Open: Inside the Ropes at Bethpage Blackby John Feinstein
Nobody writes about golf better than John Feinstein, and now he's found the perfect subject to cover. In June 2002, the world watched a U.S. Open like no other. The most prestigious golf championship was played, for the first time in history, on a public golf course. With unprecedented access, Feinstein takes us through every step of the event, from how the players qualified to how pairings were made, from preparing the course to the heated negotiations between the USGA and NBC. Listeners will meet golf's biggest stars and get to know them with eye-opening intimacy-and ultimately come to understand why playing in the Open at Bethpage meant so much to so many.
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OpenInside the Ropes at Bethpage Black
By John Feinstein
Little, Brown and Co.Copyright © 2003 John Feinstein
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLike No Other Open
AS SOON AS he saw the policeman standing in the middle of the road, waving him to a stop, Scott McCarron knew he had made a mistake. He had decided that morning to let his wife use the courtesy car that the United States Golf Association had provided him for the week of the 2002 U.S. Open. Jennifer was going into Manhattan, and McCarron thought she would be better off in an SUV.
McCarron took the smaller rental car to the golf course. But as he pulled up to the policeman, he remembered that his Contestant Parking sticker was in the SUV. Like everyone else who had already set foot on the grounds of Bethpage State Park, McCarron knew that security at this Open was unlike security at any other Open. Bethpage is located smack in the middle of Long Island, only thirty-five miles from Ground Zero.
Neither the USGA nor the New York State Police were taking any chances. For the first time in history, the Open was being played at a true public facility, one owned not by a corporation but by a state agency. Bethpage Black was one of five golf courses located inside Bethpage State Park. It was open to anyone with thirty-one dollars and a great deal of patience. Both the tenant for the week - the USGA - and the owner - New York State - wanted the event to go off without a hitch or a glitch, and certainly without any kind of serious incident.
The atmosphere at the Open was best described on Monday morning, the first day the public was allowed onto the grounds, by Tony Zirpoli, a USGA employee who had once been a school-teacher in the Fort Apache area of the South Bronx. He knew all about tough neighborhoods and police presence, but by the time he made it from his hotel to the clubhouse early on Monday morning, Zirpoli had learned something new. "I think now I know what it must have been like going through Checkpoint Charlie," he said, referencing the Berlin border crossing from East Germany to West Germany during the Cold War era.
Now, McCarron was approaching Checkpoint Charlie without his papers - specifically, his parking pass. He did have his player ID, as did his caddy, Ryan Scott, who was with him. He had golf clubs with his name on them and any other ID the police might want.
"I knew," he said, "it was going to take a while to get to the club-house-if I was lucky."
With his player ID and numerous mea culpas, he managed to get through the first two checkpoints. At the third, though, with nirvana-the parking lot-in sight, the policeman told him he would have to check with the state police command center before letting him pass. The policeman was apologetic. "Scott, I know who you are," he said. "But I gotta check."
Finally, word came back: McCarron could park the unstickered car in the lot today. If he showed up in it again the next day, he would be turned away. McCarron offered his thanks and promised not to make the same mistake twice. He was about to drive away when the policeman stopped him again. "Scott, before you go, can I just ask you one thing?" he said.
McCarron sighed, prepared to sign an autograph or perhaps be lectured once again about why security had to be so tight. But he had no choice. "Sure," he said. "What's up?"
"I was just wondering," the policeman said, a bit hesitant. "On number three ... have you been trying to land the ball short of the flagstick and hope it rolls up? Or are you playing to the back of the green? I never know how to play that hole. If I land short, the ball dies, and I have a long, long putt. If I go for the back, if I miss it just a little, it rolls over, and then I'm dead. What do you do?" McCarron stifled a laugh and explained that he was hoping to land short of the flagstick and get a bounce close to the hole. If not, he'd take a par happily and move to the fourth tee.
"Yeah, that sounds good," the cop said, a huge smile on his face. "Nothing wrong with par on this golf course, right?" "You got it," McCarron said, saying a final thank-you and, at last, wheeling his car into the player lot.
As he and Scott were pulling his clubs out of the trunk, McCarron thought about that conversation. "I realized," he said, "that this had to be the first U.S. Open in history where the cops guarding the golf course had actually played it more often - a lot more often probably - than the players in the event had played it. "There's never been a U.S. Open where you could say that before. In fact, there's never been an Open anything like this before." Not even close.
