Marking the first time a U.S. Open was played at a truly public course, Bethpage State Park has a long and proud history, stretching back to the 1930's when it was built as a public works project. Since then, "The People's Country Club" has been in near-constant use, and has hosted more than 14 million rounds of public golf. Until then, it had never played host to a national USGA or PGA Tour event. 2002's U.S. Open was slated for June 13-16 at the Bethpage State Park Black Course. In June 2002, the golfing world will learn what many Long Islanders already know- Bethpage Black is truly a world-class test.

For over 300 years the 1386 acre tract of land situated at the eastern end of what is now Nassau County has been known as Bethpage. Named by Thomas Powell, who purchased it from its Indian proprietors in 1695, the land is referred to as the "Bethpage Purchase" on the deed recorded in the Queens County Clerk's Office. The Bethpage tract was assembled as a residential estate by the late Benjamin F. Yoakum. He acquired the 1386 acres of rolling, wooded hills located near the Nassau-Suffolk County line, thirty-two miles from New York City at the village of Farmingdale. It constituted the largest piece of property in one private ownership in Nassau County.

In 1931 the Long Island State Park Commission, in order to prevent the subdivision of this tract and to preserve it as a great future reservation for public recreation, by special legislative authorization, took an option on the entire property through a payment of $30,000, $20,000 of which was paid by the town of Oyster Bay and $10,000 by the County of Suffolk. This option was extended from year to year until 1934, when the Bethpage Park Authority was created by Chapter 801 of the laws of 1933. The Long Island State Park Commissioners, acting as the Bethpage Park Authority, issued $1,000,000 of purchase money bonds to pay for the property, of which $100,000 were taken by the State Comptroller, and the remainder by the Yoakum estate, and the title was vested in the Authority on May 18, 1934.

Lenox Hills Country Club, a private club with one golf course, operated in the area that would become Bethpage State Park. A special non-profit organization called the Bethpage Corporation was formed to take over operation of the Club and golf course, under a lease from the owners. The Nassau Supreme Court cleared the way for the Park Commission, headed by Robert Moses, to open the facility to the public in 1932.

Golfers arriving by horse and carriage from the Farmingdale Train Station in 1940
Golfers arriving at the clubhouse by horse and carriage from the Farmingdale Train Station in 1940.

In 1933, in an effort to relieve unemployment, Moses proposed legislation that formed the public benefit corporation known as the Bethpage Park Authority. Consisting of members of the Long Island State Park Commission, the Park Authority was empowered to issue bonds for the acquisition, improvement, and operation of Bethpage State Park. The development plans for Bethpage State Park provided for remodeling the existing 18 hole golf course, constructing three new courses, a large modern clubhouse, a polo field, bridle paths, trails, picnic areas, recreational fields, and playgrounds. All of which still exists on the grounds of the park. These improvements began under the auspices of the Bethpage Park Authority in 1934 as a Work Relief Project. Moses oversaw every detail, his enthusiasm inspiring designers and architects to excel and produce beautiful work. Among his trademark innovations were the wrought iron directional signs that still stand today at Bethpage State Park, Jones Beach, and other state parks. Moses also recommended the "Caddy Boy" profile be cut in every shutter adorning the new brick clubhouse.

The Clubhouse during the August 1935 Dedication.
A Picture of the Clubouse Dedication, August 1935.

The golf courses and clubhouse, the latter completed as a 100% work relief project, were opened to the public on August 10, 1935, and have retained their special charms ever since. The unique tradition of the clubhouse and the traditional Caddy Boy cut out of its black shutters serves as the inspiration for the current Bethpage Golf Complex logo. Rendered in black, red, blue, yellow, and green, it symbolizes each of the courses built during the depression, serving as a connection to the past and a reminder of the spirit of golf.

The Clubhouse during the August 1935 Dedication.
Another picture of the August 1935 Clubhouse Dedication.

Tillinghast

A.W. Tillinghast surveying the course
A Photo of A.W. Tillinghast Surveying the Course During Construction.

The Black Course was opened in 1936, featuring a championship layout designed by internationally renowned golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast on a giant course that stretched 6,783 yards. Tillinghast built similarly monstrous courses, including Winged Foot and Baltusrol, as simple, straightforward designs, but the spectacular Black Course was his crowning achievement as a designer. The Black quickly gained a reputation as one of the country's toughest, attracting such storied professionals as Sarazen, Snead, Runyon, and Nelson to test its strength. Over the years the course has continued to expand, as has its legend. In 2002, the world came to Bethpage to test the toughness of the Black, and once again in 2009. 2002 marked the fifth time the US Open will be held at a Long Island venue, following in the tradition established by previous sites Inwood, Fresh Meadows, Garden City, and Shinnecock Hills. The 102nd Open was an occasion rich in tradition and excitement, one made even more fascinating by the challenge of the Black, which Sam Snead memorably called "an unfair test of golf" after defeating Byron Nelson there with a 68 in a 1940 exhibition match.

A photo of Snead and Nelson on hole 8.
A photograph of Snead and Nelson on the Black's 8th hole.

A true public golf facility, Bethpage State Park Black Course is the only known course to post a warning that recommends that only highly skilled golfers dare challenge it, making it the perfect venue for the world's finest golfers to prove their mettle.

An aerial view of the Bethpage Facilities from 1938.
An aerial view of the Bethpage facilities circa 1938.

It is told that this was the last course designed by "Terrible Tilly" (so named because of a tendancy toward temper and intemperance), that he was last seen sitting under a tree on the Black with a bottle in hand before storming off the grounds never to set foot on the course again. Perhaps the Black, on some level, was too much for even Tillinghast, as it has proven itself to be to the legions of golfers since. Nonetheless, for over half a century, "The Black" has stood the test of time, a monument to the expertise of A.W. Tillinghast and the innovations of Robert Moses.

