Officially, I was the last person not qualified to play in this week’s PGA Championship to play a round on Bethpage’s fabled Black Course. I struck my first shot from that majestic elevated first tee box at 1 p.m. on April 28, played in 4 hours, 20 minutes and shot 85.
The only rounds that have followed mine were by players such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as they made their pre-tournament scouting trips. Trust me, the quality of golf was elevated significantly in comparison to what I produced on that chilly, cloudy day.
Perhaps the best news I received when I got onto the course — other than the rain stopping — was seeing the back tees were closed for public play. Because, for this hole-by-hole breakdown, I’m dumb enough that I had planned to play the tips to articulate the experience to you.
Instead, I played the middle tees, about 6,700 yards (which is about 500 yards fewer than the pros will play this week), hit 9-of-14 fairways, 5-of-18 greens in regulation and took 35 putts.
The following is a hole-by-hole look at the strategy the pros will use, thanks to the input of Rob Labritz — the director of golf at GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills who is in the PGA field this week and has won four New York State Opens on the Black Course — along with an account of how I played each hole. (Note: The yardages listed are the tournament yardages.)
(Course illustratons by bestapproach.com)
Labritz: It’s driver over the trees left and sand wedge into the green. Into the wind, you might have to aim your tee shot to the left side of the fairway.
Cannizzaro: Into the wind, I hit driver to the first cut, 3-wood to 80 yards, pitching wedge to 12 feet and two putts for bogey.
Labritz: Hybrid off the tee up the right side, but you’ve got to be careful not to be too far right because there is a tree hanging over that could block your approach shot. Short iron or wedge into the green.
Cannizzaro: I hit driver up the right side of the fairway, hybrid short left in the rough, pitching wedge to 20 feet and two putts for bogey.
Labritz: You’ve got to pick the right spot on the green, which angles away from you from front to back. You cannot hit it over that green long. Over the green is dead. You don’t want to go there.
Cannizzaro: Highlight of the round. I stuffed an 8-iron to 20 feet and drained the putt for my only birdie of the round.
Labritz: If it’s downwind a little bit you can get it over that left fairway bunker to have a chance to go for that green in two. If you can’t get it over that bunker you can lay up to the right and short and make it a three-shot hole.
Cannizzaro: I hit one of my best drives of the day to the fairway, then 5-wood over the massive cross bunkers and 9-iron to the front of the green to about 40 feet, from where I two-putted for par.
No. 5 (478-yard par 4)
Labritz: This is about just hitting a good drive. If you can get it down the right-hand side over the waste area, you’ll have an even better shot to the green. You’ve got to hit the fairway. Anything left and you’re not getting to the green.
Cannizzaro: I sprayed my drive into the right trees but drew a good lie to the right of the bunkers. With 200 yards to an uphill green, I hit a lay-up 6-iron to the fairway, then pulled a 7-iron short in the rough, hit wedge onto the green and two-putted for double, the first real blemish on the card.
Labritz: Risk-reward hole. You can take driver down the hill if you want or you can just hit a little hybrid or iron to the flat spot at the top of the hill and have a mid-iron into the green. It depends on the wind and course conditions.
Cannizzaro: I hit driver just off the fairway into the right rough, hybrid short of the green, gap wedge to 30 feet and two putts for bogey.
Labritz: Longer hitters will carry it over that corner of trees on the right. Hit a good drive and you can get there in two. If you don’t hit a good drive, you’ve got to take your lumps.
Cannizzaro: I hit driver over the bunkers to fairway, and with 278 in, I topped a 5-wood into a left fairway bunker. Then ripped a 5-iron to just short of the green and hit gap wedge to 12 feet and two-putted for a bogey 6 (it was set up as a par 5).
Labritz: You’ve got to stay below the hole. If you do that, you have a good chance for birdie. Depending on the tees, you can go tees up and hit wedge or go all the way back and hit 5-iron.
Cannizzaro: I hit hybrid onto the green to 20 feet below the hole and two-putted for par.
Labritz: It’s going to be interesting depending on where the tee box is. If the tee is way back, you have to hit it father right than you think. If the tee box is up, you can challenge that fairway bunker on the left a little bit and have a short iron in.
