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Bethpage Black proves its championship mettle at The Barclays

Jason Day hits out of the sand trap

Jason Day hits out of the sand trap at 17 during Round 1 of The Barclays at Bethpage Black golf course on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. Credit: Joseoh D. Sullivan

There is no way to look at Bethpage Black without thinking “U.S. Open.” Anyone who cares about the park will be forever grateful to the U.S. Golf Association for having the guts and vision to change the aura of the course forever by bringing its keystone tournament here.

At the same time, there is no way to look at Bethpage Black without thinking that the USGA pulled the plug too soon.

The Black proved Thursday, in the first round of The Barclays, that it is anything you would want in a championship venue. As Jordan Spieth put it after he shot par 71, “It’s up there in the top few toughest courses I’ve ever played. It was very tough, challenging, but fair today.”

It was a whole different course than it was during the two rain-swamped Opens on Round Swamp Road in 2002 and 2009. After the latter, the USGA pretty much had seen enough. The organization that resurrected the neglected gem and polished it up did not pursue having any more Opens or anything else at the Black.

That looks like a mistake. It does not always rain here. No June since 2009 has been as inclement as that one was. The Black that the PGA Tour played on Thursday was dry and windy, which brought its own obstacles, especially when the breeze kicked up for the afternoon wave and made the layout — in the estimation of local experts — about three shots tougher.

“We just had it really, really tough in the afternoon with those winds so high,” Spieth said, noting that the greens were not terribly fast, which was a positive. “If they made the greens firm today, it would have been unplayable on a few holes.”

But it was not a complete brute, especially for the golfers who played in the morning. Two shot 5-under, four shot 4-under. “It played a lot harder in ’09. We had rain. It was soft. The rough was a lot thicker,” said Rickie Fowler, who was in the 4-under group on Thursday. It was interesting that he could not remember much about the Black for The Barclays in 2012 but recalled everything about the Open three years earlier. A major sticks to the memory when you are at a place like this.

“I was first to tee off on 1, raining and into the wind. I’m glad we didn’t have that today,” Fowler said, replaying the 2009 video in his mind. “This place has always been fun. It’s a big golf course and a good test.”

As for Thursday, the PGA Tour did not set it up to be punitive. The Tour likes when its members shine, so birdies are not a problem. The thing is, the Black just couldn’t help itself.

“You can’t attack this golf course,” said Jason Day, the world’s No. 1 player, who shot 3-under in the morning wave. “It’s one where you just have to stay patient.”

It also is one that can wear you out just by walking up and down the hills. Day is in superb condition, as good as anyone on tour, and he said that after a three-week break, “You come back to a behemoth golf course in Bethpage, yeah, just a little bit tired.”

Full marks to the PGA Tour for including it in the rotation. Same for the PGA of America (with a big boost from then-Met PGA executive director Charlie Robson), which swooped in when the USGA vacated and signed up the Black for the 2019 PGA Championship and 2024 Ryder Cup. Imagine what that is going to be like. “It’s going to be nuts,” Patrick Reed said.

The Black is a worthy host for every tournament and it has greater stature for the public all the other days of the year because of that. Long Islanders always will be thankful that the U.S. Open was here, and that something else has taken its place.

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