It began on a cold November day in 1994 with a late afternoon walk.
David B. Fay, the executive director of the USGA, was meeting his wife at a dinner party on Long Island and found himself with some extra time. His drive from the USGA offices in New Jersey hadn't taken as long as he had anticipated, and on a whim as much as anything else, he decided to make a stop at Bethpage State Park. Like almost anyone who had played golf in the metropolitan New York area, Fay was familiar with Bethpage. He had grown up north of Westchester, in the town of Tuxedo Park, and had spent his boyhood working at the tony Tuxedo Club as a caddy, on the grounds crew, and in the golf shop. On Mondays, as at most private clubs, the employees got to play the golf course. The rest of the time when he wanted to play golf, Fay did so at a nine-hole municipal course called Central Valley. It was there that he first heard people talk about Bethpage, specifically the legendary Black Course, the one with the sign on the first tee that read, "The Black Course Is an Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only for Highly Skilled Golfers."
By the time he was in high school, Fay knew he had to see the Black for himself. As a teenager with a single digit handicap, he and three friends made the drive south into Queens and then east onto Long Island. They arrived at Bethpage before dawn, knowing that was the only way to ensure a tee time. If you wanted to play one of the other four golf courses in the park, you could come later. Not so for the Black.
"Even back then it was a little beat up," Fay said, talking about the mid-1960s. "With all the play they got out there and with not much money being spent on upkeep, it looked the way most munis look. But it was still a fantastic golf course. Hard, really hard." Fay and friends made the trip once or twice a summer during high school and college. Fay ended up going to Colgate, where he walked onto the golf team - he was a two-handicapper by then - let his hair grow long, and returned summers to work at Tuxedo. He did spend part of one summer working on the S.S. United States, a job arranged for him by his father, a steamship captain. Fay was supposed to go to staterooms when the ride got a bit too rough and clean up after the passengers. Midway through the summer, he thanked his father for the opportunity and went back to work at the golf club.
After college, Fay leapfrogged jobs until landing at the USGA in 1978. By 1989, he had become the executive director. "In the back of my mind, almost from the day I took the job at the USGA, was the notion that someday I'd like to see the Open played on a real public golf course," he said. "I wasn't thinking Pebble Beach, which is a place for the rich, but a place where the guys who played were like the guys I grew up around at Central Valley. But for a long time, it was nothing more than a pipe dream, there was no tangible plan in my mind at all."
Bethpage had been on the USGA's radar screen in the past - but not as an Open site. In the mid-1980s, Frank Hannigan, Fay's predecessor and mentor, who had grown up playing municipal golf courses on Staten Island, had thought Bethpage would be a good place to hold the U.S. Public Links championship. The Pub Links is one of thirteen championships the USGA conducts every year and is open to amateur players with handicaps of eight or lower who do not hold membership in any private club. As you might expect, it is held at public venues each year. Hannigan, who had taken over the USGA in 1983, thought the Black Course was a natural to host the Pub Links, and he opened negotiations with the state of New York to bring the event there.
But in 1985, Hannigan and Tom Meeks, a member of the USGA's rules and competition committee, were invited to play an outing at the Black. They came away from the day with serious concerns: the golf course was in far worse condition than they had imagined. There were other problems, too. Everywhere they looked there were signs that said "Welcome to Chuck Workman's Bethpage Black." Workman was the golf pro at Bethpage, and he had literally put his signature all over the golf course. "Every bench on every tee box, it was there," Meeks remembered. "It was as if the actual name of the golf course was Chuck Workman's Bethpage Black. I remember saying to Frank that day that I thought we were going to have problems getting this contract done." If there was any hope left to bring the Pub Links to the Black, it died when Meeks took a phone call from someone working for the state Department of Parks in Albany. The state needed to know how the greens fees - then twenty-three dollars - for the event would be handled: Would the USGA pay or would the players themselves pay?
Meeks, who is never speechless, was about as close as he gets. "No one is going to pay a greens fee," he said when he finally found his voice. "This is a national championship being conducted. There are no greens fees."
On a New York State-owned facility there are always greens fees, Meeks was told. Meeks hung up the phone, walked into Hannigan's office, and told him he didn't see any way this was going to get done. Hannigan agreed. The notion of the Pub Links at the Black died there.
