The course has previously hosted the U.S. Open twice (2002, 2009) and more recently has been home to The Barclays (2012, 2016), which is part of the FedExCup playoff rotation. The previous two times that we have seen a major played here scores were on the higher side, with just five golfers finishing in the red in 2009. But, as CBS Sports lead golf play-by-play man Jim Nantz notes, the course will likely play different this week due to the event’s new place on the calendar and a slightly changed set-up.
“We’re all conditioned to think about Bethpage and how it was set up for the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens. It was never going to be set up like this, because it’s a PGA Championship. Kerry Haigh and the PGA, they like birdies,” said Nantz on a conference call. “It’s been a cool spring so far, so you’ve not had a growing season. We’re going to get everybody to think that this is going to be knee-high rough, but I promise you it’s not going to look anything like it did in those two Opens.”
Weather could play a factor for players this week as there is a chance of rain in the forecast Thursday, with a higher likelihood on Friday. But, both Saturday and Sunday are expected to be rain-free, which should make for a good weekend of golf.
Still, even in better conditions, the course presents a difficult test, even for the best golfers in the world. Nantz’s broadcast partner, Nick Faldo, says the key to playing well at the course is staying patient and hitting smart shots. Getting outside of your comfort zone at Bethpage can get you into trouble quickly.
“Course strategy, putting the reigns on yourself. Just being smart and sensible,” said Faldo via conference call. “Don’t compound any errors by getting super aggressive just because you are forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. I think that’s one of the keys to the golf course. If you don’t like the shot, play it safe, you wait and bide your time. Hopefully you’ll find a few shots you can get really aggressive on.”
The hardest hole on the course, based on scores from 2002 and 2009 is the 15th. Off the tee, it’s a slight bend to the left before players get to the final 180 yards to the hole, which is entirely uphill, with a pair of bunkers protecting most of the front of the green. The green itself is elevated 50 feet above the fairway, with two different tiers that slope to the front right side. In 2009, it yielded just 17 birdies vs. 180 over-par scores.
While the 15th is the most difficult single hole, 10, 11 and 12, which kick off the back nine, is the worst stretch. The 10th is a 502-yard par-4 that has seven bunkers running along its fairway, making errant shots difficult to recover from. Lest a player think the difficulty ends once the ball hits the fairway, the green, like on the 15th, is guarded closely by bunkers.
If, like 24 players did in 2009, a golfer finds themselves equal to the task of carding an under-par score here, their mettle will then be tested by the par-4, 435-yard 11th. Sharing some of the same fairway bunkers as the 10th, features a blind tee shot on which players will want to stay more to the right, in order to avoid the bunkers. Then, the second shot must be hit over another set of bunkers to reach the green, which has a false front, thereby punishing players that hit their shots too long. In 2009, it rated as the eighth-hardest hole, with an average score of 4.164.
That slight reprieve is immediately flipped on at the 12th tee, which, according to PGA.com, features arguably the toughest tee shot on the course. That is due to a pair of cross bunkers that players will need to drive over in order to shorten the 515-yard hole. If not, there’s a landing area on the right side of the fairway for shorter hitters. The undulating green makes life more difficult, giving up just 20 birdies to players in 2009.
Adding to the toughness of the course is the general atmosphere that the fans on Long Island bring to the event.
“The atmosphere really is different. New York, Long Island… everybody is really quite happy to voice their opinion,” said Faldo. “It’s a great golf course. Probably because many have played the golf course as well. It’s pay to play. You get yourself in the line and go out and play it. It adds to the enjoyment.”
The fans aren’t afraid to play favorites either, and one of the most beloved is Phil Mickelson. Faldo and Nantz both think the reason that Lefty is so popular in New York is because the fans see a bit of themselves in the way that he plays. Reporter Amanda Balionis agreed, but also said that there’s a genuine love between Phil and the fans that both sides acknowledge.
“I also think the New Yorkers can feel how much Phil loves them. I remember interviewing him a couple years ago in the tri-state area,” said Balionis. “And he said to me [that] coming to New York was the first time my kids actually thought I was cool, by how the fans were reacting to me. And he loves that. When you can have your teenage kids say, ‘dad, you’re really cool here in New York.’ I think he really takes all of that in. He loves that.”
Mickelson enters the week with 50-1 odds to win the tournament, but he has played well at Bethpage before, finishing second in both 2002 and 2009. The man he finished second to in 2002, Tiger Woods, is the favorite this week at 8-1 odds. Both players, along with the other 154 in the field, face the challenging course starting on Thursday.
CBS coverage airs Saturday and Sunday at 2-7 p.m. Eastern, with additional coverage on CBS Sports Network and CBSSports.com throughout the tournament.