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Everyone knows that Bethpage State Park is about to become the first truly public golf course to host a U.S. Open. What fewer realize is that Bethpage is no anomaly on Long Island, where some of the best golf is provided in the public interest by towns, counties and the state. Perhaps this is because, as architect Tom Doak observed, "good courses beget more good courses." Beginning with Shinnecock Hills and followed by C. B. Macdonald's National Golf Links of America, Long Island has always set a high standard. Almost every great architect of golf's golden age—from Willie Park Jr. to A. W. Tillinghast—left his imprint on its sea-breeze shores and gentle interior. The modernists, from Robert Trent Jones and sons to Tom Fazio and Arthur Hills, are also out in force. Some of the most venerable and exclusive private clubs in America, where twenty rounds make for a busy day, are threaded among stalwart public tracks handling 50,000 rounds a year.
Long Island is funny that way. Everything is chockablock—strip malls and split-levels, mansions and gated estates. It is both an appendage of New York City and a kingdom onto itself. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald called it "that slender riotous island that extends itself due east of New York." What is so riotous?The contrasts. Rocky coast on the north and sandy beaches on the south enclose an interior of meadow and farmland. To the Dutch sailors who discovered it, Long Island must have appeared, Fitzgerald imagined, as "a fresh green breast of the New World." What's amazing, amid today's suburban sprawl and jammed highways, is that so much green freshness remains, nowhere more evident than in its more than 110 golf courses.
The physical contrasts ultimately are tied to distinctions of class. After the bay fishermen and potato farmers marginalized the Shinnecock and other Indian tribes, the robber barons of the industrial age came and built their manors on the north shore, establishing the snooty gold coast society that Fitzgerald roasted in Gatsby. When Orson Welles needed an exterior to represent Xanadu in Citizen Kane, he filmed banker Otto Herman Kahn's 127-room Oheka Castle in Cold Spring Hills. Kahn's property included his own Seth Raynordesigned golf course. After his death in 1934 it would drop a notch, becoming a private club and—Roll over, Otto!—actually taking in members.
By that time, an even greater power baron, Robert Moses, Napoleon of New York State parks, had come along to appropriate the land of patrician and potato farmer alike. He had a vision of his own—not so much to dethrone the kingly as to bestow a set of royal amenities upon the middle class. He built extraordinary parks, beach facilities and golf courses throughout Long Island, along with highways to reach them.
In June, the golf world will make a pilgrimage to one of the jewels in Moses' crown, Bethpage, to play the Open on Tillinghast's fearsome Black course, brought up to modern standards with a recent renovation by U.S. Open doctor Rees Jones. Bethpage actually features five fine eighteens (the Black and Red are pure Tillinghast), all playing from one grand gabled clubhouse. With excellent food and drink served in a paneled grillroom or on a terrace with a sweeping view of the Black course, not to mention greens fees of only about $40, Bethpage is truly the Xanadu of public golf in America. (It's also as crowded as Jones Beach, Moses' most famous Long Island creation. Bethpage is notorious for six-hour summer rounds and all-night car camping for a handful of walk-up tee times on the Black, but not even Xanadu was perfect, and by the way, Otto Kahn was reputed to be a lousy golfer.)
The Black will close on May 28, followed by the Red, Blue, Green and Yellow courses a week before the Open begins on June 13. All five will reopen on Wednesday, June 19. In the meantime, if you're coming to town for the Open, you don't have to forgo a grand round of golf in Moses' promised land.
LONG ISLAND GOLF
BETHPAGE STATE PARK, BLACK COURSE
99 Quaker Meeting House Road, Farmingdale; 516-249-0707. Yardage: 7,381 (7,214 for the U.S. Open). Par: 71 (70 for the U.S. Open). Slope: 148. Architects: A. W. Tillinghast, 1936; renovated by Rees Jones, 1998. Greens Fees: $31$42.
T&L Golf Rating:*****
The famous sign posted by the first tee—Warning: The Black course is an extremely difficult course, which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers—is a scarecrow that the golf birds ignore. Damn the score, to play the magnificently renovated Black Monster (on which power carts are banned) is an experience to tell your children about, or maybe your shrink. If you're not a New York State resident, your chances of getting a tee time, says head pro Joe Rehor, "are slim to none." You can always try making a phone reservation (a maximum of seven days in advance), but those tee times are usually snapped up in fifteen minutes. Your next option is to sleep in your car. (On summer Fridays the car line starts forming around 3 p.m. for the precious hour of walk-on slots that begin at 6:30 a.m. After that, the starter doles out one walk-on foursome per hour.) Long Island chauvinists regard the Black and Red courses together as a stronger one-two punch than Tillinghast's East and West at Winged Foot or his Upper and Lower at Baltusrol, and apart from pace-of-play issues, they aren't just thumping their chests. The Red (6,875 yards, par 70, slope 127) and, for that matter, the Blue (6,638, 72, 124) are challenging and worthy companions to the Black, which is as penal as anything Tillinghast ever designed. In any event, the Black was Tillie's swan song. After it opened in 1936, he lost his fortune in the Depression, and possibly his marbles. Washing his hands of golf, he moved to Beverly Hills and opened an antiques shop, stocking it largely with his family's art and furniture.