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This Truly Is Rare Site for U.S. Open

Golf: For $39, the public can play the Black Course, which will serve as the U.S. Open host and is anything but ordinary.

June 09, 2002|DOUG FERGUSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — If not for a public golf course on Long Island, the game might be missing Tiger Woods.

Earl Woods was in the twilight of his military career at Fort Hamilton when a staff officer suggested he try golf. They went to Dyker Beach, where the father of golf's best player was introduced to the game.

"I got hooked the very first day," Earl Woods said.

He passed on that passion to his son, who likewise honed his game on public golf courses in Southern California.

The heritage of Woods' golf comes full circle at the 102nd U.S. Open, which will be played for the first time at a truly public course--on Long Island, no less.

Bethpage State Park is owned by the taxpayers and open to all for only $39 on the weekend, quite a change from the snooty country clubs that have come to symbolize professional golf.

No wonder they call this championship the "People's Open."

"The U.S. Open is supposed to be open to everybody, and it should be played on a public golf course," Woods said. "I think that's absolutely wonderful."

The good news for the players: They won't have to sleep in their cars, which is what everyday people do to secure a tee time on the Black Course.

"None of our guys would sleep in a car," Brad Faxon said. "Nobody can relate to that."

No, but many of the 50,000 fans will be able to relate to this U.S. Open course that will test the world's best players over 72 holes.

"At places like Augusta, all they can do is watch and wonder what it's like to play," two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen said. "I'm sure there will be a lot of guys who go, 'I was in that bunker, Tiger, and I made 9.' "

The most famous landmark on the course is a sign posted by the first tee that says, "Warning: The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which is recommended only for highly skilled golfers."

Just how difficult it is for these "highly skilled" golfers remains to be seen.

The Black Course will play as a par 70 at 7,214 yards, the longest in U.S. Open history by one yard over Congressional in 1997. Its 70 bunkers are so expansive that it required about 9,000 tons of sand to fill them. The fairways will be pinched to about 25 yards, framed by ankle-deep rough. The greens, however, are relatively flat, leading some to believe that without windy, brittle conditions on Long Island, the U.S. Open scoring record of 72 (last set by Woods at Pebble Beach) is in danger.

"You're not going to see a lot of train wrecks," USGA executive director David Fay said. "There's a good possibility of low scores. The question is, can someone hold it together for four rounds?"

That's one thing about the U.S. Open that never changes, whether it's played at a country club or a municipal course.

The U.S. Open is widely regarded as the toughest test in golf, and for good reason. No other tournament puts such a premium on par. Only 12 players have finished a U.S. Open under par dating to 1995, the last time it was held on Long Island.

"The U.S. Open is more than just a golf tournament," Davis Love III said. "It's a test of mettle, your patience, your guts. If the scoring is easy, it would be like any other week. But the U.S. Open is a test of everything you've got. That's why it's hard to win, and why we want to win so bad."

The idea to bring the U.S. Open to a public golf course was planted about a month before the Open was played at Shinnecock Hills in 1995.

Fay, who grew up playing at Bethpage, invited 10 of his staff to meet him unannounced at the Black Course. He wanted their reaction to a course that Fay always believed could go "belly to belly" with private clubs such as Winged Foot and Baltusrol.

"I wanted to make sure my childhood memories weren't just misty, to be sure the Black was as good as I remember, and it was," Fay said. "It was clear this was something special."

The only hitch was getting the Black in U.S. Open shape. Normally that's the burden of the club, but Fay was working with a state government that doesn't have that kind of money to throw at a public golf course.

The USGA provided $2.7 million to cover most of the renovations, and Rees Jones volunteered his services to refurbish and restore the Black to its original state by using aerial photographs from 1938, just two years after it opened.

Every hole was tweaked, with the most dramatic change coming at No. 18. Jones added about 60 yards, and the fairway is only 16 yards wide as it passes through an enormous cluster of bunkers. The size of the green also was drastically reduced.

"We want it to be a hole that could change the event, and I think that's what we've accomplished," Jones said.

Fay's only lament?

"The conditions are going to be superb," he said. "I'm a little disappointed. I was hoping it would be a tad scruffier."

The architect of the Black is muddled--the USGA and Bethpage say it was A.W. Tillinghast. Research by Golf Digest magazine points toward park superintendent Joseph Burbeck, with Tillinghast as the consultant.

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