Babe Ruth and Derek Jeter. Joe Namath and Bill Parcells. Mark Messier and Mike Bossy. Willis Reed and Patrick Ewing. The Harlem Globetrotters. Bobby Fischer. John McEnroe. If there were ever a Pantheon of New York Sports Immortals, those are names that would forever be enshrined. But who should represent golf as New York’s hero? Sure, they love Phil Mickelson in the Big Apple, but he’s from California; he’s never lived in New York City. Who is New York’s greatest hometown golf hero? Whose name belongs on that elite list we noted above?
For turning Bethpage Black from a public Bushwood Country Club into a major golf championship and Ryder Cup venue, I say Rees Jones.
Rees is downright revered by New Yorkers, especially New York golfers. He resurrected their beloved favorite public golf course, Bethpage Black from both obscurity and decay, and he catapulted it into the major championship stratosphere.
For many decades, Bethpage Black seemed like a golf course that time forgot. Sure, the course has A.W. Tillinghast’s name on it as original designer (or consultant, depending on who you want to believe), but despite that formidable pedigree, the course that Rees visited with David Fay in 1995 was a shipwreck: shattered masts and tattered rigging for conditioning. Stones in every bunker, grass overgrown and patchy, and muddy every time it rained, it seemed a pipe dream that the flagship course of a 90-hole Long Island public facility could join the likes of Winged Foot, Baltusrol and Shinnecock (host of the Open that year) and host not just any USGA championship, but the U.S. Open.
But with the sleight of hand of a master magician, Rees performed his is greatest act of prestidigitation. Just seven short years after he and David Fay played together on a layout more overgrown than an undiscovered jungle pyramid, the course celebrated Tiger Woods’s victory in the People’s Open, and every New York public golfer could smile and say, “I was there.”
Rees gave major championship golf to the masses. He’s made a lasting, indeed timeless, contribution to the game of golf.
We caught up with Rees for a few questions and his breakdown for the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black this week.
Jay Flemma: What’s different about this version of Bethpage Black as opposed to the 2009 U.S. Open?
Rees Jones: Since the last Open, the biggest changes are to the 18th hole, and then some work on several greens.
JF: 18 always has been a little unusual as a major championship finishing hole. It’s not long, but it wasp-waists in the fairway and it doglegs in an awkward place. Lucas Glover played it 6-iron, 6-iron to close out his win in 2009.
RJ: That’s right, and Tiger made a closing bogey in 2002, even though he ultimately won by three shots. The hole never really got tested in either 2002 or 2009. So this time around we’ve opened up the landing area of the fairway and redid the fairway bunkers. We want to tempt people to hit driver, but we also added bunkers on the left side of the fairway to make the drive even more challenging.
Then, throughout the course we enlarged greens to their original shape and size. We added a hole location left on 11, we made the 14th green bigger by enlarging the back portion and making it more receptive to the clubs they’ll be hitting in to that par 3.
We rebuilt also the second and third greens too. At two, we brought the green back to its original size and at three, another great par-3, we added more green on the back left portion. The goal was to make them as large as when they were originally designed and also to improve drainage – agronomic reasons.
JF: You also got some more hole locations?
JF: And with the players hitting driver on 18, now they only have a pitch to the green if they do hit the fairway. Now it turns it into a birdie opportunity to close the day or even the tournament.
RJ: It will make 18 more exciting and interesting.
JF: What, in particular, needed the most work for this year’s PGA?
RJ: Grass lines and approaches. I worked hard on that with Kerry Haigh of the PGA of America. We’re setting it up in conventional PGA Championship fashion. The fairways will be 24-28 yards wide, then there will be a first cut of rough, then higher rough, and then the tall fescue at perimeter. It will require accuracy. It will be set up more like the 2002 U.S. Open rather than the 2009 U.S. Open. 2009 had graduated rough, 2002 only had a first cut.
JF: Let’s break down what you think are the most interesting holes on the golf course.
RJ: No. 5 is the most famous hole. It’s such a pure and natural hole; an elevated tee crosses natural sandy waste area set at a diagonal. It’s almost like 16 at Pine Valley; you don’t want to hit it left you have to hit it to the right.
JF: And that means you have to challenge the bunker.
RJ: Exactly. And if you go too far left you are blocked out by the trees.
JF: And green site is atop a hill…
RJ: A steep hill…surrounded by rough…and bunkers. So you have to take an extra club because it’s so elevated.
After that, I’d say the stretch that gives them the most trouble in the championships is 10, 11, and 12. They had to get through that long gauntlet. All of them are long. All of them have well protected greens. 12 may be toughest of all because you have to hit your drive over the cross bunkers.