2002 U.S. Open Championshop

Between 1997 and 2002, the USGA has poured more than $2.7 million into course improvements on Bethpage Black in preparation for the U.S. Open, scheduled to be held there in June. The scope and depthe of the work makes it by far the USGA's most ambitious Open course preparation to date. Moreover, the improvement will essentially be a gift from the USGA to the daily-fee golfers of Bethpage Black, who will enjoy the renovated course for years to come without a drastic increase in the cost of a round. Work began on Bethpage Black on July 21, 1997, and the course was closed for nearly a year as extensive renovations were completed. The project was directed by renowned golf course architect Rees Jones, who has been nicknamed "The U.S. Open Doctor" for his work on preparing five other past Open venues. Jones donated his time, working without pay to guide the immense project through completion. McDonald & Sons contractors executed the course changes with the assistance of USGA Championship Agronomist Tim Moraghan.

Aerial view of the Bethpage Facilities from 1999
A view of the updated course layout taken in 1999.

Renovations carried out were hardly about cosmetic changes, though. Instead, the extensive repairs were meant to enhance the original design of course architect A.W. Tillinghast. For example, teeing grounds were entirely rebuilt and pushed back to add length to the course. (Note to trivia buffs: Bethpage Black now measures 7,295 yards from the championship tees, which will make it the longest course in U.S. Open history, surpassing Congregational Country Club (Blue Course- 7213 yards) in 1997.)

Other changes made to Bethpage Black included: Fairways being renovated and reseeded with 100% rye grass; in adition, the rough was extended to put a premium on shot accuracy. Bunkers being reshaped to reflect the original design philosophy of Tillinghast. More than 8,100 tons of sand were needed to completely refill the bunkers. All 18 greens being completely refurbished with new irrigation lines and sprinkler heads. Greens on holes three, eight, and fifteen were expanded, while eighteen was reduced in size. More than one million square feet of Fescue and rye grass sod installed around bunkers and next to the greens.

Officials planned on closing the course to the public May 28 to finish last-minute details, such as filling divots, grooming greens, and ordering fairways to the exacting standards of the USGA. Prevailing thought is that by june 13 this $30-a-round public fee course will have been transformed into a true challenge worthy of the worlds best golfers.

The 2002 U.S. Open didn't officially begin until the first golfer teed off at Bethpage Black on June 13, but Long Island was already caught in the midst of championship fever. For the first time in history, the Open was played at a daily-fee public course that is accessible to the average golfer. Fans on Long Island were thrilled that the most prestigious tournament in golf will be played on their home turf, on a course that hosts more than 35,000 rounds a year. This was a rare occasion where anyone could play the same course that hosted one of the most prestigious events in golf.

"The response from the public has been overwhelming," said Jon Barker, manager of the 2002 Open. "There is a lot more attention being paid, a lot more curiosity." Shop and restaurant patrons in the area are already talking about the Open coming to their backyard. Newspapers and radio stations are reporting on the USGA's renovations of Bethpage Black. In fact, the town of Farmingdale even repainted their water tower to read "Home of the 2002 U.S. Open."

People are so excited that very little volunteer recruiting has needed to be done. Normally, it takes the USGA 10 months to fill all volunteer positions for an Open. This year, after only five months of recruiting, all volunteer rolls were completely filled. The USGA was deluged with applications from people prepared to help out in any way possible.

In many ways, this passion is not surprising. Bethpage regulars are some of the sport's most dedicated golfers, willing to go to great lengths few others would consider just to get in a round. Every evening, scores of players arrive in the parking lot and spend the night sleeping in their cars. This is the only way to ensure a round at Bethpage, since the phone-in reservation system is usually jammed with thousands of calls from the New York metro area the minute it opens at 7:30p.m.

However, as giddy as people are about the Open, there is still much work to be done at Bethpage. While the major course modifications have been completed, the operational planning remains. The USGA will work out the logistical headaches that come with hosting an event that promises 42,500 spectators a day. This includes planning facilities, concessions, bleachers, parking, traffic, volunteer coordination, security, medical staff, and myriad other concerns.

In the end, all of the planning and expenses- $2.7 million on course renovations alone - will be worth bringing a piece of golf history to the fans who have done so much to support the game. Tickets for the 2002 U.S. Open golf championship, which was June 10-16, sold out at 42,500 per day as soon as the ticket application deadline expired on July 31. This was the 16th consecutive year the U.S. Open has been a sellout, beginning with the 1987 Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. The U.S. Open is one of the 13 national championships conducted by the United States Golf Association.

Tiger Woods at the 17th hole during the U.S. Open
Tiger Woods at the 17th hole during the U.S. Open.

Bethpage Black was the first time a publically owned and operated golf course played host to the U.S. Open. Tiger Woods took the win, and was the only golfer to score under par. It was considered by many to be one of the most difficult and exciting Opens in history. The New York and New Jersey fans created an atypical atmosphere for U.S. Open play, as well as breaking attendance records. Seven years later, Bethpage Black once again hosted the U.S. Open for 2009. Lucas Glover took the win with an excellent score of four under par. Only the top 5 players managed to score under par, a testament to the difficulty of the Black.

The future is bright for Bethpage Black. In 2016 it will be playing host to The Barclays August 25-28, and also will be playing host to numerous smaller events. Loyal golfers continue to camp overnight in the parking lot in order to grab a tee time, and the Black remains a test that few can conquer. It consistently ranks among the country's toughest courses, and is one of the most famous public courses in the world.

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