Author cheers USGA’s going public at Bethpage
The 2002 U.S. Open golf championship was unlike any other sporting event in recent history. Held on a public golf course — the Bethpage Black links, part of the New York State parks system — it was a feat akin to moving the Wimbledon tennis tournament from its private setting to the public courts in London, according to noted sportswriter John Feinstein.
Feinstein’s “Open: Inside the Ropes at Bethpage Black” is not so much about how the national championship of golf was played, but how the event came to the Long Island golf course that is about 35 miles from Ground Zero in Manhattan, and the stories of the people who worked for years to make the event happen.
Feinstein, whose other books include “A Season on the Brink,” “The Punch” and “A Good Walk Spoiled,” stopped by the Tribune-Review for a question-and-answer session last week.
Question: What was your reaction when the USGA selected Bethpage Black for the 2003 U.S. Open?
Answer: “I was surprised, because I hadn’t played the course for a long time, at that point. I used to play it when I was a kid. A group of us would go in once a summer, get there early and play the Black Course. Even back then, it was kind of beat up. … But I though it was cool. I thought if they could pull it off, it was a neat idea, to go to a real public golf course in a state park, so I was sort of rooting for them.”
Q: What was the reaction in the Bethpage area from the golfers who regularly sleep in their cars to get tee times on the courseâ¢
A: “When they decided to bring the open to the Black Course, everybody was thrilled. They always wanted to see how their course would do against the pros. But they were worried about it a little bit. Rabbi Marc Gelman, part of the “God Squad” and a regular golfer there, said it was a little bit like inviting Queen Elizabeth over to tea, then serving her the tea in a Hooter’s mug. There was a lot of concern about how would it go, how would the players like the course, would they beat it up and (would) somebody shoot 15 under.”
Q: A Bethpage-area golfer, P.J. Cowan, was convinced he could do well in the Open if he made the field. In reality, did any of the non-PGA Tour players have any chance?
A: “I’m always amused when I hear the phrase journeyman pro, because the guys who are supposedly journeyman pros are so good. My brother is a very good amateur player; he played in Open qualifiers, he’s a 1 handicap, he’s won club championships and various local and regional amateur events. He would have as much chance being a player on the PGA Tour as I would have at beating Mark Spitz in the 100-meter butterfly when Spitz was an Olympian.”
Q: When the USGA decided to go to Bethpage, did they realize how much work was involved (the course had to be completely overhauled to restore it to its championship-level condition), and was there ever a point when they thought they had made a mistake?
A: “I don’t think they thought it was ever a terrible mistake. I think you have to start with (USGA executive director) David Fay, who had the vision that, look, this is worth trying to do even though it’s going to be hard.
Back in 1994, when his staff first saw the golf course, they thought he was crazy because it was in such in horrible condition. … And, of course, nobody could have anticipated 9/11, which changed the entire approach, because security went from being an afterthought to an obsession 35 miles from Ground Zero. It really was a huge thing. Every meeting I sat in on after 9/11 was security, security, security.”
Q: How does Bethpage Black compare to Oakmont, Southern Hills, Pebble Beach and other noted golf courses in the U.S.?
A: “Players will tell you it’s every bit as good, if not better. It’s amazing the way they raved about it. … Different guys had different opinions, but there were several guys who said, ‘This is the best golf course I’ve ever played.’ Billy Andrade said it, so did Jeff Sluman and Tom Lehman. David Duval had the best line after I walked with him during a practice round: ‘You mean to tell me people sleep in their cars to go through this torture?'”
Q: The tournament was on a public golf course and in the New York area, where the fans are always vocal. Was the atmosphere different because of these factors?
A: “The crowds were very enthusiastic, because they felt it was their golf course. You go to a U.S. Open at Oakmont, Winged Foot, Baltusrol, any private course you talk about, and there might be 300, 400, 500 people in the crowd who have played the golf course, because most people can’t get on it. At Bethpage, there were thousands of people who had played the golf course, and felt as if it was their golf course. Not only did they want to see how the pros did on their golf course, they wanted the pros to tell them how they felt.”
Q: Does the USGA need to do more events on public courses to grow the game and make it more fan-friendly?
A: “I think they need to do it, I think the PGA tour needs to do more of it, and I think PGA America, instead of going to that awful place in Louisville they own, Valhalla, needs to look at playing on public golf courses. Because, again, when you do what the USGA did at Bethpage, you make the public golfer feel like he’s a part of the game.”
Q: Finally, Annika Sorenstam playing the Colonial Invitational with men. Good or bad?
A: “How could it be badâ¢ The people who try to say it was bad, who say it’s a men’s tour — no, it’s not. To those who say she should go to Q-School (where players qualify for PGA tournaments), well, that’s what sponsor exemptions are for. … To give one to clearly the best female player in the world, maybe the best female player of all time, a chance to stretch herself to see how she could do at this next level. She dominates one level, she wants to try the next level. That scene on Friday night when she walked down the 18th green, tell me what was bad about thatâ¢
We have enough bad moments in sports; we should savor the good ones. And this was a good one.”
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