Bethpage Black is golf’s ultimate taxing test
Some golf courses challenge with gargantuan length, others with a parade of hazards. Add slick, undulating greens, fairways squeezed by long grass, and targets shrunk by stiff breezes and you have some of earth’s toughest courses. A select few among those brutes will flat out exhaust you by combining a rigorous physical task in merely walking the course with design elements that relentlessly test your mind and body. On a warm summer day, no golf course in the game taxes every aspect of your being like Bethpage Black.
Host to the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens, the 2019 PGA Championship, and the upcoming Ryder Cup in 2025, the Black course at Bethpage State Park on New York’s Long Island brutalizes scratch golfers and average Joes alike with its sinister combination of outrageous shot values and a tiring trudge: In the education of a golfer, Bethpage Black is its bar exam. The Black bullies players even before they tee off with a sign at the first tee stating: “WARNING—The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.” Ahead of the 2009 U.S. Open, Players Championship winner Henrik Stenson joked, “I haven’t played many courses with warning signs. It’s more for ski slopes, isn’t it?”
Now that the Black is already in your head, the real agony begins. The six-and-a-half-mile stroll—the course is walking-only—traverses a rolling tract that doesn’t intimidate at first blush. Soon enough, however, you are engulfed in gargantuan, uphill par fours, wrist-fracturing rough, and bunkers as large as some European countries. Designed by A.W. Tillinghast in 1936, with restoration work in the past 25 years by Rees Jones, the Black stretched 7,459 yards for the 2019 PGA Championship. Normally a par 71, with an eye-watering rating of 77.5 and a slope of 155 (the USGA maximum), it played to a par 70 for that event, with the 553-yard par-five 7th reduced to a 524-yard par four.
The first fist to the golfer’s mouth arrives at the 457-yard par-four 5th, which plays uphill to a plateau green. After surviving such par-four tests as the 460-yard 9th, you pray for relief, only to be reminded, as Phil Mickelson put it, “[Bethpage] slaps you in the face when you make the turn.” The 502-yard 10th awaits, followed by the 515-yard 12th, at one time the longest par four in U.S. Open history. The only hole harder at both U.S. Opens was the 478-yard 15th, possibly the toughest par four in golf: Its fairway twists to the left and the approach must locate a green elevated by 50 feet—a heart attack waiting to happen for walkers.
Assessing Bethpage Black ahead of the 2019 PGA Championship, Tiger Woods stated, “There’s definitely going to be a component to stamina as the week goes on. Four days over a tough championship [course] that is mentally and physically taxing takes its toll.” Tiger expressed that during a cool, rainy week. Pair the design features and topography with the high heat and humidity in the prime playing season of July and August and of this you can be certain: Bethpage Black will drain your tank dry.
3 More Courses Guaranteed to Wear You Out
West Virginia’s Pikewood National blasts you with seven-plus miles of mandatory walking up and down a forested mountain mesa amid holes studded with rock outcrops. At 7,649 yards, with a 79.7 rating and 155 slope, it is pure tranquility in its relationship with nature, but merciless in its elevation changes and shot demands, notably at “Audacity,” the 562-yard par-five 8th that arcs around a massive abyss.
The challenge of earth’s longest course at 8,548 yards—Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province, China—is mitigated, somewhat, by its 10,171-foot elevation. This aptly named beast features breathtaking vistas of the Himalayas, but with bunkers, lakes, canyons, and pine forests sprinkled throughout and oxygen bottles in the carts, merely finding your ball on grass and walking to it can be an ordeal.
Even when stretched to 7,600 yards, Chambers Bay doesn’t initially appear to be overly taxing. Don’t be fooled. At the 2015 U.S. Open, the USGA’s Mike Davis called it an “endurance test.” A seaside, walking-only layout over 650 acres, it delivers 600 feet of elevation change, which comes into play twice on the front nine and once on the back. Its scale is massive and so are its mental and physical challenges.