31 to $39 on weekdays and $39 to $49 on weekends. For those out-of-state players, the fees went up to $78 and $98 on weekdays and weekends, respectively.
"If you're a golfer and you value the Black, it's still a tremendous value,'' says Bernadette Castro, New York state parks commissioner. "My golfers have been great and I haven't got one (negative) letter. They know what goes into that course: the maintenance, how we take care of it, and the rest of the facility and how it's maintained.
"I'll put (Bethpage Black) up against a lot of clubs . It's the People's Country Club, the People's Golf Course, the People's Open. That's what makes it different from Shinnecock, which was a great championship, but the electricity in the air was different.
"Shinnecock has such a beautiful clubhouse, but spectators will never see the inside of it, whereas at Bethpage they were there the week before the Open and the week after. It's a different feeling."
The contract between the United States Golf Association and Bethpage prohibited the state from increasing its rates for two years following the 2002 U.S. Open. That's why the change was made in mid-June rather than the beginning of the year.
"Even the USGA knew the course requires a larger maintenance staff,'' Castro said. ``It's definitely a U.S. Open course and that speaks for itself. There was no way that the non-golfer, general taxpayer should have to pick up that burden. All over the state park system we looked hard at user fees."
Rates were raised on all five Bethpage courses, but only the Black has an out of state differential in rates.
Bethpage regulars aren't working on a protest movement against the green fee hikes. They're too busy playing. Last week, Mike Kirchmer of Manhattan and his regular threesome walked off the first green hardly noticing the rate increase.
"It's no problem at all," Kirchmer said. "It's still the best bargain in town."
You couldn't tell of an increase in green fees by looking at the parking lot. Well before noon almost all spaces in the main lot were taken and incoming cars were starting to fill up the auxiliary lot.
"We try to protect the access tee times for New Yorkers first," Castro said. "We think it's fair. If you're a New Yorker and a New York taxpayer, you should have access to the Black on different terms. We have come a long ways to elevating the other courses. The Red Course is fabulous and we've been getting huge compliments. We have the largest public golf complex in the country and we want every course to stand on its own."
Jim Martin, a 50-year-old tennis pro from Queens, had just completed his round that began at 6:20 a.m. on Bethpage Yellow. While he hasn't stepped foot on the Black Course - he wants to break 80 first - he has no qualms about the recent increases.
"No big deal," Martin said. "I love it out here. It's the Mecca of public golf. Where else do you get the selection of five courses."
The Red, also a Tillinghast design, easily falls into the category of Long Island's hidden gems even if the Black's fame and reputation overshadow it. The rates for the Red jumped from $24 to $34 on weekdays and $29 to $39 on weekends. Fees on the Blue, Green and Yellow went from $24 to $29 on weekdays and $29 to $34 on weekends.
Castro added another increase wouldn't be made until at least after the 2006 golf season.
One reason for the recent boost in rates is to maintain the quality of not only Bethpage courses, but also sister facility Montauk Downs on the eastern tip of Long Island.
According to Catalano, the Red Course during the last several years has undergone close to $500,000 in refurbishment. Eight tees were stretched to increase the yardage from 6,600 to 6,900 yards. Fairways and greens received extra attention, including additional aeration and over-seeding.
Now Montauk Downs has a $290,000 pump station to keep the classic course in tiptop condition.
"The whole maintenance program has been significantly elevated on all the courses," Catalano said. "We went from the Black, which everyone knows was rather expensive, to the Red. We're going to continue on moving down the trail. (Extra) work has been done on all the courses."
The Deep Freeze
When the Black opened for the 2004 season on April 15, eight of its greens weren't playable. The grueling winter forced golfers to suffer through temporary greens. And, since no temporary could be made on the par-3 14th, the par-5 13th was combined into a par-3 and par-4.
Catalano estimated he lost about a fourth of the Black's regular rounds due to the switch to temporary greens.
"The temps were rolling a 7 or 8," Catalano said with a smile. "That might have been the speed at Bethpage Park about seven years ago. We are grateful for the support we got from the public. We received next to no complaints."
Every green was back in play by June 6. Now they are close to the near-perfect conditions course regulars have gotten accustomed to.
Odds to play the Black for non-New York residents are back to lottery-like status. They can phone two days ahead for a reservation while locals can call seven days in advance. Their best bet to get on the Black is to walk on as a single or by waiting in line overnight, either for a time during the first hour of play or for the one foursome slot allocated every hour.
"Our primary obligation is to the people who support the operation 12 months of the year, those are the taxpayers," Catalano says. "Are we comparable to Pinehurst? I'd say we are. It's $78 during the week. I guess if I could play Pinehurst No. 2 for $78, I'd probably be happy.
"Pebble Beach is a little bit of a different animal. The vistas are probably worth the value alone, but I'm certain the golf course is in no better condition than Bethpage Black. I still think out-of-staters get a great deal here."
In fact, Bethpage is the best deal when comparing U.S. Open courses that are open to the public. Many golfers are turned off by the incredibly-high rates at Pebble Beach, site of the 2010 U.S. Open. Currently the green fee there costs $395 for resort guests and $420 for non-guests.
Next year's U.S. Open site, Pinehurst No. 2, charges as high as a $345 walk-up rate, including cart and range balls. Torrey Pines' South Course, home to the 2008 U.S. Open, has a $115 weekday and a $135 weekend rate for golfers who reside outside San Diego. Locals play for less than $50 seven days a week.
Bethpage State Park
99 Quaker Meeting House Road
Farmingdale, NY 11753
General Info: (516) 249-0700
Pro Shop: (516) 249-4040
Reservations: (516) 249-0707
June 29, 2004