JF: And then the finish?
RJ: The hole that’s most difficult, perhaps even more difficult than five, is 15. Again, a long par 4 played to a very elevated green with a sharp terrace in the back. It’s a tiny target and severely uphill. If you miss it right, you are really, REALLY well below the surface of the green.
JF: After Woods won in ’02, you once said “You can tell how great the venue was by the champion who won there.” How, then, do you explain Lucas Glover?
RJ: Well the conditions were so wet, it completely foiled all the excellent preparation and planned set up the USGA did pre-tournament. You also had some other nonames at the top of that board too. Rain makes it possible for a lot more players to come into the mix. The fairways slow down, and drives don’t roll into the rough as much. You can fly the ball to the greens and they’ll hold. You don’t have to manufacture shots as often. It makes the course so much easier. And 2009 was just ridiculously wet.
RJ: Yes! (Laughter)
JF: Ron Whitten says Joseph Burbeck, the superintendent during construction, should get design credit for the Black Course. “I think Burbeck deserves credit as the architect of record, with Tillinghast as a consultant,” he wrote. Most everyone else says Tillinghast. Who is right?
RJ: It’s a Tillinghast design, and Burbeck built it. Granted, it’s a Tillinghast design with input from a lot of people. But he gets the design credit. That’s the normal course of business. I design the course, and Austin Gibson or Clyde Hall, two of my foremen, are on the ground building it. And yes, they have a lot of input.
Now Tillie wasn’t there every day, and so Burbeck and his team would tweak things themselves. But I don’t know for sure what the true history is, because there’s no record. The story is that Tillie was paid by the day, and they didn’t want to pay him too much. It was the Great Depression, after all. So we really don’t know. I think Tillie did the plans, and Burbeck was in charge of building it.
But the beauty of the whole story is that is it’s a public course built during the Depression, on a fantastic piece of land with sandy soil, and that meant you had more playing options because you weren’t worried about drainage like on a heavy soil site. It’s so classic – the course fits the land perfectly, and the green sites are all natural. Two, four, five, in fact all the elevated green sites were just there.
JF: Is Bethpage a bomber’s paradise? Why or why not?
RJ: What’s happened is they are hitting so far, and the ball is so well constructed, and 3-woods that go as far as driver, so the course isn’t playing as long as 2002. Equipment changed and players are hitting it farther. But the key any week with these guys is how they putt.
JF: Who has the best chance of beating Woods at Bethpage?
RJ: JT – he’s the whole package and he basically was schooled emotionally and physically by his father so that he’s prepared for major tests.
JF: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
RJ: We’re refurbishing Torrey Pines for the Open in 2021. And we’re re-doing the Concord Hotel, making a single course out of the footprint of the two.
JF: So both the Monster and the International?
REES: I’m impressed that you know that, the International has been dormant for all these years. Yes, both the Monster and the International.
Complete List of Rees Jones course alterations to Bethpage Black between the 2009 US Open Championship & the 2019 PGA Championship:
#1: (Completed Spring 2018)
– Added trees on the right of fairway to protect the inside of the dogleg
#3: (Completed Fall 2015)
– Reshaped & rebuilt all green bunkers
– Reduced the size of the right bunker to create a fairway approach
– Regraded & elevated the rear of the green to help support tee shots
#6: (Completed Fall 2017)
– Elevated framing of both fairway bunkers to improve sand visibility and visual definition from the tee
#8: (Completed Spring 2017)
– Elevated framing of the right rear bunker to improve sand visibility and visual definition from the tee
#10: (Completed Spring 2012)
– Added a practice putting green to the left of the Championship tee
#11: (Completed Fall 2017)
– Eliminated the front-right fairway bunker (beginning of fairway)
– Expanded the green to create a left-rear hole location
– Reshaped the left green bunker to shift sand closer to green and improve sand visibility
#12: (Completed Fall 2017)
– Rebuilt & extended the rear of the Championship tee to its current location
#14: (Completed Fall 2015)
– Rebuilt green to add Championship hole locations
– Eliminated front portion of the left bunker
– Created a low-cut, grass chipping area behind the green
#18: (Completed Spring 2018)
– Lowered a ridge behind the middle tee to improve fairway visibility from the Championship tee
– Added two new bunkers on the right, at the beginning of the fairway
– Extended the third and fourth bunkers on the right closer to the fairway
– Combined and reshaped the last two bunkers on the left of the fairway
-adjusted entire fairway perimeter