A few weeks ago I played a round of golf on one of my bucket list courses: the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island, NY. It’s hosted two US Open championships (2002, 2009) and a Barclay’s (2012). The course is listed as one of the toughest in the country. And, Golf Digest ranks it number 42 on its list of top-100 courses in 2013. Pilgrim golfers from all over travel to Long Island to play one of the few affordable tracks on that list. That I got to play it is a gift that will be difficult to repay.
I’ve been playing golf regularly for around 20 years. During that time, I’ve played over 100 golf courses with friends and strangers alike. I’ve been paired with people that, at the end of the round, I wish I’d gotten their number so we could play again some time; I’ve been paired with people that I couldn’t get off the golf course soon enough; and I’ve been paired with people that made the round all the more memorable.
Golf, unlike other sports, forces you to be sociable. You can go about seven holes without saying a word to your playing partner but, eventually, someone’s got to talk. You’re out there for four hours (at least!) with no one but you and a couple strangers.
My round at the Black Course was made possible because of a connection a golfing buddy of mine has with a former employee at Bethpage. Without that connection, we would have been on Long Island just attending a wedding (a perfectly fine reason to go to Long Island and I certainly would have gone had not the promise of playing one of the finest golf courses in the land been made). However, we got an 8:30 tee time on the Saturday of the wedding and were thrilled about it.
We arrived well in advance of our tee time and spent some time buying tschotskes in the proshop. My buddy got a headcover embroidered with the famous sign posted behind the first tee box at the Black. I got several scorecards, pencils, ball-markers, yardage books, and some other things I’m sure — for my best friend, my dad, another golfing buddy, and just in case, some extras.
When we went to the starter he pointed us to our playing partners — a father and son from just down the street. They quickly discovered, without even asking, that my buddy and I were from out of town and about to embark on this journey for the first time. We weren’t coy about it. I think we took pictures off the first tee for 5 minutes before we even thought about teeing it up.
For those of you who have only seen the Black on TV — as I had only seen it — when Johnny Miller says that the fairways are tight, he ain’t kiddin’. The first fairway looked about as wide as my thumbnail from the tee. And it started a mere 200 yards away from the tee. The only choice was a driver. I missed the fairway but, through some geometry, was able to get a par after a layup on the second shot.
I’m not going to walk you through my round. That’s boring and far too visual for my descriptive abilities. However, I’ll provide you with my main takeaway.
The two gentlemen that we played with could not have been better playing partners. They knew we were out-of-towners and knew that this was a special round of golf for us. It well could be our last time on the Black and they made every effort to make it enjoyable. They gave us some advice, but didn’t give the course away. It was clear we were there to experience Bethpage, not to be hand-held through it. On blind shots, they offered some guidance; on other holes, they let us look at our yardage books and figure it out for ourselves.
Mostly, however, for me, at least, they let us enjoy it together. My buddy and I had been talking about getting up to Long Island for years. “We should go up there and stay at our friends parents place.” “When do you think you can take a weekend? We’ll spend it in the car in the parking lot.” “You think we’ll get up there this year?”
Now, after waiting, we were on the golf course of our dreams! During our round, we joked about how difficult it was. We stood there staring at some stunning golf scenery. We counted off our yardages and talked about the shot we wanted to hit. After making difficult putts, we looked at each other as if to say, “Holy crap, that was a tough par.” It was perfect. Our partners made it so.
In golf, the best playing partners are the ones that enhance the experience. It’s a social game. Like with any other social event, the person you experience it with matters. We’ve probably all been at parties, at work functions or meetings, at a restaurant, and had to “deal with” rude, obnoxious, overly self-centered, loud, angry, negative, and otherwise unbearable patrons, co-workers, or guests. We remember them as such and we don’t ever forget them. That’s a real bummer.
On the other hand, when we get to experience golf and life and work with generous, positive, good-natured, and courteous people, it makes even poor rounds, dinners, projects seem much better.
I hope that I’m the second — offering advice when necessary, providing positive feedback, having a beginner’s mindset, and smiling.
Oh, here are some pictures from the course.