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First lady of Bethpage State Park exudes 'professionalism and grace'

Director of Bethpage State Park Elizabeth Wintenberger at

Director of Bethpage State Park Elizabeth Wintenberger at the first tee of Bethpage Black during preparations for the PGA Championship. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The ultimate responsibility for a successful 101st PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park lies with Elizabeth Wintenberger, the first woman to direct the park.

Her ascension to the high-pressure post reflects her mastery of technical and management responsibilities, years of experience running state parks on Long Island, and her engaging personality, colleagues say.

“Betsy is one of the most impressive women that I have ever met,” said Kelley Brooke, the park’s director of golf. “It’s not easy being in a male-dominated industry. She handles it with ease.”

Brooke said she considers Wintenberger a mentor. 

“Whether she is handling a mechanical issue, a logistical issue, a systems issue or a staffing issue, she commands the room," Brooke said. "Everyone from the public, to contractors, to the staff and to the state offices respects her.” 

The way Wintenberger describes her management style bears out Brooke’s observations.

The park director, whose career began as teen summer hire at Jones Beach State Park, said she defines one of her goals as “developing the staff to the point they know their contribution matters … developing their skills and industry. We want them to be promotable, too.”

With five older brothers, Wintenberger was unfazed by the traditional attitudes some men held when she entered the workplace. "If you show a skill and potential, I don’t think [gender] really mattered,” she said.

Joe Lescinski, who retired as general manager for Long Island state parks and now works part time as associate personnel administrator for the New York City region, spotted Wintenberger's promise at the start of her career.

"Quite frankly, she did us proud long before ever coming to Bethpage State Park," Lescinski said. "She showed a lot of energy, a lot of self-confidence, she seemed interested in learning, and was very ambitious and also very articulate for a young person."

The challenge of being a state park 

Unlike almost all other golf courses that host global championships, Bethpage Black, where professional golfers compete for the PGA Championship from Thursday through Sunday, is a municipal course — one of five at the park.

“Yes, we are world renowned for golf; we also are a state park,” Wintenberger said, noting Bethpage sits “right smack in the middle of the Massapequa bike path.”

Unlike the staff at private clubs, who only answer to the members and board and not the general public, Bethpage also welcomes hikers, bicyclists, picnickers, and fans of other sports.

Because it is a park, Wintenberger must make do with a smaller budget — and fewer staff — than private clubs that can charge initiation and annual fees. Further, the park belongs to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which has many different requirements, especially for staffing and procurement, than the private sector.

That is quite a complicating factor, said Charles Robson, general chair, 2019 PGA Championship.

“You always have to work within the confines of a government and making sure everybody is comfortable with that,” he said.

Also, unlike any private club storied enough to host a global championship, there are no members to recruit as volunteers — or tap their corporate contacts to pay for hospitality suites or other expenses, he said.

This is another area where tournament workers at Bethpage appear to have met with success.

“We had an outpouring of people who wanted to be involved that have been great,” Robson said.

A few thousand volunteers will carry out countless tasks, not all glamorous, from directing fans to chauffeuring players.

'She's one of the unsung heroes'

Wintenberger herself is no stranger to humble tasks: “I began as an employee at Jones Beach with a pick stick in my hand” gathering trash in 1978. “I started out as a laborer,” said Wintenberger who earned an associate degree in park and recreation from SUNY Delhi.

Promoted several times at Jones Beach, in 1987 she became assistant director at East Islip’s Heckscher State Park. In 1990, she was named director at Hempstead Lake Park, again the first woman to attain that position. Wintenberger held that post until 2000, before commanding Babylon’s Robert Moses State Park and Captree State Park in Bay Shore for about another decade.

“She’s one of the unsung heroes,” said George Gorman, Long Island regional park director. 

In 2011, Wintenberger succeeded Bethpage’s long-serving park director, Dave Catalano, who guided the Black Course through two U.S. Opens, overcoming skeptics who doubted a municipal golf course could make the grade.

Nobody would find it easy to follow Catalano, said Jeff Voorheis, executive director, Metropolitan PGA Section in Elmsford, but Wintenberger has "done it with the utmost professionalism and grace.”

Wintenberger has overseen a series of crucial course upgrades, improving everything from drainage — the 2009 PGA Championship was extended to Monday after heavy rains — to restoring bunkers, greens and fairways to moving trees. 

Forward tees — located closer to the putting greens — were added, so that casual golfers can complete rounds more swiftly, she said.

Renovations included the clubhouse, with the bar-restaurant area expanded, upgraded catering areas and bridal suites, new energy efficient LED fixtures and heating and air conditioning systems — and new vendors hired for the pro shop, instruction and food and beverages.

Wintenberger wins praise for not only keeping prized staffers from departing for higher-paying private clubs but for nurturing talent, with Andy Wilson, for example, rising to perhaps the most important spot at any golf course: course superintendent, in charge of the park’s five courses.

Other Bethpage stars Robson and Voorheis singled out are: Black Course superintendent Mike Hadley, park managers Suzanne Friedrichs and Lee Bertucelli, and Jim Semar, assistant director.

The staff, Voorheis said, goes out of its way for every golfer — from the inexperienced junior to the professional.

“I really think that’s what it comes down to — the pride,” Voorheis said. “What they do every day, and the product they put forward, it resonates, it's palatable, and that really comes from the leadership.”

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