Joyful memories of the 2002 U.S. Open championship at Bethpage Black linger for those who made it happen like the recollection of the greatest New Year's Eve party ever. Dressing up the Black as the first true daily fee public golf course to host the United States Golf Association's formal ball was a labor of love that made history.
The theme first was articulated by Rees Jones, the famous golf architect, who peeled away years of neglect to reveal the masterpiece originally designed by A.W. Tillinghast in 1936 as part of a Work Relief Project during the Great Depression that created Bethpage State Park. "I dubbed it 'The People's Open,' '' Jones volunteered.
"It was in 1998 when we began work on the course. I kept calling it 'The People's Open.' Guys kidded me: 'What are you? A socialist?' ''
Jones hardly is a socialist, but you could say he and others with a hand in taking the Open public were social engineers following the path laid out by the great urban planner Robert Moses to its natural conclusion. It was Moses who convinced New York State to buy the Bethpage property in 1933 and then hired Tillinghast, the leading golf architect of the day, to oversee development of the first four of Bethpage's five courses.
Imagine how, more than 30 years later, two high school friends who came from Tuxedo, N.Y., but didn't have a high-hat attitude about the game of golf, would make a pilgrimage to play Bethpage and fall in love with the place. It was as if the germ of a great idea had been planted within Jay Mottola and David Fay.
It invaded their imagination years later when Fay was executive director of the USGA and Mottola was executive director of the Metropolitan Golf Association. Fay actually investigated staging the Amateur Public Links championship at the Black in the mid-1980s but dropped the idea after encountering issues with former director of golf Chuck Workman.
"We moved on to other sites,'' Fay said, "but the seed - for me at least - had been planted."
Toward the end of the decade, the MGA held its big event, the Met Open, at Winged Foot in 1987, Baltusrol in 1988 and Bethpage Black in 1989.
"It was the first time we brought the Met Open to a truly public course,'' Mottola said. "I was struck by the fact we had just held the Met at two traditional U.S. Open courses, and probably a half dozen players said [the Black] is every bit as good except for needing a little TLC."
Amateur George Zahringer III, who lost a playoff for the 1989 Met Open to pro Bobby Heins, was moved to write a letter to Fay praising Bethpage Black as a potential USGA championship site. Mottola, who knew Fay had been nurturing the dream of holding the U.S. Open at a public course, told his longtime friend: "You should consider the Black. Not just for the Publinx Championship but for any major championship, including the U.S. Open.''
The ball was rolling. "I had been thinking about the Black before the Met Open was played there,'' Fay said, "but Jay's positive comments definitely cemented the idea in my mind . . . What's remarkable is that both Jay and George were touting the course even in its 'rough state.' ''
Fay had played Bethpage Black a couple of times since his youth, but in May 1995, he took several USGA staff members out for a formal round to evaluate its potential as a U.S. Open site. "I think they thought I had lost my mind,'' Fay said.
Conditions weren't as poor as the mid-1960s, when traffic on Bethpage Park's five courses exceeded 300,000 rounds per year. Although Bethpage Park director Dave Catalano had brought about improvements, the Black was a long way from championship condition. But architect Jones, who was part of the USGA crew that inspected the course, said, "the bones'' of Tillinghast's design were intact.
"It had been let go, but you could see it could be renovated to make it Open-worthy,'' Jones said. "The routing was so good, and the space between holes was so wide. I thought it was perfect.''
The U.S. Open is the USGA's biggest source of revenue, so it took guts for Fay to take a risk on a course run by a government entity. But as fate would have it, the New York State commissioner of Parks under then-Gov. George Pataki was Bernadette Castro, who in her youth became friends with Jones and his family when her father, Bernard, invested in a Florida country club designed by Jones' father, Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Recalling a meeting with Pataki, Castro said, "I said, 'Governor, I can't have any red tape. This is what the USGA is afraid of.' The Governor said, 'I'll alert the cabinet. Whatever you need, you get it.' ''
The USGA donated $3 million for the renovations, and after Castro explained the state had to take bids to hire an architect, Rees Jones donated his services. The rest, as they say, is history. The 2002 U.S. Open was a smashing success won by Tiger Woods, whose 3-under-par 277 was the only score under par.
"Six months later, I got to negotiate the contract for the 2009 U.S. Open," Castro said. "The USGA never has committed to come back to a course as fast as they did at Bethpage.''
Power to "The People's Open.''