When Tiger Woods tees off against the world's other top players this Thursday at the U.S. Open Golf Tournament, he'll be participating in what's being called the "People's Open." For the first time in its 102-year history, it is being played on a truly public golf course - one that none of these golfers has competed on before.
Unlike the private country clubs that host nearly all professional tournaments, the Black Course at Bethpage State Park, on New York's Long Island is open to any golfer who can afford the modest $31 fee. And according to reporter Lars Hoel, although it's a public golf course, Bethpage Black is not recommended for just any golfer.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, with a warm breeze blowing off Long Island Sound, a few regulars are gathered above the 18th green, near the grandstands built to accommodate some of the 170,000 expected fans. As these old-timers watch the foursomes play this difficult finishing hole, they talk about the pros who will compete here.
"All the big shots'll be here...Tiger Woods see where that ball is, Tiger Woods'll be past that," one man says. "He'll be looking to eagle this?"
This is one of five public golf courses at Bethpage State Park, a sprawling tract of land built by parks commissioner Robert Moses during the 1930s. Each year, thousands of ordinary golfers hack their way around the Red, Blue, Green and Yellow courses...but only this one has a sign at the first tee that reads "Warning: the Black course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers." And that was what attracted the U.S. Golf Association.
"The Black was always considered the gold standard in the New York metropolitan area for public course players, which I count myself," said David Fay, executive director of the USGA, the body that decides, among other things, which of the nation's courses will host the U.S. Open.
After an intense lobbying campaign by Long Islanders made him take a close look at Bethpage, David Fay said he came around to the idea of bringing his major tournament to a public course. It's in keeping, he said, with the changing nature of golf in the United States
"Four out of every five players in the United States play their golf on public facilities. About 75 percent of the 15,000 or so golf courses in the United States are public in orientation. That's a pretty major sea change in the profile of American golf of, let's say, 25 years ago," Mr. Fay said.
Like many public courses, the Black was in what David Fay calls 'scruffy condition', worn down by relentless daily use. So the USGA brought in noted golf course architect Rees Jones to bring the Black up to Open standards. His work renovating courses for this tournament has earned him the nickname "The Open Doctor." He made this course more than 365 meters longer, but didn't change the basic design, the 'routing', which he said, showed greatness.
"It always was a championship golf course...all we needed to do was infuse some money into it. We had to redo all the bunkers, we had to take the tees back 400-plus yards, had to re-grass the fairways and the rough, but the model was there, the routing was there, the routing is spectacular," Mr. Jones said.
On this Sunday afternoon, the best players in the game have yet to lay eyes on Bethpage Black. The course is filled with ordinary golfers, some of whom slept in their cars overnight to reserve a coveted tee-off time. Others made their reservations by phone, a process not unlike trying to get tickets for a very popular rock concert, according to one golfer.
"Seven days in advance, at 7 p.m., the system will start accepting calls, and you continue getting busy signals until you happen to get through. If you don't get through by 3 after 7, all the tee-times for the day are gone. That's all there is available," one golfer said.
For those fortunate golfers, the Black course awaits: 6,596 meters of narrow fairways, billiard-table greens and cavernous sand traps. As they trudge away from the 18th green to the clubhouse, these golfers have a tip for the pros who are playing here this week.
"Stay out of the rough. The roughs are thick. Once they hit the rough over here, they're gonna be in trouble. That rough'll grab your club and send your club somewhere else. The rough is just unbearable."
USGA executive director David Fay said comments like this warm his heart. "Because you could get anybody on the golf course, playing it, they're going to be able to kick back and say, 'Y'know, I played that course.' And they can't say that about most other courses that the U.S. Open has been played on," he said.
The 'People's Open' opens Thursday and continues through Sunday.