The bunkers of Bethpage Black

The bunkers of Bethpage Black

78 bunkers. 8 acres. How the Bethpage team handles the rigors of daily and championship bunker maintenance.

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May 14, 2019

Celebrated architects A.W. Tillinghast and Rees Jones are given official credit for the initial design and celebrated restoration of the brutal, yet beautiful, Black Course at Bethpage State Park.

Daily fee players have admired – and cussed – their efforts, particularly when finding a ball in one of the course’s 78 bunkers. Members of the park’s agronomy team aren’t much different. Bunkers leave the crew bewildered.

Belaboring the presence of the hazards wastes energy and indefatigable personalities are needed to ensure the Black Course handles a steady flow of regular play mixed with the occasional major event such as the 101st PGA Championship.

Any outward angst produced by the bunkers remains hidden in the voices of director of agronomy Andy Wilson and Black Course superintendent Mike Hadley. Wilson’s and Hadley’s combined 50 years at Bethpage make it possible for them to understand how and why a team responsible for preserving a majestic design for the masses devotes a large portion of its efforts to working in and around bunkers.

“I would say it’s as much time as we spend on greens,” Wilson says. “It has to be. Eight acres worth of bunkers. Even something as simple as weeding bunkers takes a long time.”

A damp start to PGA Championship week has made bunkers an even greater focal point. On Monday, Wilson and Hadley opted against an evening maintenance shift because of a steady downpour. “We have faced these situations before, having to wait around because of rain,” Wilson says. “We don’t want to force it. We have forced it before and haven’t had good results. Now we know how to do it.”

A refreshed crew arrived early Tuesday to a soggy course and the eager team performed manual tasks, including filling divots, blowing debris, removing water from fairways via large drums, cutting cups and setting pins, and, yes, raking bunkers. The installation of the Better Billy Bunker system on select bunkers between the 2009 U.S. Open and the 2019 PGA Championship has helped “tremendously” with preventing washouts, Hadley says.

Bethpage Black, like previous PGA Championship sites Quail Hollow and Bellerive Country Club, is using the “Aussie style” of bunker maintenance. Edges are tightly compacted; floors are gently raked.

“It helps with labor, not having to rake every square inch of the bunkers,” Hadley says. “Being that we have rebuilt these bunkers, the sand is newer and fresher. It can get loose. And if it gets dry, it can be soft. We’re just trying to eliminate plugged lies as much as we can. We really focused this spring on packing sand, so the players can’t complain about it. You don’t want to give players something to complain about.”

The bunkers of Bethpage Black feature various styles and intent. Some are traditional parkland-style bunkers requiring fly mowing and edging. Other bunkers present a rugged aesthetic with jagged fingers and faces covered with broomsedge and bluestem. Over the years, longtime horticulturist Victor Azzaretto, who worked in the clubhouse before transitioning to golf course maintenance in the late 1990s, has successfully implemented a program to incorporate broomsedge and bluestem into bunker faces and surrounds on the Black and the park’s other four courses.  

Searching for a way to reduce the maintenance around bunkers and reduce fly mowing rough, Azzaretto worked with former superintendent Craig Currier on the broomsedge and bluestem establishment. Currier initially obtained the grasses from a neighboring course and Bethpage started incorporating the native grasses into mounds surrounding the large fairway bunker on the fifth hole. The transition started following the 2002 U.S. Open and increased after funds became available to construct a 50-foot by 40-foot greenhouse near the Green Course. Before the addition of the greenhouse, Azzaretto grew grasses in the maintenance facility lunchroom. Up to 9,000 grasses established from existing seed can now be planted per year. The grasses are planted in early May and ready to be placed on the golf courses in early June, although the PGA Championship has altered 2019 timing. 

“We couldn’t find broomsedge seed commercially available, so we started cutting out all the seed and thrashing it out in the winter,” Azzaretto says. “In the spring and summer, we would start growing it.” Azzaretto directs a visitor to the tan grasses surrounding fairway bunkers on the fourth hole. “See those tall grasses on the bunkers,” he says. “Those are all broomsedge grasses.”

Earlier in the day, a volunteer crew raked the bunkers, smoothing animal prints – birds, foxes, chipmunks and raccoons call the Black Course home – and the few remnants of Monday’s rain-shortened practice rounds. Of the 78 bunkers, around 30 will receive little or no use from the pros this week. When daily play returns to the Black Course next weekend, every bunker will see play. “There are bunkers out there these pros won’t touch,” Wilson says. “But our daily fee golfers make generous use out of all of them.”

The crew tries to rake every Black Course bunker two or three times per week during the golf season, according to Hadley. A robust intern program this year because of the PGA Championship should result in the bunkers receiving more attention than a normal summer.

“But in years past, we don’t always have a staff this large,” Hadley says. “We have to decide: Can we hand mow greens or do we triplex and use labor in the bunkers? You have to have that tradeoff. What detail do you want to do? Do you want that detail on the greens? Or do you want that detail on the bunkers? You can’t neglect these bunkers for too long or they become more of an issue.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s editor.