Bethpage Is First Public-Owned Facility To Host A U.S. Open

Aug 22, 2012

Ten Years Later, Tillinghast Design Hosts First Event Of FedEx Cup Playoffs

By Hunki Yun

The U.S. Open has been democratic from the start. Since 1895, the only requirement for playing in our national championship has been skill. Anyone – policemen and firemen, mechanics and plumbers, teachers and students – has been welcome to try to qualify for a spot in the field and compete against the best players in the world.

While the competition itself has been democratic, one aspect of the championship historically has been less open. For more than a century, the U.S. Open was never played at a municipal golf course.

That all changed in 2002, when the Black Course at Bethpage State Park, owned and operated by New York, became the first publicly owned facility to host the U.S. Open. Those who associated munis with rudimentary designs and hardscrabble conditions were surprised by the Bethpage Black that awaited players. The strategic, challenging A.W. Tillinghast-designed layout shone brightly, provided a brutal test of golf, and identified the game’s best player as a worthy champion.

This week, the PGA Tour will visit Bethpage Black for The Barclays, the first event of the FedEx Cup playoffs. The top 125 points leaders from the Tour’s regular season will compete in the first major tournament held at Bethpage since the 2009 U.S. Open. Tiger Woods, who won the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage and is currently the FedEx Cup points leader, headlines the field.

The success of the 2002 championship validated former USGA Executive Director David Fay’s advocacy of a Bethpage Open, an inspiration born out of an impromptu visit to the park on his way to a dinner party on Long Island in 1994.

Fay, who grew up in a northern suburb of New York City, knew about Bethpage Black because he had played it as a teenager. The course was little known outside the area, and even many high-level USGA staffers had never heard of it.

But Fay knew about its difficulty and its reputation among local golfers, who were fond of speculating about how the best players in the world would fare on the Black. But due to the decades of neglect and abuse that had been heaped on the course, even the most ardent regulars wouldn’t have given serious consideration to conducting the U.S. Open at Bethpage.

Looking past the course’s poor conditioning, Fay became convinced during his visit that improvements would make Bethpage Black a worthy U.S. Open site. Like a masterful politician, Fay built up a strong coalition to fulfill his vision. He united the USGA behind his idea, built a strong relationship with the state of New York, and engaged course designer Rees Jones to perform a pro bono restoration of the layout, which had opened in 1936.

Tiger Woods won his second Open at Bethpage, but the 2002 U.S. Open would have been momentous no matter who won. By holding the national championship on a municipal course for the first time, the USGA brought long-overdue recognition to public golf. The large galleries were vocal and supportive, giving the championship an air of excitement normally found at the World Series or Super Bowl.

Truly, it was a U.S. Open unlike any other. More than a golf championship, the “People’s Open” was a weeklong celebration of public golf, highlighting the USGA’s activities on behalf of all golfers, whether they play at a private club or tee it up at the local muni.

Spurred by the success of the Bethpage Open, U.S. Open courses are now as democratic as the championship itself. The USGA returned to Bethpage in 2009, and the championship is in the middle of a 10-year stretch, from 2008 to 2017, during which six of 10 U.S. Opens will be held at public-access courses.

Hunki Yun is a USGA senior staff writer. E-mail him at

The fourth hole at Bethpage Black is a risk-reward par 5 that played at 517 yards for the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens. (USGA Museum)

Bethpage Black - the strategic, demanding A.W. Tillinghast-designed layout - provides a brutal test of golf to New York-residents year-round and challenged the game's best during the U.S. Open. (USGA Museum)

Former Executive Director David Fay united the USGA behind his idea for an Open at Bethpage, built a strong relationship with the state of New York and engaged course designer Rees Jones to perform a pro bono restoration of the layout, which had opened in 1936. (USGA Museum)