Cannizzaro: I hit driver to the fairway near the corner of the bunkers. With 180 yards to go, I topped a hybrid to 70 yards of the hole, hit gap wedge to 35 feet and two-putted for bogey.
Labritz: Depending on where they put the tee, if the wind is into you you’ve got to aim to the walkway, the narrowest fairway in America. For the longer hitters, if the tees are up a little bit, they have a chance to have a short-to-mid iron into that green. For the shorter hitters, they’ll probably have a hybrid or 3-wood in.
Cannizzaro: I hit driver into the right rough, then a crisp 5-iron to 90 yards short, pitching wedge to 20 feet and two-putted for a bogey, which felt like a par on this daunting hole for mere mortals.
Labritz: It’s paramount to hit the fairway, which is very narrow. You have to avoid the bunker on the left, because it’s got a pretty big lip and you’ll have trouble getting to the green.
Cannizzaro: Straightest drive yet, center of fairway, 190-yard 5-wood into the wind and onto the green to 10 feet above the hole. I burned the lip with my birdie putt and settled for par.
Labritz: If the tee is way back, you have to hit it well right of those cross bunkers. If the tees are up a little bit, you can challenge those bunkers and turn it over to give yourself a mid-to-long iron in.
Cannizzaro: I took on the left side of the bunkers with a smashed drive. I yanked it too far left, but got lucky with a good lie in the rough. I hit 6-iron just short of the green, then gap wedge to 5 feet and made the par-saving putt.
Labritz: It’s paramount to hit a good drive. If you get it down there, you can go for the green in two. You have to avoid those left bunkers, but you also have to keep it away from that tree to the right as well. If you have a chance to go at it in two, great; if not, hit it over the bunker and leave yourself a nice distance in.
Cannizzaro: Downwind drive to the fairway, 5-wood from the fairway, 8-iron pulled to the left of the green, then gap wedge to 18 feet and two putts for bogey.
Labritz: They made the green bigger, so you can hit from a wedge to a 7- or 6-iron now. Just a good golf hole.
Cannizzaro: I hit 7-iron to 8 feet below the hole and burned the edge of the cup with my birdie putt, settling for par.
Labritz: You’ve got to hit the fairway. If you don’t, it’s a three-shot hole. Once you get on that green, you’ve got to be on the right level. It’s the most severe green on the course.
Cannizzaro: I hit driver into the wind and blocked it into right rough, then topped a 5-iron, advancing it 10 yards. Hit 5-iron again, this time pulling it into the left rough. Then hit 9-iron onto the green and three-putted from 50 feet for a round-crippling triple bogey.
Labritz: Hit it in the fairway. Don’t overcook it left because that brings the tree in play. Pretty benign green.
Cannizzaro: Drive to fairway but still had 228 yards into green. Hit 3-wood short left of the green and gap wedge nearly in the hole, but two-putted from 8 feet for bogey.
Labritz: It’s a little more uphill than you think. It plays really long from the back tees. You have to get over the big bunker in the front and you have to hit it on the right level of the green. If you’re hitting a long iron in there, it’s hard to hold the green, which runs away from you. High and long is the advantage.
Cannizzaro: I hit 3-wood into the right green-side bunker, splashed out with sand wedge to 20 feet and two-putted for bogey.
Labritz: Depending on the wind, you can hit driver or 4-iron off that tee. You’ve got to hit the fairway. You don’t want to land in the left or right bunkers. You can get some really nasty lies in those bunkers, and once you do that, getting to the green can be dangerous.
Cannizzaro: Hit what I thought was a great drive, but it kicked into the left bunker. Hit a 7-iron that clipped the lip of the bunker and fell short of the green, then hit pitching wedge on and two-putted for bogey from 25 feet to end the round.
Postscript: The Black Course can be daunting to the amateur player. It’s walking only, with no carts allowed (unless you’re John Daly). Each hole is its own adventure, and you have to treat it that way. If you lump it all together, the course can be overwhelming and your score can spiral into big numbers. It’s as big a ballpark as there is in golf and it demands respect.