Four years later, the Black Course did host a golf tournament: the Met Open, which is put on annually by the MGA. The executive director of the MGA then, as now, was Jay Mottola, who also happens to be David Fay's oldest friend.
"We probably first played together in the cradle," Mottola said. "Our parents were friends, and we've known each other for as long as either of us can remember."
In fact, they were high school teammates in basketball (Mottola went on to be a star at Lafayette and spent several years as a college coach, assisting, among others, future Maryland coach Gary Williams when Williams was at American University) and in golf and worked together at the Tuxedo Club. On at least one occasion, they made the trip to Long Island together to play the Black. Taking the Met Open to the Black was no small thing. Traditionally, it had been played at some of the famous posh private clubs that dot the area, like Winged Foot and Baltusrol, both traditional U.S. Open sites. Like the USGA, Mottola found himself confronted with the greens fee issue.
"We aren't the USGA, we aren't conducting a national championship," Mottola said. "We were able to work out a compromise with the state: we would pay greens fees for the Pro-Am and for one of the three days of actual competition. For whatever reason, that worked for them and it worked for us."
And so, in 1989, the Met Open went to the Black, the first time it had been played at a public facility. One of the competitors in the Met that year was George Zahringer, a top amateur player from the area. Zahringer had been a private course guy most of his life. His family had belonged to Westchester Country Club when he was a boy growing up in Rye, New York, and thanks to a successful career on Wall Street, he belonged to Deepdale Country Club on Long Island and Stanwych Country Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. Deepdale isn't that far from Bethpage, but, as Fay puts it, "the two places don't play home and home a lot."
In short, Zahringer had never seen Bethpage. He had heard about it, knew about the legendary sign and about players sleeping in their cars to get tee times. Even so, he wasn't prepared for what he found when he first set foot on the Black.
"Whatever I had heard about it couldn't begin to do justice to the real thing," he said. "It was sensational, just spectacular. Sure, it was beat up. But to me, it was like looking at a great house that's fallen into disrepair. You could see that the bones were there. It just struck me right away."
Mottola was reminded as he watched the tournament go on how special the Black was. That winter, playing in a foursome during a USGA outing in Florida that included Fay and two members of the executive board, Reg Murphy and Jerry Stahl, Mottola brought up the subject of the Black.
"I remember saying they ought to take a look at it again someday, and not for the Pub Links," he said. "I knew Reg and Jerry didn't know much about it, but David did. I didn't make a big deal of it, but I brought it up to at least get it into David's thinking, if only just a little bit."
Fay certainly respected his old pal's opinions, but he didn't really give any serious thought to that conversation until he received a letter from Zahringer. Neither man is certain exactly when Zahringer wrote to Fay, and Fay, one of the world's worst record keepers, no longer has a copy of the letter. But both remember the gist of the message: Give the Black some serious thought as a future Open site.
"The Black," Fay remembers Zahringer writing, "is as good as it gets. There is genius in the design."
People are constantly letting Fay know about unknown gems that the USGA needs to consider. But this was a little bit different. Fay respected Zahringer both as a good player and as someone who understood golf and golf courses. Plus, he knew the Black well from his younger days, even though he hadn't been there for years. "It was one of those letters you read twice," he said later. "It wasn't as if I started thinking seriously about going there that day or even thought about it very often. But I did think to myself, I wonder if ... "
Two phone calls kept the Black on Fay's brain: one came from Zahringer, following up on his letter. The second came from Mottola in the fall of 1994 after the MGA had conducted another of its championships - The Ike - at the Black. "Jay just wanted to remind me that the Black was still out there and still worthy of consideration," Fay said. "Again, it wasn't as if I jumped out of my chair and said, I've got to go see the Black for myself, but it did simmer, just as the letter from George did. These were two guys whose opinions I respected telling me that the Black was still an extraordinary test of golf and if I was looking somewhere down the line to do something a little different with the Open, I should at least take a look at it at some point."
That point arrived sooner than Fay had thought it might when he found himself driving on the Southern State Parkway on that chilly November day with time to spare and the exit for Bethpage State Parkway looming ahead. Why not? he thought to himself and swung the car onto the exit ramp and in the direction of the park. Ten minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot.
Excerpted from Open by John Feinstein Copyright © 2003 by John Feinstein
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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