Bethpage Black, one of golf's toughest courses, plays host to The Barclays
The WARNING sign on the iron railing fence behind the first tee, which recommends that only "Highly Skilled Golfers" play the course, is part of the great draw. Everybody wants to find out if they are "highly skilled" enough to play Bethpage Black and many have been known to sleep in their cars overnight for the chance.
Johnson Wagner had that feeling long before he was a three-time champion on the PGA Tour, well before he won the Sony Open in Honolulu this year and finished the regular season 19th on the FedEx Cup points list.
"The summers when I was in college, my brother and I, and a couple of other buddies would go down. We probably spent the night in the parking lot five times," he said at a PGA Tour event recently. "I remember one year, we were playing cards outside. We had a case of beer. We all fell asleep.
"One of our buddies was sleeping outside and one of the state park patrol guys came up and said, 'You're not allowed to have alcoholic beverages here.' So he made the guy open each beer -- there probably were 12 left -- and dump them all out. His fingers were hurting the next day."
So he found out early that there is an education to be had every time a person comes to the Black. He learned plenty, which helped him win the Met Open there as an amateur in 2001. "I actually haven't set foot back on the place since that Met Open," he said earlier this month. 'But every time I got on that golf course, I just had good feelings."
Wagner is back this week, along with 122 other top pros in the Barclays as the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs come to the Black for the first time. It will be the first regular tour event of any kind on a course that has hosted two U.S. Opens, dozens of regional tournaments and hundreds of thousands of rounds by golfers who just want to take a shot at seeing how well they can do. The Black is a challenge and an attraction for everyone who has teed it up there.
"It's just the pinnacle of public, municipal golf," said Wagner, who used to live in Garrison, N.Y. "It's one of the greatest courses in the world and, at that point, when I was coming here, any New York State resident could play it for 25 bucks. It's a pretty unique place."
Bethpage head pro Joe Rehor recalls having played it as a teenager for $4. The weekday rate for residents is $65 now, but the idea is still pretty much the same.
The place is defined not only by the A.W. Tillinghast design, but by the people who show up there every day. That includes the people who have come to watch the Opens in 2002 and 2009.
Phil Mickelson said "Bethpage is such a difficult, straightforward challenge and test of good golf" that it will be a test even without a U.S. Open-caliber setup.
Mickelson added, "One of the best things about Bethpage is the people. The crowds that come out to support the game of golf at Bethpage are the best I've ever seen."
But one of the worst things about Bethpage in 2002 and 2009 was the weather. The course got soaked both times, meaning that the pros never have seen the real Black Course. Organizers of the Barclays are holding their breath and crossing their fingers that forecasts -- moderate temperatures and little chance of rain -- are correct.
"It's a great venue," Jim Furyk said recently. "I'm really excited to see Bethpage, hopefully in firm, fast conditions. I still have not seen summertime there and I've been there twice in June."
Take it from Wagner, who has seen it in the summer and at night: "It's one of Tillinghast's best, and it's probably Rees Jones' best redo. It's one of the coolest places I've ever played."