Bethpage Black is known as the most "open" of all U.S. Open courses because it is a daily fee course owned by New York State. But architect Rees Jones, who made all the renovations for the 2002 Open and for the 2009 edition that starts Thursday, says the best comparison is to the most private of all the great American courses, Pine Valley in southern New Jersey.
Architect A.W. Tillinghast, who designed the Black in 1936, was a contemporary of Pine Valley designer George Crump and even claimed to have contributed to Crump's design in 1922. Jones theorizes that Tillinghast wanted to design a course to rival Pine Valley as part of his legacy.
"Tillinghast custom-designed all his courses," Jones said. "If you look at the size of the bunkers and the use of sand on such a sandy site on holes No. 5 and No. 7, it's just like Pine Valley. This was his public Pine Valley. It has the most massive bunkers he ever designed."
Of all the changes Jones has made to Bethpage Black, restoration of the original bunkers and the installation of new bunkers in the fashion of those created by Tillinghast was a major focal point of his work. During the years of neglect and deterioration before the 2002 Open, the shape of many bunkers changed drastically, but old photos helped Jones reclaim them.
Describing his initial impression in a 1995 visit to Bethpage with USGA staff members, Jones said: "It had been let go. There were trees growing in the bunkers and the sand was 3 feet deep, but you could see it could be renovated to make it Open-worthy.
"The greens had shrunk over the years. David [USGA executive directory Fay] and I talked and decided to take the bunkers to the greens at their current size. We took more bunkers down the fairways, added them closer to the fairways, and we had to realign some fairways. That work is continuing. We just tightened No. 9 and No. 11."
Jones went through a similar restoration at East Lake in Atlanta, where the PGA's Tour Championship is held. "A lot of the older courses lost the size of their greens and some of their bunkers during the Depression," he said. "Bethpage was unique. They just let nature take its course. It's one of the most natural sites, like a coastal site."
Jones praised the "elasticity" of Tillinghast's design, which allowed him to lengthen Bethpage Black to 7,214 yards in 2002 and again this year to a U.S. Open record 7,426 yards. The new version has three par-4 holes measuring more than 500 yards - Nos. 7, 10 and 12 - and 50 yards was added to the par-5 13th to stretch it to 605 yards.
The public plays No. 7 as a par 5, but it now measures 8 yards longer than the par-5 fourth hole. That's part of Jones' effort to toughen the front nine. At the par-3 eighth, he extended the green toward the pond in front, bringing the water more into play. No. 9 was extended from 418 yards to 460 with a new bunker on the left side in the dogleg, making it more difficult to cut the corner. No. 16 has been extended 11 yards to 490, but it's a downhill 490.
Tillinghast would be proud of his gem that shines now more brightly than ever.