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Amateurs getting one crack at Bethpage Black

Playing a U.S. Open course in the months leading up to the major championship might be considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That's a matter of opinion. What is a matter of fact, though, is that any golfer will be allowed that opportunity only once this year.

Officials at Bethpage State Park, acknowledging the demand and trying to be fair, announced that one is the maximum number of rounds a golfer can play on the Black Course from opening day, a week from Saturday, through May 31, when it will close for final Open preparations.

Basic math convinced the park's policy makers to do something, said Dave Catalano, director of Bethpage State Park, adding that a similar rule seemed to work out before the 2002 Open on the Black.

"The demand is already insatiable. You cannot meet the demand for the Black Course," Catalano said. "There are over 70,000 members in the [reservation] system and on a normal day during the season we're putting out 240 or 250 golfers. The system books up, when it opens for reservations, in a matter of two or three minutes. You're putting out 35,000 to 37,000 rounds of golf a year, and that's with people playing multiple times. So even if we were to come up with a [permanent] rule that says everybody gets to play only one time, you might not be able to play but once every two or three years.

"Prior to the Open, you can only imagine even more people will want to get out and experience the golf course."

Even private courses that host the Open become much busier than normal right before the tournament that is known as America's national championship. On the Sunday before the 2004 U.S. Open, Shinnecock Hills was packed with members who wanted one last shot at their course under Open conditions.

The appetite for a taste of the Open went off the charts in 2002, the first U.S. Open ever held at a municipal course. The Black Course has been packed ever since. Last month, Zagat released a survey of 6,054 avid golfers nationwide who play more than eight times a month and the Black ranked as the No. 1 course in the United States.

Thus, the name of everyone who plays it in the seven-week run-up to this year's Open will be recorded in a computerized database, which will alert cashiers if anyone tries for a second round.

To protect the course, only about half the usual number of daily rounds will be allowed from April 11 to May 31. The first group will start at 8 a.m., the last foursome will begin at 1 p.m. The Black will be closed on Mondays, except for April 13. That week, the course will be closed on Tuesday.

The first six slots each day will be given to walk-ups, which generally means people who have spent the night in their cars. At a random time each night, park supervisors will distribute bracelets to confirm places in line. The final 24 tee times every day will be filled through the call-in reservation system. Starting at 4:30 every morning, a ranger will compile a waiting list to replace cancellations or no-shows.

Anyone who does make it onto the course will play amid the many hospitality tents that already are in place for the June 18-21 event. Catalano said that despite an icy winter - ice being much more damaging to a course than snow - the Black's condition is on schedule. "We're anticipating it will be even better than 2002," he said.

It probably will occur to golfers that the $50 weekday state resident greens fee is half the price of a ticket to the Open. No wonder those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are being rationed.

"We're not soliciting comments, but from the comments so far," Catalano said, "people think it's fair."

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