The Black Course at Bethpage is an iconic piece of golf architecture designed by the brilliant A.W. Tillinghast. It was a tough test of golf from the very beginning when it opened in 1936.
Now 86 years later, Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer of the PGA of America, is in charge of making sure that the Black plays like the Black for the world’s best players during this week’s PGA Championship.
Haigh would actually be No. 2 in command. Mother Nature would always be No. 1, and this winter and spring have been squishy wet and squirmy cool, not ideal for championship golf. Not to worry.
Haigh, an ex-pat Englishman from Doncaster, knows a thing or three about dealing with weather and it’s impact on a golf course. There is a calming influence in his voice, no doubt from the experience of setting up PGA Championship courses (and Ryder Cups and a bevy of other events) since 1993, that makes things seem like they will always be OK. His course setups have been universally praised by tour players for their fairness.
“Like any golf course, we have to keep in mind Mother Nature,” Haigh said Monday as light rain continued to soak the course. “We’ll see where we are on Thursday and Friday and set the course up accordingly.”
The massive amount of moisture has a double-edge effect. Balls won’t be bounding through the fairways into the rough and approach shots will stick to the greens. But the rough will be brutally lush. The short grass, even with a much longer shot, will be the overwhelming option for every player.
“The softer conditions, if they remain soft, will in effect widen the fairways or the landing areas because the ball would not be running as far,” Haigh said. “The rough is pretty tough and if it remains wet it will be particularly challenging. We need to keep in mind what tees to use, and how to use them to make it play the way it was meant to play.”
The softer greens will no doubt allow for some devilish pin positions. “If it stays soft the greens are holding more so the hole locations can maybe be a little tighter,” Haigh said.
Perhaps more than any other course the pros play, the sand bunkers at Bethpage, large and deep, really are hazards.
“There’s eight acres of bunker sand,” Haigh said. “Because of their size, the ball tends to roll down the face and is farther away from the hole than most greenside bunkers. Most people would say a longer greenside bunker shot is more challenging.”
Haigh has always been impressed with the muscular layout. “Bethpage is a spectacular golf course, wonderful design,” said Haigh. “I think many players really love the layout. It’s a very stout, difficult course.
“Everything is on a grand scale. You always come off pretty tired just walking around. That’s part of the mystique, why they have the sign on the first tee, it is a tough golf course.”
Not long ago Haigh played the course. “I played with a couple of media friends and we had a beautiful day, the weather was wonderful,” he said. “I can’t remember if I won or lost, but it was a great day. I certainly did not play the back tees. I wanted to enjoy the game.”
He’ll want to test the world’s best players, but make sure they enjoy that test. It was suggested that Tiger & Company will be striding about America’s St. Andrews.
“That is a great description,” Haigh said. “I couldn’t possibly disagree.”