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Black Bear

Public opinion says this course is as tough as any Open layout


FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — It's big (the longest course in U.S. Open history) and it's bad (the only course in the world with an actual warning label), but there's also an element of mystery cloaking Bethpage Black, where the 102nd Open will be played beginning Thursday.

In a normal U.S. Open setting, you can usually round up the players who actually have a chance to contend for the title and fill up maybe two or three golf carts. That's because of the typical Open course setup is about as heartless as you can get. It is narrow fairways, tall rough, steep bunkers and greens so hard they make cement look like cookie dough. Only a few players can successfully navigate such dire straits.

This is the debate at Bethpage, where for the first time in a long time, it's shaping up as a wide-open Open.

And that's not just because few really know the layout, a public course so difficult that there is a sign on the patio behind the first tee that reads, "Warning: The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Players."

Rest assured the highly skilled will have their say about that. Many of the best players come into an Open in top form.

Here's what they will face: Bethpage Black is 7,214 yards, it has the two longest par fours in U.S. Open history--the 499-yard 12th and the 492-yard 10th--and it's a par-70 course.

Tiger Woods, who played a practice round at Bethpage Black with Mark O'Meara on May 28, said it's the hardest par-70 course he has seen. Woods took the last two weeks off after he tied for 22nd at the Memorial and made his comments on his Web site.

"Anyone who thinks the winning score will be in double digits [under par] is crazy," Woods said. "On a couple of holes, you have to carry the ball 270 yards to reach the fairway. Plus, the fairways are pretty narrow and the rough is about three inches. It's going to be a hell of a test. I had a hard time getting to the green from the rough."

Of course, this is music to the ears of the USGA. But if it's hard for Woods, how hard is it going to be for everyone else?

That sort of revelation levels the playing field, which already is flat enough.

But while Woods says how difficult the course is, the USGA's own director of rules and competition, who set up the course, says he thinks the winning score could be as low as eight under.

Tom Meeks said he was surprised at Woods' comments.

"I'm not saying it's not true [but] maybe I'm underestimating Bethpage," he said. "I'm not challenging what he's saying, but players say different things. Sometimes it's to be nice, sometimes it's sincere, sometimes it's just telling us what we want to hear."

The Bethpage mystery deepens ... Pulverizer or Pushover?

All we know for sure is that it has acquired a reputation worse than Jack the Ripper, and the main contenders lining up to challenge the place are at the top of their games.

As a legitimate sports test, this one ranks pretty high.

Woods leads the money list and has the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour.

Ernie Els is second in putting and fifth in scoring average.

Phil Mickelson is second in earnings, sixth in scoring, ninth in driving and 10th in putting.

Jose Maria Olazabal is fourth in earnings, second in scoring and ninth in fourth-round scoring.

Vijay Singh is fifth on the money list, third in scoring and sixth in reaching greens in regulation.

Throw in players such as David Toms, Colin Montgomerie, Nick Price, Jim Furyk and even Justin Leonard, Davis Love III and David Duval, who all seem to be finding their games at the right time, and chances of picking a winner look harder than ever.

Consider Furyk, who missed the cut two weeks in a row and then shot 14 under par to win the Memorial with a final-round 65.

Furyk hasn't missed a cut in seven U.S. Opens and has two top-10 finishes.

"It's definitely a big confidence builder," Furyk said.

As for Duval, he started with a 75 at the Memorial, but put together rounds of 69-67-66 to tie for fourth. It was his first top-10 finish this year. Not long ago, Duval called his year a "train wreck" but there's a light at the end of the tunnel now.

"I was grinding myself to death," he said. "I'm very much into quality. I'm just trying to get back to simplicity."

Duval said he was excited to be in a position to win at the Memorial.

"It was a natural feeling," he said. "I felt like I was in the right place again, the place I expected to be."

Retief Goosen is the defending champion, having defeated Mark Brooks in an 18-hole playoff at Southern Hills last year. Goosen says regardless of Bethpage Black's difficulty, he feels ready to go for it again.

"I see myself as having more of a chance of winning the Open this time than I did last time," Goosen said. "By winning the Open last year, I know now that I can play and win under that sort of pressure. I'm looking forward to what's ahead."

Not everyone is convinced Bethpage Black is going to be that tough. Golf Magazine ran a story that questioned its severity with the teaser headline: "Is Bethpage Too Easy?"

The reasoning behind such a theory is that the greens don't have a lot of contour. Woods agreed that they're generally flat, but said they are very difficult to read.

"First, it looks like it breaks one way, then when you walk to the other side of the hole it looks like it breaks another," he said. "If the USGA gets them to 13 on the Stimpmeter, which I'm sure they're planning to do, it's going to be very interesting."

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