Bethpage Black still proves a challenge

Tiger Woods tees off at the second hole

Tiger Woods tees off at the second hole during the third round of The Barclays at Bethpage Black. (Aug. 25, 2012) (Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan)

Just think, Saturday began with people at Bethpage feeling they had to defend the Black Course against the impression that it was too easy. It ended with PGA Tour golfers saying it was almost unfairly too tough.

Sounds like a darned good day.

The bottom line is that once again, no one routed the Black. It remains undefeated, all time. Golfers may get a good score on it every now and then, as Padraig Harrington did with his record-tying 64 Thursday in the first round of the Barclays. Rain may batter it, as it did during two U.S. Opens, when golfers said it was too wet. Sunshine and breeze may dry it out, as it did Saturday afternoon. In the end, the Black still is the Black. No apologies.

Regular Bethpage golfers, and people affiliated with the course, were sheepish and quietly a little disappointed when the scores were so low on Thursday. They had to remind themselves that this is not a U.S. Open, that the PGA Tour likes to promote excitement, that, as Bethpage head pro Joe Rehor said, "Fans like to come out and watch birdies."

Just Saturday morning, while the first golfers had a birdie festival, course superintendent Andy Wilson said, "These are the best players in the world." He added that despite the good scores, "Not one player will tell you this is not a test."

In the afternoon, Rees Jones, who redesigned the Black for the Opens, watched from the side of the 12th fairway and acknowledged that the pin positions were much more inviting than they had been for the Open. He insisted, in a reassuring way, that the Black still is a good venue for a major championship and would be absolutely perfect for a Ryder Cup. Fact is, questions about its fitness might have arisen if the winning score this week were 20 under.

By the end of the day, after the greens had dried out and sped up, not one player would tell you it was easy. Some danced on the fringe of saying it was unfair. They had some justification because it is tough to putt if you really have no idea how the ball will stop.

But PGA Tour vice president Slugger White also had a point when he said of the players, "They want firm and fast, and it seems like when we give them firm and fast, they don't want firm and fast."

Case in point, Tiger Woods said on August 1 of Bethpage Black, "Hopefully we'll get some good weather, unlike the last time we played there. It's a great test, especially if it's dry and fast." Saturday, Woods seemed mystified, saying, "I've never seen greens change like this."

Nick Watney, currently in second place, was told that White essentially said the golfers got what they asked for. Watney grinned a bit when he said, "Well, there's firm and fast and then there's this. I mean, this is extreme."

It was not nearly as extreme as the greens at Shinnecock Hills were in 2004. The Black was not totally brown Saturday. The pros really have to be honest with themselves and ask, if the course really were unplayable, would Sergio Garcia be 10 under par?

White said Wilson and his staff "have done exactly what we wanted." The Black is a tough place, and a fun place. It is where the walk from the 17th green to the 18th tee is a frenzy of noise and high-fives, as electric as the walk into the ring for a title fight.

Let them say what they will about the Black. The best description these ears heard Saturday came from a marshal, Vinny Santucci of Massapequa, who called it, "The perfect venue."