Back To The Black In Five Years, What To Do With 18?


Not much needs to be done at Bethpage Black for the 2024 Ryder Cup. 

Take down the rough cut for the bomb-and-gouge loving American team, more concession stands and way more grandstand seating, then convince presumptive Captain Phil Mickelson to talk the fans into a little bit more restraint when it comes to shouting out the first inappropriate thing that comes to mind.

Sure, some improvements are easier to accomplish than others. 

The most complicated of all involves the oft-discussed, widely loathed par-4 18th hole.

Tweaks were made this time around, more bunkers added to the already excessively-trapped, straightaway mess and a dreadful finishing hole remained so. The last time a major was played at Bethpage, the USGA tried to improve 18 by moving up tees and that just led to the regrettable sight of 6-iron lay ups and a sense that the hole was no better.

In the past, consideration was given to creating a hybrid hole utilizing the righthand bunker complex, the first fairway on the Red, and the current 18th green. Many others have advocated that players be asked to take a walk from the par-3 17th to the Red Course’s 18th tee.

For the 2009 PGA, the 18th played slightly over par but still offered a bizarre ending to the round. The bomb-and-gouge mindset, combined with a slight fairway widening, had players smacking driver and hoping for the best. 

I asked Brooks Koepka in his post-round press conference if he considered laying back with a two stroke lead. Never a consideration, he said. Koepka drove in the left bunkers, drew an awful, potentially calamitous lie, but managed a fine recovery out to the fairway. A wedge and putt sealed the victory. 

Koepka’s mindset on the hole was shared by nearly all of the field. As a match play finishing hole in Ryder Cup play, it’s hard to imagine an intriguing scenario where a player with the honor and a lead makes the decision to play safe, daring their opponent into a more aggressive play. Or any other interesting match play scenarios.

Because Bethpage Black’s 18th is not a good hole.

As Adam Scott noted when I asked him how he plays it, the 18th is the only driving hole at Bethpage Black that lacks some twist or turn to the fairway shape. That’s a trademark Tillinghast touch that remained part of the Black’s design despite his limited involvement and the erosion of shot values created by major championship manipulations.

The 18th hole’s design clashes with the rest of the Black in every way: strategically, visually and in the minds of players. Old photos show a little more twisting and rhythm to the landing area, but still not enough to make today’s players shape a shot to gain an advantage.

A reconsideration of the fairway bunkering could make a player shape a ball right-to-left around the bunkering to open up a better angle to the green. But in today’s game, such playing for angles is a lost art and there is little sign it will be restored with a rollback by 2024. 

A consolidation of the 13 bunkers to a more manageable number would be nice, too.

Which brings us back to the Ryder Cup question: should they fix the hole or just leave it since so few matches get to the home hole?

Doing nothing is likely to be the PGA of America’s conclusion to avoid controversy. Yet it was impossible not to ponder a much better option while walking the meandering, soulful and challenging Red Course finishing hole. It sat adjacent to the Black’s tent village on top of the Red’s first hole. The hole is close enough to the Black and finishes just as close to the clubhouse. Anyone could envision a Ryder Cup crowd in the beautiful amphitheater setting and matches concluding in far more satisfying fashion with real decision to be made off the tee and genuine reward for skill. Well, almost anyone.